The price we pay for tuition fee-free education

Editorial

THE tuition fee-free (TFF) education scheme, in operation over the past decade, has both been a blessing and a burden for two groups of people mostly directly affected by it – parents and teachers.
For parents of more than one child and those with scant financial resources, the school fee assistance provided by the government has been a relief.
All around the country, parents are able to enrol their children without worrying about school fees and then spend whatever little money they have on other essentials like clothing, transportation, stationeries not covered by the school fee assistance, and meals.
On the flip side though, the burden taken off parents has been transferred to teachers in the form of crowded classrooms.  One such teacher in a Port Moresby school shed some light on her daily joys and trials in a recent teacher-parent meeting.
Her chief concerns were the larger-than-normal number of students she now had to attend to and the limited supply and low quality of curriculum materials.
By low-quality materials she means exercise books of thin and soft paper that hardly stand the typical handling of young children, and pencils whose lead points break at each attempt at sharpening. Small matters though they may be, yet they can greatly affect a child’s learning.
To address this, she instructs her students to get parents to buy better-quality substitutes at stationery shops. That is the easier problem to handle, however. The other is trickier to deal with.
Obviously, a dedicated teacher who has already clocked 20 years, she feels for her students and would like to sit down with each student whenever possible. But that is not so easy.
For a teacher, nothing can be compared to the pride and joy of seeing students succeed in class and then graduate with flying colours. But when circumstances beyond his or her control negatively affect their learning, she, as the teacher, feels the pain, too.
Such situations can give rise to a lot of stress and can affect the teachers and the confidence they have in their work. The TFF policy has unintentionally compromised quality in education because of the number of students in classrooms who are taught by mostly overworked public servants.  It has worsened the pre-existing high teacher-to-student ratio in public schools.
For the past four decades, the country’s development has been centred around and driven by the resource sector.
However, the global trend now is investment in technology and human capacity building.
It means that the government will have to shift to quality education for its citizens.
The current education policy is headed in that direction, however, the next big investment should be in teacher education to bring out quality teaching for quality outcomes.
More investment is required in teachers’ colleges. While student enrolments throughout the country have been a positive outcome of the TFF policy, teacher education should also be allocated some of that government funding. Both government and private-run training colleges throughout the country should be given prominence by any future government so teachers we graduate are competent and knowledgeable to impart knowledge in today’s modern world.
What we have been paying our teachers is perhaps a reflection of how we view teaching as a profession in this country.
For many years teachers’ colleges have picked their quota from secondary schools among mostly ‘C’ students while the cream of the crop opts for university or other colleges to train for better-paying professions.
Teaching should be made an attractive option for the brightest young people coming out of secondary schools so they can shape the next generation of smart students.  Teaching would be made a lot more enjoyable and rewarding if the class sizes were reduced and the teacher-to-pupil ratio was brought down to an acceptable level to produce the desired outcomes for our education system.
The inevitable shift from an economy based on the agriculture and mineral resource sector to one based on innovation and technology can only be driven by a well-educated and adequately skilled population.
Such a shift begins with competent and contented teachers.

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