Free Education needs a plan

Editorial, Normal

The National, Friday 31st August 2012

EDUCATION secretary Dr Musawe Sinebare has copped some criticism levelled at his department for a perceived slowness in ensuring subsidies reach the schools in time to make a difference for the 2013 school year.
Some of the blame maybe warranted but Dr Sinebare is by no means entirely culpable here – in fact he could be a scapegoat in this affair.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill earlier in the month was scathing in his appraisal of the country’s public service machinery and its sloth in carrying out National Executive Council-approved policies and directives.
He went as far as describing their efforts as “lazy” and “incompetent”.
The free education policy was one of the cornerstones of O’Neill’s People National Congress campaign.
He had made the undertaking months before the national election and was intent on following through with his promise. Parents who rely on the public school system to educate their children are anticipating an easier time next year.
The government, as such, is determined to deliver and thus continue to build on the confidence it has from the people.
But there are obstacles to reaching the goal of free education or at least achieving a situation close to that ideal, and aside from the inertia at the Treasury and Finance departments, which were ordered to release K500 million for the exercise, there will be some unpleasant realities which will crop up.
Some of these uncertainties will be problematic to the mechanics of the policy. They will likely fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Education (DOE) but also those of the 21 provinces and the individual schools in those provinces.
Firstly, there are concerns from those within the DOE and in the provinces about how the money is managed once the planning and vetting stages are completed. That means each province will likely receive a share of the subsidy commensurate with its size, capacity to disburse funds competently, and according to the number of state educative institutions it has.
For instance, the smallest province Manus will most probably receive a far smaller amount than Morobe (arguably one of the largest provinces in terms of population and land area) but it could have nearly the same as the Gulf province, whose large land mass belies its under-developed status.
Once all the appropriations are worked out the next question is on disbursal.
Which department or local authority will be vested with the task of distributing the funds?
Logic dictates that the quickest and most cost effective solution would be direct deposits into the accounts of the schools. That would invariably cut out the middle men – the provincial education authorities and their respective governments – but it could also pose another set of problems.
Pumping money directly into schools would do away with much of the bureaucracy that, more often than not, stifles, hinders and befuddles many an honest and worthy endeavour. However two issues arise here, taking from past accounts of withheld finances, government departments (especially those whose duty it is to handle state monies) have a notorious reputation for either making accessibility a task in itself or expecting a certain “quid pro quo” for services rendered.
As if that were not enough the second concern that arises is once the money is ready to be given to a school is what guarantee does the state have that the money will be put into the areas it needs to in order to lift the burden of school fees from parents?
There are already concerns from some quarters that school boards and managers (principals and headmasters) at the school level are not equipped or trained  to handle large cash inflows, especially when it is not clear what the checks and balances are to ensure transparency.
There definitely needs to be considerable thought put into making this policy a success or, at the very least, making sure money is not wasted or misused.
Education, Treasury, Finance and Planning departments, provincial governments and the schools themselves must all following a workable plan so the half billion in government money is maximised.