Making secondary schools free

Tuition-free secondary education opens doors for young people, writes VERONICA HOUSER, from Unicef Rwanda

Nestled in the lush, emerald hills of central Rwanda, Rubingo School boasts large, open playgrounds and bright classrooms. During the day, the surrounding village is quiet and the school grounds deserted. The children of the community are all occupied with their studies and cannot be found wandering around.

Adrien with his father and sisters at home

Adrien Dukunda is the head boy at this school, known among peers for his high marks and active participation in the school community. If you ask him what his plans are after graduating, he will smile shyly and tell you about his love of economics and how he wants to attend university.

“I want to be a leader,” he says.

In 2008, Rwanda made history when it signed a new law providing tuition-free secondary education for all Rwandans.

For the first time, young people like Adrien enthusiastically set ambitious goals for themselves and have the optimism to believe that their goals could be reached.

“We recognised that the most important resource we have is human beings,” says Samuel Mulindwa, Permanent Secretary at the Rwanda Ministry of Education. “We believe that if you can empower someone to attain basic education, you have given them a very strong foundation to contribute towards economic development. Upon completing secondary education, they can learn any skill.”

Adrien is happy.

“I really do like economics,” he reiterates sheepishly. “We encounter these concepts every day and it is important to understand the economy so we can continue to build and develop our country. Do you know about the Theory of Economic Growth?”

Unfortunately, the future is not as bright for Adrien’s eight elder brothers and sisters. “We were not able to afford school fees for our first eight children, so they could only finish primary school,” says Anasthase Zimurinda, Adrien’s father.

The youngest of the nine children, Adrien is the only one who will complete secondary school. Adrien’s siblings are all unemployed. Since Adrien is the only one to attend secondary school, he is the only member of his family who speaks English.

“My wife and I never attended school, and we do not know how to read and write,” says Anasthase.

Changing policy

Policy changes such as tuition-free secondary school have led to nearly 98 per cent access to education in Rwanda.

The government has prioritised education in their ongoing development agenda.

When President Paul Kagame signed the tuition-free law in 2008, communities and parents complemented government efforts by uniting to build new classrooms and schools.

This resulted in the construction of over 3 150 new classrooms in just six months, exponentially increasing the amount of infrastructure to support the new policy.

Unicef Rwanda is one of the government’s main partners in the education sector. It continues to contribute significant technical and financial resources to ensuring that all children can access education and achieve their full potential.

“Moving forward, there will be a strong focus on the quality of education, but providing the opportunity for access is an essential prerequisite,” says Ted Maly, Unicef representative in Rwanda. “The young people of Rwanda are an incredibly capable generation, and we are consistently inspired by their resolve and their ideas. They have been given this chance to succeed, and now we look forward to seeing what they will create and become.” 

Malawi scenario

In Malawi, Unicef is working to keep children in school, with a particular focus on adolescent girls.

The organisation is calling for a review of current basic education to include completion of junior primary education, similar to the Rwanda model and for full implementation of the national school standards, including efforts to keep vulnerable children in school.

“We have five million children in primary school, but only 400 000 in secondary,” Unicef Malawi chief of education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “If Malawi was to make secondary education affordable, it would increase access to education, produce more skilled, employable young people, and we could see strong economic growth within five to ten years. We hope this can be achieved sooner rather than later.”

When Adrien returns home from school, he greets his father and sisters.

His crisp, white school uniform is a stark contrast from his father’s oversized trousers and black boots, muddy from a long day of farming in the fields.

Adrien is sure that free education has given his life a new and positive direction. “Secondary education is very important. It helps alleviate problems that youth are facing,” he says. “When girls and boys are occupied with school, they are not concerned with other behaviours that can lead to drug addiction or early pregnancies.”

Rwanda’s investment in human capital is beginning to pay off. The skills and competences that people gain in secondary school are helping to increase Rwanda’s gross domestic product. “This is not by accident,” says Mulindwa. “In the last 15 years, Rwanda’s GDP has increased almost four-fold because of our strategic investment in and empowerment of our people.”

Sitting side-by-side, Adrien and his father smile and discuss what Adrien will accomplish when he graduates secondary school. Some of Adrien’s siblings linger outside, idle and unemployed. “When more people are educated, everyone benefits,” says Adrien’s father.

Nodding, Adrien says, “I need these tools that secondary education gives me. Leadership is my talent, and education allows me to develop it. I think all children should have this opportunity.” n

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