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Bogus schools exposed

’Mathapelo Letsepe & Caswell Tlali

 MASERU — It’s 2.11pm on Friday. The place is deserted and the decrepit building would not look out of place in warravaged Somalia. Paint is peeling off. All doors are ajar. Litter is strewn all over. The spring breeze flips open pages of an exercise book left lying on a broken plastic chair leaning against the wall. One of the classrooms is divided by a makeshift wall of wooden boards balancing precariously on top of the other.

The only sounds on the premises comes from behind the building — a disused shop of some sort — where men clad in overalls are panel-beating and spray-painting cars. Just behind the building are two pit latrines, one of them with a broken door. The foul odour wafting from the tiny toilet betrays its lack of hygiene. “The children have knocked off for the day,” a woman in a tuck-shop just outside the gate tells the Sunday Express crew. “They go home early for the weekend on Fridays.” Welcome to Word of Faith High School, ituated on the outskirts of Thetsane in Maseru.

The owner of the school, Lineo Banda, was later to tell this paper that 130 students are enrolled at her school. Word of Faith High School is one of the many bare-bone private institutions of learning that have sprouted all over Maseru and beyond over the past two decades. Most if not all of these socalled private schools are not registered with the government. According to a Unesco report, in 1998 there were 1 264 officially registered primary schools in Lesotho, with the government and communities owning 45 of them. The rest, 1 219, were owned by churches.

That year, 369 515 pupils were in primary school. The same report said there were 205 officially registered schools, of which 91.7 percent were church-owned. More than 71 000 pupils were in secondary school, with only 11.2 percent of them at government schools. As of 2007 Lesotho had about 1 400 registered primary schools with an enrolment of 400 000. There were also 291 secondary schools with an enrolment of 97 936. Thus, a decade later, the government has failed to improve the situation significantly. Instead private proprietors have seized the opportunity to enter into the education sector.

The biggest problem, however, is that most of the privately owned schools are not registered. The government last month shut down three unregistered colleges that were offering healthcare courses. The private schools fear the government might also move to close them down. Yet the bare-bone colleges and schools claim they produce grades as good if not better than those of government schools. “We advertise ourselves through good results,” a teacher at one of the barebone schools said. He did not want to be named. But by his own admission, their infrastructure and conditions at the school he teaches are not conducive for learning.

At Word of Faith High School, the “classrooms” are not enough to accommodate all the classes. They don’t have laboratories yet they offer science subjects which include experiments.  That contributes to the private schools’ failure to get registered by the government. Among the registration requirements, a school must have an enrolment of at least 150 students, proper classrooms and sports fields. “We cannot meet the requirements because there is no land,” Banda said in a telephone interview. “The main requirement is to have our own building so that the government should be able to register us. “In order for the school to be registered, it should enroll at least 150 students.

“We only have 130 students — that is why we are not registered.” But Banda insisted that even without meeting the requirements the school was good enough to produce good grades that keep attracting new students. “We are making sure that we produce better results so that they choose us over other schools,” she said. A teacher at one of the private schools said their main advantage was the student teacher ratio. He said, for example, a Form D class at Thetsane High School would have more than 40 students, while his own class had 15. “A small number enables us to make sure that every student has understood what is being taught,” he said. “We produce better results, but we do not spoon-feed our students.”

A stone’s throw from Word of Faith High School is another private institution, Star Classic English Medium. The classrooms here are fashioned out of corrugated iron sheets. In summer, students are likely to doze off because of the heat such structures radiate. In winter, they will be lucky to escape bouts of flu and colds. One of the classrooms has two old wooden desks and four plastic chairs. The floors are dirty. Star Classic English Medium offers learning from preschool to primary and high school. The government’s laxity in regulating education and improving the sector at large has left many children at the mercy of bare-bone schools and colleges.

Some of the private colleges are motivated by commercial interests. For example, students at high school are expected to pay at least M2 000 per year at these schools. Because most of the schools rent premises, they often find themselves being evicted. It is an inconvenience that should not befall any student. The Lesotho Academy of Arts (LAA), also in Maseru, housed two schools this year alone whose teachers were actively recruiting unsuspecting students who have been rejected by registered schools, the Sunday Express can reveal.

Investigations by this paper reveal that none of the two schools was officially registered with the Ministry of Education under the LAA or having its physical address at LAA premises.

The LAA does not own any primary, secondary or high school recognised by the government. The LAA is just an institution that promotes the arts and helps aspiring artists to sharpen their skills. The LAA does not offer certificates. LAA director Ts’okolo ’Muso confirmed that three different schools rented premises from him but he had to chase them away after realising that they were bogus. The ageing ’Muso, 86, said although the schools were supposed to have their own names he was surprised to later learn that they adopted the name of his institution which made people believe that they belonged to the LAA.

He said he had to expel the teachers and their principals, forcing them to close their schools one after another when he realised that pupils were merely basking in the sun or playing and not learning because there were no teachers in the classes. People who were introduced to him as teachers were instead busy running hair salons in the classrooms and their customers were the same schoolgirls they were supposed to teach, he alleged. He also said some teachers were busy selling food to the students. “All school principals who rented premises here did not want to involve parents in the running of their schools,” ’Muso said.

“When I inquired why they did not form school parents committees they would not give me clear answers. “I took the decision to expel the first school here when I realised that the teachers were only interested in recruiting students, not teaching those they had already enrolled. “I became aware that the teachers walked in the streets touting for students. “To me, it seemed that was their principal job.” ’Muso said the school, which started with about 100 pupils, ended up with only 20 by the time when he forced its closure.

“The pupils quit one by one until only 20 were left,” he claimed. “They saw that it was a sheer waste of time to continue attending classes with no teachers to teach them.” Soon after he parted ways with the school a local religious teacher, Thabiso Lehloa, approached him on behalf of another school which he said did not have teaching facilities. ’Muso said Lehloa seemed genuine to him when he requested rooms for the school. “I agreed and the school began,” he said. “However, before long the school principal introduced to me by Lehloa began to disappear from the school and teachers opened their own small businesses in the classrooms.

“At the time I was bedridden with arthritis and could not do anything like chasing them as I did with the first school.” “One day I became fed up. These people were giving the Lesotho Academy of Arts a bad name. “I told them to go away from my premises.” Efforts to contact Lehloa were not successful. The LAA’s ordeal with bare-bone schools is yet another small chip of the big problem facing the education sector. The problem of mushrooming bogus schools is widespread in Lesotho. Early last year an unregistered primary school was kicked out of the premises of a registered school in Maseru East.

The action followed the Ministry of Education’s realisation that Maseru East Government Primary School had harboured a school which allegedly had unqualified teachers who did not even have proper classrooms to teach in. It was a case of an unregistered school running within a registered school. The unregistered school had started off as informal evening classes for Standard Seven students. “The Maseru East principal saw that these people were no longer focusing on evening classes but were running a full school with many pupils attending school during the day,” the source said.

“This was causing confusion because it was like the two schools were one.” The bogus school was kicked out. News of unregistered schools often causes alarm every April when examination fees are paid to the Examination Council of Lesotho (ECOL) as some principals are reported to collect the fees but end up not paying to the council. Some principals are reported to have disappeared after collecting examination fees. An example is a school which was called International Community School which did not have a permanent physical address.

The school was opened in Khubetsoana five years ago but before the end of that year it had relocated to another place in Maseru. Students of this school who had enrolled for Form C and Form E, most of whom were repeating the subjects they failed in their previous schools, had to go to ECOL to pay examination fees because there was rumour that the school was not registered. All of them sat for examinations as private candidates at the ECOL hall because their school was not registered and was not an examination centre. The following year the school never reopened and students who enrolled with it in the previous year had to find other schools.

One of them was Moleboheng Tsatsimpone who continued her studies through correspondence with the Lesotho Distance Teaching Centre (LDTC) the following year. Tsatsimpone told the Sunday Express last week that she had been rejected by schools in Maseru and she enrolled with the International Community School. “I was relieved when my mother told me that she had found a school for me after spending three months knocking on the doors of every school in Maseru asking to be enrolled without success,” Tsatsimpone said.

“I cannot express how I was disappointed when I learnt that my new school was bogus. “In fact, almost everybody was in low spirits when we discovered that our school was illegal.” One of the parents who enrolled their children with the school, ’Majeremia Letsie, said she nearly collapsed when she learnt that it was bogus because two of her children were in Form C. “I went to the principal and asked him why the school was not registered according to the law and the explanation I got was that the application at the Ministry of Education was being processed,” Letsie said. “I went to the ministry to find out but the school’s application was not found.

“It was promised that action would be taken against the school but nothing happened until that year ended. “It was me who blew the whistle to other parents at a parents meeting with the principal.” The problem of privately owned schools, most of whom calling themselves community schools, whose legal status is not clear can be traced to as far back as the early 1990s. In 1993 a school called William Shakespeare High School was opened in Khubetsoana and it was not clear to its over 400 students whether it had been properly registered or not. Before the end of that year it declared itself as William Shakespeare Community High School.

This change came after the establishment of a parents’ committee which came after a series of resignations by teachers, the majority of whom were foreigners. Some of the students in Forms C and E paid examination fees to the ECOL directly not through the school. The school did not have proper facilities. It rented residential flats which it used as classrooms. In 1998 the school moved to a privately owned site in Maseru West where the classroom walls were made of masonite sheets. The students went on a strike and burned part of the classes and threatened the principal’s life after rumours that he had not paid their examination fees to the ECOL.

The school was never heard of again. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, ’Makopano Semakale, told this paper last week that in four years since she joined the ministry no legal action has ever been taken against an unregistered school. Semakale however said there were arrangements by the ministry to ensure that all schools are registered and are professionally run. “No legal action, to my knowledge since I joined this ministry four years ago, has ever been taken against a school purported to be operating illegally,” Semakale said. She also said many schools had applied to be registered but their applications were still pending. Minister of Education ’Mamphono Khaketla could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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