Education as key to overcome inequality

Zambia is a very unequal society. It was one of the 10 fastest growing economies in Africa for the decade up to 2014, but the development did not translate into higher standards of living for ordinary citizens. The country ranks among the world’s 10 most unequal societies. Two thirds of 17 million people live under the poverty line. Social activist Frank Masanta Jr. is promoting change by providing primary education to disadvantaged children at the Sun-spring Charity School, a non-governmental institution in a poor neighbourhood in the Lusaka agglomeration.
Lessons at the Sun-spring Charity School in Lusaka, Zambia. Frank Masanta Lessons at the Sun-spring Charity School in Lusaka, Zambia.

How does education relate to upward mobility?
In a society with more educated people, there are more enterprises and innovation, with more individuals working to find solutions to society’s problems. Moreover, education helps poor people move up to a higher social status. Educated people suffer less discrimination and have more choices in life. In Zambia, we have compulsory subjects in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Students are taught the basic knowledge, skills and behavioural patterns they need to surpass social barriers, climb the social ladder and have an impact on society.

How good is the government-run school system?
It is not good. Zambia is not anywhere close to the top 20 countries with the best education systems. Our education curriculum is considered to be among the best in Africa, but the public-school system is undeniably bad, nonetheless. According to Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank, developing countries are 100 years behind developed countries in terms of educational standards. A good education system requires an appropriate budget. We do not have that. Zambian parents typically prefer to send their children to a private school.

What are the shortcomings of the state schools?
Well, they do not foster the abilities of vulnerable students, such as children with disabilities, for example. Gender disparities persist, and the quality gaps between rural and urban areas are huge. Some children do not go to school because the distance is too far, and there is no adequate transport infrastructure. Though the government is committed to providing free basic education, hidden education costs – including for books and school uniforms – persist, and so do examination fees. These costs matter in a country where the majority lives on less than the purchasing power of one dollar per head and day. Most public schools lack la­boratories, libraries, furniture and computers. The teacher/pupil ratio is still unacceptable. There are not enough teachers, but the student numbers are growing. A good education system starts with adequate resources, trained and motivated teachers and classrooms and textbooks for every child.

But Zambia’s public schools don’t have these things?
No, they don’t. When the policy of free basic education was introduced, the budget did not increase as it should have. As a result, children and adolescents are not learning fundamental skills. Nearly 90 % of children between six and 14 years do not become proficient in reading and math. Masses of poor children – especially girls – drop out of school.

What private schools exist in Zambia and who sends their kids there?
There are commonly two types of private schools in Zambia: profit and non-profit. Non-profit schools tend to serve poor people. They have a history of producing mediocre results. The reason is that they lack funding. Most poor people send their children to so called “community schools”. They are private, but charge only low fees. Nonetheless, some poor people cannot afford to send their children there. There are also expensive, profit-making private schools, especially international private schools. They cater to the privileged few – families of politicians, business dynasties, foreign diplomats and the expat community of Indians, Whites and Chinese. Some of the expensive schools comply with both the Zambian and international curricula, or they simply stick to the British one or that of another rich nation.

How important is the English language in school – and in professional life?
Very important. English is the gateway to global interactions. One out of five people in the world speaks or at least understands English. In Zambia, moreover, English is an official language. We have 72 languages and therefore English is critical in schools and public life in general. In professional life, English is a critical skill. This language dominates politics and business, but also technology, science and the general media. I haven’t come across a website in a local Zambian language. In our entrepreneurial and digital era, professionals can enter a global workforce right in front of their computer and phone screens.

To what extent does proficiency in English depend on the family a person is born into and the schools they are sent to?
Well-off families tend to be highly proficient in English, while poor people struggle. Among the rich, children are exposed to an English world via internet, international television stations, music and movies, and they read books. The schools they go to include English among other languages, such as French, as mode of communication. The rich even tend to send their children to schools in foreign countries where they cannot even use their indigenous language. On the other hand, poor parents are keen on schools teaching English at an early age.

What language do you use in Sun-spring Charity School, the community school you started?
We use English, but we start with Nyanja, a Zambian language. It is what the local children speak when they first come to school. The children of poor parents hardly speak English. Accordingly, our top goal is to gradually build their English skills and proficiency.

How does income correlate with formal education?
Income typically reflects the skills and knowledge a person has acquired, as well as the choices he or she made. Employment opportunities and incomes depend on the level of education someone attains. For instance, most women in Zambia have no or only little formal education, and their chances of finding formal employment are small. Mostly they are stuck in the informal sector and discriminated against. Professionals with solid formal skills, by contrast, have good incomes – for instance as doctors, lawyers or accountants. Those who drop out of school before graduating from higher secondary school after grade 12 will encounter many barriers. According to reports, an extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10 %.

Do careers and upward-mobility depend on belonging to specific clans or families?
Yes, family connections matter very much. The rich keep getting richer, while the poor are stuck in misery. Nepotism is commonplace. It’s a cancer eating the very fibre of society’s wellbeing and undermining values of equality.

What are the chances for the future life for your students?
Our students at Sun-spring Charity School have better future prospects:

  • First of all, we believe in the power of human rights, of which education is a fundamental principle. It is central to achieving all other rights and fighting poverty.
  • Second, preschool and primary education is necessary for children to develop cognitive abilities and become rational thinkers.
  • Third, we do not only focus on literacy and numeracy, but prepare our pupils for lifelong learning and development prospects. We agree with Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer of the 19th century. He said: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

What challenges are you facing?
As many other non-profit organisation, we have some funding problems in an ever changing donor and volunteer world. But we are taking innovative approaches to fund­raising. We must be resourceful to attract skilled and motivated teachers, without whom we cannot provide a good education environment – and good opportunities – to our pupils. We want to contribute to social justice. We do our best to mobilise local and international stakeholders to prevent that children are left behind.

What has to be done by whom to reduce inequality?
Inequality is a global problem. It affects every­one, and women are generally at a disadvantage. However, governments are primarily responsible for reducing inequality. They must raise awareness, adopt policies and allocate funds to public services. Citizens, independent organisations and businesses have a critical responsibility too, by adopting a culture geared to inclusion and equal opportunities in daily life. The Zambian government has committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as to related aspirations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Now it must live up to the promises.

Frank Masanta Jr. is a community leader and social activist in Zambia. In 2011, he started the Sun-spring Charity School in Ng’ombe, a disadvantaged neighbourhood. He is also the head of the school. It has pre-school and primary school classes for more than 100 boys and girls.

Facebook page of Sun-spring Charity School:

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