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The rise and fall of private schools in Rwanda

By Ntigeli Abraham I On 18 May 2018 at 9:20 Amid Rwanda’s discriminatory education policies in the 1980s, a wave of private secondary schools struck with mainly parents coming together to open their own schools. In this spirit, College APECOM Gakenke in Gatsibo District was founded on 6th April 1986 as the first private school in the eastern part of Rwanda which had even a handful of public schools which, worse enough, were largely admitting students from then government’s favoured northern part of the country. Charles Bazatsinda, a founding member of APECOM, tells IGIHE that about 200 parents from different districts, then known as communes, in the area contributed Rwf50,000 each to develop infrastructure and APECOM opened doors starting the academic year 1986-1987. “We started College APECOM in order to promote education in our area because our region was not considered for secondary education in public schools while we had no single private school in the region now spanning from Nyagatare to Kayonza districts,” says retired teacher Bazatsinda. How APECOM sank According to Aloys Gapira, Chairman of Board of Directors and parents’ representative at now defunct College APECOM, the school rose to fame in the 2000s when the school, then hosting at least 1,200 students, was among the country’s largest schools but enrolments started plummeting gradually from 2009 when the government introduced free-of-charge Nine-Year Basic Education (9YBE), reversing the privatisation of education. The school was also mired by bad management, according to some founding members and government officials who inspected the school. APECOM’s enrolment, which kept leaning on upper secondary school, sank further in 2012 when the government introduced free 12-Year Basic Education, presenting a better option for parents who were struggling to pay school fees in private schools. The school, which battled for long to withstand operational costs’ imbalance, announced in January 2018 that it was not admitting students for this academic year and indefinitely suspended operations, citing reasons of changing strategy and taking new direction. Gapira has told IGIHE that the school was increasingly accumulating debts for staff, suppliers and different creditors while the small students’ number could not service the costs. “We had 182 students in total last year. We had four students in senior one in 2017, they got frustrated for being few in class and three left at the end of first term. We also had other classes with two, four and five students each. It was so challenging to teach in those conditions. The largest numbers were the then leaving 75 students,” says the Board Chairman Gapira. “We realised that our enrolment had drastically reduced and thought what we could do. Our school is not business-oriented; we do not even have means to invest much in it. We started APECOM to address schools’ shortage but today schools abound in the country and in our area. We have achieved our mission; education is well offered and more affordable in public schools.” Gapira said they are considering selling a part of APECOM’s establishment which is currently hosting University of Technology and Arts of Byumba in order to pay debts including eight-month salary for 18 staff members. He added that they have tasked a team to study the new direction of the school and that they consider reopening it probably next year to offer technical and vocational training and or primary education as a day-school. Scores shut down every year APECOM’s fate is shared by most of the private schools which keep wobbling before 12YBE forces. At least 10 private secondary schools in Rwanda are closing down every year, 30 closed down at the beginning of 2017 alone and more are likely to fall in the peril as student enrolment dramatically reduces. Jean Marie Vianney Usengumuremyi, Chairman of Rwanda Private Schools Association, told IGIHE recently that only government can save the struggling schools by subsidising them but the government has always rejected the proposal. Usengumuremyi said the association which once counted over 200 members, was remaining with slightly over 100 schools in 2017 but that 70% of them were also struggling to stay afloat. Dr. Irenée Ndayambaje, the Director General of Rwanda Education Board (REB) says that Government’s policy on education for all is paramount and unstoppable but advises private schools’ owners to go back to the drawing board. “We recognise a vital role that private schools played and are playing in our education but Government has invested much to educate even those who could not afford to pay school fees. Investors should change their strategy, improve their education quality and introduce rare subjects in their regions but also needed on the labor market,” he says. Dr. Ndayambaje added, “There are many other private schools faring well because their standards are high. I urge all of them to give quality education to win parents’ choice on where to educate their children. I also advise them to invest much in technical and vocational education. Though expensive, technical courses are timely and acquired through a long process because someone can decide to do take many courses at different timings.” Ministry of Education’s statistics show there were 1,575 secondary schools in the country in 2016 including 460 government-owned with 173,109 students, 862 government-aided with 301,554 students while 253 private schools had 79,076 students with an average of 312 students per school.

By: Mickey Oro Ugbonwa

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