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By Laisa Taga

SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 12, 2000 – IPS/PINA)---Jone Lailai, now 14 and an above average student, is the eldest in a family of four. His father abandoned them when he was eight years old, and his mother was forced to look for work to keep them at school.

"Things were okay. We were managing but just barely, trying to make ends meet," he recalls. "My mother, the only breadwinner, had to work long hours in a garment factory, to keep us at school."

But things got tough for Jone and his sisters, 10 and 12 years old, and a 6 year-old brother, when his mother was laid off after the garment factory closed.

"We had to fend for ourselves. Being the eldest in the family and being a boy, I thought it was my responsibility to look for a job to keep my sisters and brother at school and help my mother out," he explains.

Jone Lailai’s story highlights the plight of hundreds of Fiji Islands children who are being forced to drop out at primary school level to help their families earn enough to survive.

Indeed, the rising dropout rate in urban areas worries the Fiji Islands Government and teachers, who are working on ways to help children in this Pacific country of 800,000 remain in school.

"The pressure is much higher for kids from low-income families to drop out and contribute to the family," says Irshad Ali, Fiji Islands manager for the Save the Children Fund. "These are the children we must target because they are the ones with the potential to pull their families out of poverty if they can gain a meaningful education."

According to a Save the Children Fund survey, too many children, particularly indigenous Fijian boys, are dropping out of the school system, particularly at primary school level.

The survey reveals that 4.6 percent of boys drop out, while only 3.35 percent of girls leave primary school early. On a larger scale, boys and girls are comparable until age 13, when the gap begins to widen until, by age 17, there are 6 to 7 percent more girls than boys in school.

The study singled out poverty as the major factor. But it also found other reasons for dropping out of school -- not liking school, fear of violence by teachers and fear of academic failure.

Ali says that although the 1996 census showed that primary school dropouts had more than halved from 9 to 3.9 percent in the 10 years since the previous census, there was no cause for complacency.

"What’s very worrying is that about two percent of children don’t start school," he says.

"We are also very concerned that 4.6 percent of males of both races (indigenous Fijians and Indian Fijians), 3.3 percent of Indian girls and 3.4 percent of Fijian girls do not make it through primary school. They are thus condemned to a life of menial labor and poverty, because there are virtually no non-formal education opportunities or vocational education available to them," Ali explains.

Ali says there is a direct link between low income, poorly resourced schools and poor attainment.

Says Education Minister Pratap Chand, a former teacher and trade unionist: "Whilst we enjoy a very high enrollment rate of 98 percent, the wastage rate of our primary school children remains a matter of major concern."

He points out that out of the 22,317 children who enrolled in class one in 1987, only 12,555 reached Form 6 in 1998. This translates into a retention rate of 56.3 percent, with 43.4 percent not reaching Form 6.

Chand said that in spite of the wide access to it, the education system is inequitable in that not all children enjoy the same standard of education.

In many schools the main source of revenue is from school fees, and it is often difficult to collect these from parents who are already poor and who do not have the means to pay even basic needs such as food.

Poor communities therefore are often not able to raise the necessary funds to adequately meet education costs, resulting in schools that are poorly resourced and maintained.

In turn, "children who attend such schools receive an education that is comparatively substandard in quality, because the enabling conditions are lacking," Chand explains.

The effects of poverty on the performance of the individual have been the subjects of a number of studies, he says. Children from poor families tend to perform poorly because of poor nutrition, a poor study environment, lack of basic school materials and irregular attendance.

Children from such families are also likely to leave school early as the cost of sending them to school becomes too expensive for their parents and guardians.

To minimize the wastage rate at primary schools, the ministry has devised a number of strategies.

One is making education compulsory. First introduced in 1997, the scheme has been operational in four education districts -- Ra, Cakaudrove, Bua/Macuata and the Eastern division. This year, three more districts will join the scheme.

But the ministry’s plan for making primary education compulsory throughout Fiji is to include urban areas, where the dropout rate is becoming "extremely serious."

It seeks to do this with tuition-fee free grants, under which education of children from classes one to eight is free and which the education ministry plans to extend to Form VI or year 12 of education.

The US$ 300,000 set aside by the government this year for this will be used to pay tuition fees to allow the poor and underprivileged to have the same quality of education as others.

Other strategies include the re-introduction of classes 7 and 8 to primary schools, which had a class 6 top, in order to improve access and curb the dropout of students after class 6 in rural areas.

Also, some examination fees will be removed and hostel grants will be given to rural boarding schools to help them provide nutritious meals and hygienic living conditions for students.

Chand says the current government is mindful of its commitment to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which enshrines the right of all children to a primary education, which will give them the skills they need to continue learning throughout life.

Chand stresses the key role that resources play in sustaining education. Over the years, he says, Fiji’s education budget has declined to 17 percent of the total national budget. But the People’s coalition government elected in 1999, which he is part of, says it recognizes the value of investment in education.

"It is the best investment. People are our best resources. Therefore, we are restoring our priority for education by increasing our financial commitment," Chand says.

This year, the government has allocated 18 percent of its national budget, or $98.85 million, to education. This represents an 18 percent increase over the 1999 allocation. The education budget makes up 6.1 percent of Fiji’s GDP.

For more information, contact Nina Ratulele, PINA Administrator, at [email protected] 

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Damodar Centre, 1st Floor 46 Gordon Street Suva, Republic of the Fiji Islands Tel: (679) 303 623 Fax : (679) 303 943 Postal Address: PINA, Private Mail Bag, Suva, Fiji Islands Website: 

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