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Tuesday, 29th September 2020

How do you send your children to school when school fees and uniform costs more than your salary?

By Lisa Bass

Education is vital for breaking the cycle of poverty, but parents in Madagascar face some stark choices when it comes to sending their children to school. With the minimum wage in Madagascar at 208,000 per month (£42), while initial school fees, uniform and equipment average a lump sum of payment of 150,000 – 200,000 Ar (£30 - £40) for the year, just sending one child to school for many can be impossible. With this fee due in October, families to have to make choices about which, if any, of their children they can afford to send to school and for how long they can keep them there. The statistics for Madagascar bear witnesses to these tough choices for families, with Madagascar having the 5th largest number of children not attending school globally. The Anosy Region where SEED are based has 51% of children who have never been to primary school. The cycle of poverty then begins again with the next generation.

Madagascar has the 5th largest number of children not attending school globally

Even for those in full time employment and earning salaries well above minimum wage, October and school fee time can be really problematic. This is also true for SEED staff, and in the past choosing to send children to school has caused hardship for months, as staff have had to take out loans and repay these over the next few months.

With SEED emphasising the importance of education throughout the work we do, we wanted to encourage and support all of our staff to send their children to school. As with so many good ideas in SEED, it was Lomba, our Head of Construction, that came up with idea of having an Education Savings Fund for SEED where staff could save a little money each month and have all of this back in October as a lump sum to pay school fees.

Lomba explained “The idea really came to me when a few years ago the Government wanted to change the start of the school year to January. This would mean that we all needed to pay for the school fees and equipment in January. However, January is the toughest month for the Malagasy people as it not only does it follow Christmas and New Year, but it is also the lean time when there is no harvesting of crops and therefore no money coming into households. I knew that this would mean that parents wouldn't be able to afford to pay the fees, and children wouldn't be able to go to school.”

Lomba and his kids in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar
Lomba and his kids

Lomba spoke with Joel, SEEDs Head of Finance, Admin & HR, and Lisa, the Director of Programmes and Operations, and together with the rest of the management team an Education Savings Fund was set up within days and launched in February 2018.

In the first year only two members of staff joined, but when October came around and everyone was trying to find the money for school fees, those who had joined the Savings Fund were vocal about how much the money that they had saved helped when the bill for school fees landed at their door. They were the Education Savings Funds biggest advocates – and others began to talk about wanting to join the following year.

We felt this was such an important mechanism that when the Education Savings Fund opened again in 2019, SEED supported the Fund financially and committed to provide a 30,000 bonus (£6) to each staff member who paid in consistently between March and September each year. We also wanted to make it affordable to everyone, so we set a monthly payment of a minimum of 5,000 Ar (£1). However, by starting the scheme in March, we were able to link the Education Savings Fund with annual pay increases and many staff decided to pay in the amount of their increase as this didn't then affect their take home pay. As they said, what they had never received, they didn't miss.

In 2019, the scheme increased from two members of staff to 13 ranging from Heads of Departments to guardians, and to those working in Fort Dauphin to those working in the bush.

Vayah in Sainte LuceVayah has worked as SEEDs cook on the conservation research camp for 11 years and joined the Education Savings Fund in its second year. With two children in High School and another taking their exam to enter High School this year, education has always been a priority for Vayah, albeit a difficult one to prioritise. The Education Savings Fund has helped Vaya with ensuring that all of her children continue to get an education. She explains “With the money I put away each month, in October when the school fees arrive, I only need to add a little bit extra to pay for all of the costs and I know that my children can continue at school”.

When the scheme reopened in March 2020, despite the hardships faced with COVID-19, numbers in the scheme increased to 35 staff, and the amount that staff chose to save also increased. This year, with COVID-19 increasing the cost of living in Fort Dauphin, the scheme has provided even more of a lifeline for families wanting to send their children to school and get them an education.

Happy schoolchildren in Madagascar
Tsina's children

Tsina, SEEDs Deputy Director, supports seven children and grandchildren to go to school and joined the Education Savings Fund in its second year. She says “The fund is a lifesaver. Giving a little bit each month that is set aside for education is the key, as although we could access it in an emergency, I know that I will need this lump sum in October and so I am more likely to set it aside and not touch it”.

SEED have always been an organisation that values education, but it is also an organisation that has always tried to support and value staff in ways that are sensitive to the added challenges that are faced when living and working in Madagascar. We consider ourselves a family, and as a family, although money may be tight, we will continue to search for ways that helps us give our children an education and the best possible start in life.