DPMN Bulletin: Volume X, Number 1, January 2003

The Evolution of Education Policy in Zambia 

Sophie Kasonde-Ng’andu

Historical Context: Colonial and Post-colonial Periods

The colonial period can be divided into three eras: that of the British African Company  1890–24;  the  British  Colonial Office  Administration,  1924–52;  and  the  Federation  of  Northern  Rhodesia  and  Nyasaland,  1953–63 (Chisholm et al. 1998). 

During the first period, education was the responsibility of missionaries. Colonial rule saw the introduction of more formal and professional control over schooling.  Owing to limited resources and the unwillingness of the white settlers to promote secondary and higher education of Africans, education was limited to lower levels of schooling.  Secondary schooling was mainly introduced in order to provide teachers for primary education.  During the federation, segregationist and inequitable patterns of provision for African and European children persisted. In addition, the focus was on primary education, with only limited secondary teacher education for Africans.

The educational system inherited by Zambia at independence was accordingly underdeveloped.  At the time of independence, there were only 107 Zambian university graduates, of whom four were female (Kelly 1991). Therefore, the First National Development Plan (1966–79) aimed at providing sufficient places to ensure that all children received at least four years of primary education.  Although the government was not able to meet these targets, primary education expanded dramatically during this period.  However, more emphasis was given to the expansion of secondary and technical education, with intake into secondary schools increasing, on average, by 27 per cent per annum, between 1964 and 1969 (Kelly 1991).  The Second National Development Plan (1972 – 76) put more emphasis on primary education, recognising the need for secondary school expansion to be related to human resource needs. Thus, primary education began to be seen as terminal for some children (Chisholm et al. 1998).

The first significant period of policy reform, from 1974 to 1977, occurred in the context of economic decline as a result of falling copper prices on the world market.  As a result, expenditure on education fell at the same time as enrolments increased.  Teachers’ salaries grew as a proportion of the budget, but did not keep pace with inflation, and textbooks and teaching materials became scarce resources.  Zambia began to rely on external aid in the form of loans, grants, technical assistance and commodity support.

The first major educational policy pronouncements are contained in the Educational Reform Document  (GRZ 1977). The policy emphasised education as an instrument for personal and national development. 

The 1990s saw resounding reforms in the Ministry of Education.  The reforms were designed to improve the delivery of the education system that had substantially been declining since the 1970s, as earlier noted.  Specifically, the education system suffered from gross low enrolments which failed to match the demand arising from rapid population growth.  In addition, the Ministry was not able to sustain or improve the quality of education. 

The second major educational policy document was Focus on Learning (1992).  It emanated from the World Declaration on Education for all, held in 1990 in Tomtien, Thailand.  The conference stressed the importance of access to educational opportunities: “Every person: child, youth and adult shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs” (Art. 1). 

The 1992 policy, therefore, stressed the mobilisation of resources for the development of school education for all, including children with special educational needs. 

The third educational policy document, Educating Our Future (1996), was a product of a lengthy and broadly-based consultation process involving various stakeholders, the entire field of formal institutional education, paying particular attention to democratisation, decentralisation and productivity on the one hand, and curriculum relevance and diversification, efficient and effective management, capacity building, cost sharing, and revitalised partnerships on the other.  Flexibility, pluralism, responsiveness to needs, and the protection of quality are recurrent themes. 

In spite of the articulation of policies in education and strategies to cushion the adverse effects of the identified ills, the Ministry of Education lacked the impetus and the resources to respond appropriately to the identified challenges.  An integrated programme was consequently designed to accelerate the implementation of the education policies.  The programme is called Basic Education Sub-Sector Investment Programme (BESSIP).  Its implementation plan was approved in 1998 and actual implementation took off in 1999. 

BESSIP’s two key objectives are:

(i)   to improve access to basic education for all Zambians; and

(ii)  to improve learning achievements in schools. 

A lot of positive changes are being seen under the BESSIP umbrella, e.g., the declaration of free basic education (grades 1–7) by government; the primary teacher education course has been reduced from three years to two years: one-year college-based and one-year school-based as a means to increase the number of teachers; the curriculum’s emphasis has changed from content-based to outcome-based, where criterion-referenced assessment is the trend as opposed to the traditional norm-referenced type of assessment.  

The Ministry of Education has embarked on a vigorous campaign of decentralisation to ensure that districts and schools are empowered to make their own decisions and to match positions to personnel’s qualifications. Despite the above achievements, there lies a serious challenge in the area of implementation. There are signs indicating that some reforms are changing at too fast a rate that the various stakeholders have difficulty grasping the principles behind them.  For example, while schools have been ordered not to charge fees at primary level, some schools have been reported to be asking for various payments under a different “label” because government funds to schools are either not forthcoming or inadequate.  In short, it would appear that the evolution of education policy in Zambia is beset with uncertainties, particularly in the aspect of implementation.



Chisholm, L., G. L. T. Makwati, P. T. M. Marope, and S. D. Dumba-Safuli. 1998. SADC  initiatives in education policy management. Report of a needs assessment study. Harare:  UNESCO and SADC Human Resource Sector. 

Government of Republic of Zambia. 1977. Educational reform document.  

 Kelly, M. T. 1991. Education in a declining economy: The case of Zambia, 1975–1985.  Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

 Ministry of Education. 1992. Focus on learning. Lusaka:  Ministry of Education.

 _____. 1996. Educating our future:  National policy on education.  Lusaka:  Ministry of Education.

 _____. 2000. The basic school curriculum framework.  Lusaka:  Curriculum Development Centre.