2015 marks the final year of the 2011-15 Education Sector National Implementation Framework and while the final verdict is still a way off, the successes and failures of this ambitious program have defined the education sector in Zambia.

As one of the poorest countries in the world, and home to 6 million children under the age of 18, 4 million of whom are of primary school age (7-14), every facet of the educational process will have profound implications for the country's future. Ultimately, any meaningful education reforms will go hand-in-hand with rising incomes, as one of the foremost impediments to educational success in the country is meeting the costs of education, especially at higher levels where tuition must be levied.

Zambia has a 7-2-3 formal education structure. The official entry age for primary school is 7, which lasts for seven academic years. In reality, given the high repeat rate, primary school often extends additional years. Secondary school is divided into two series. The first, lower secondary, consists of grades 8 and 9, and the second, upper secondary consists of grades 10 through 12. Basic education is divided into three stages, with the lower (grades 1-4) and middle (grades 5-7) grades comprising primary education. The upper classes (grades 8-9) are categorized as lower secondary. In public schools, primary and lower-secondary schooling are free and compulsory by law. At the end of grade 7, students sit for the Primary School Leaving Certificate Examination, which allows them to enter upper secondary at the end of grade 9. At the end of grade 12, students again sit for the School Certificate Examination. The school year is divided into trimesters of roughly three months each, running from August to June.

After gaining its independence in 1964, the Zambian government made universal basic education one of its core objectives, in spite of immense economic impediments. By the 1990s, decades of government investment in education from independence had resulted in increases in school enrollment and high completion rates. In the labor force, the number of participants with no schooling dropped from 24% in 1986 to 16% in 1993. Meanwhile, the percentage with secondary education rose from 18% to 24%. Along with deteriorating economic conditions since the mid-1970s and the government's commitment to fiscal restraint in the early 1990s, the education budget went into a decline. In 1975, public spending on education represented 6% of GDP, but by the mid-1980s, the budget had shrunk to less than 5%. By the end of that same decade, the budget had declined to less than 4%, finally sinking to 2% in the early 1990s. As a result, educational standards went into a tailspin, and dropout rates soared.

Higher education is wrapping up a much-needed overhaul that has been some years in the making. The Higher Education Act, 2013 (No. 4 of 2013) established the Higher Education Authority and defined its functions and powers as follows: The authority is tasked with providing for quality assurance and quality promotion in higher education; providing for the establishment, governance and the regulation of public higher education institutions; and providing for the registration and regulation of private higher education institutions. The new education act also repealed and replaced the University Act of 1999. In October 2014, the Ministry of Education unveiled the board of the Higher Education Authority, chaired by noted leaders in both the public and private sector, and this body is already raising standards.

In 2002, the government announced the Free Primary Education (FPE) Policy which has placed 1.2 million students in classrooms as a result. Zambia's net enrollment has since risen from 71% in 1999 to 97% in 2013. Over the last decade and a half, this policy has proven especially effective in rural areas, where many families rely on agriculture to sustain themselves, reducing their monetary abilities. In some such areas, the poverty rate is over 80%. Zambia's HIV epidemic has also resulted in 670,000 orphans, while in total UNESCO estimates that there are 1.4 million orphans in the country. Prior to eliminating fees for primary education, this vulnerable population was excluded from formal schooling. However, between 2008 and 2012, 92% of the country's orphans attended school, a remarkable increase.

The best way to gauge the government's commitment to education is to follow the kwacha. While the 2016 state budget is still months off, The Hon. Chishimba Kambwili stressed that although the 2016 national budget would be forced to trim the fat, the state would “fund only critical infrastructure projects in the health, education, and social sectors.” He further explained that this meant funding roads, bridges, building of universities, schools, clinics, rural health centers and hospitals.

In 2015, the government allocated 20.2% of their ZMW46.7 billion budget on education, amounting to $942.5 million. This figure represents a boost not only in value but also in share of the total budget. In 2013, the state spent $559.72 million, or 17.5% of the budget to education. Factoring in other spending, the national budget allocation to the sector increased considerably from about 4.2% of GDP in 2002 to 5.2% of GDP in 2014.
The lion's share, 68% or $638.51 million—approximately $980 million upon implementation but currently valued at $656 million—went to recruitment and retention of teachers. In July 2014, the Ministry of Education announced plans to recruit 5,000 new teachers a year later. By some estimates, Zambia will need to increase its teaching staff by 10% through 2030 to meet demand to achieve universal primary education. According to UNESCO, Zambia will need to recruit almost 40,000 teachers by 2015. The majority (62%) of this demand is for new teachers that are required to meet growing enrollment with the remainder (38%) covering for attrition.
Zambia's literacy rate for 15-24 year olds has been falling since the turn of the millennium, shortly after its rate of population growth started to pick up again. In 2002, the literacy rate for 15-24 year olds was 69.09%; by 2012, however, it had fallen to 61.4%.

The remainder of the educational budget is allotted to building facilities, repairing existing ones, and procuring equipment. In order of magnitude, $109.48 million is budgeted for infrastructure development for early childhood, primary and secondary education. Another $64.7 million is allocated for the construction of additional student accommodation for universities and the continued construction of new universities. $19.93 million will be allocated to funding scholarships for tertiary education. $7.92 million is budgeted towards the construction of nine trades training institutes across the country. Finally, $2.84 million has been allotted towards purchasing equipment and the construction of research facilities.

The private sector plays a vital role in the delivery of educational services. An increase in fees levied against private schools has alarmed private educators who in turn have taken to the local media to voice their frustration. In recent years, a flat fee of $139.80 was levied, however this year, the Ministry of Education raised the fee to $599.19 for early childhood, $798.92 for primary schools and $998.65 for secondary schools. Given that these charges will be passed on to students and their families, in a country where most live on dollars per day, the concern seems warranted.

In higher education, new universities are coming online, while existing universities are overhauled. Although many stakeholders stress the importance of improving early childhood education as a base, thousands of students are graduating intermediary school, and are competing for a limited number of spots in the country's universities. The big news for 2015 was the completion of the Robert Makasa University. The university includes 15 housing units, student's hostels, lecture rooms, lecture theaters, and a library, among others.
As of 2015, there were a total of 25 colleges in the country, and while some were expanding, more are under construction. In 2013, a sharp increase in educational spending funded construction of a slew of new colleges. In less than half a decade, the number of tertiary educations in the country doubled. Ten new colleges were announced in 2013, and only two years later, the government announced $64.96 million for the rehabilitation of three major universities.

This year, another five universities remained under construction, although a specific cost figure was not available. These latest five universities are the Solwezi University College of Science and Technology, King Lewanika University, Luapula University, Nalolo University College of Science and Mathematics, and Petauke University College of Applied Arts. Speaking to parliament in early 2015, Zambia's Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education Minister The Hon. Michael Kaingu said that this investment included dormitory facilities for 10,000 students. With hundreds of new classrooms coming online, it is imperative that qualified lecturers are now hired, spurring a massive hiring campaign.

And for those that choose a more hands-on route, the government has invested significant resources into jobs training programs such as the “My Job + 1” Business Challenge program by the Ministry of Education, which is intended to launch entrepreneurial and employer pathways. Programs like these complement more conventional vocational schools under the auspices of the Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority (TEVETA). Many of these institutions, such as the Lusaka Vocational Training Center prepare skilled labor for specific trades, occupations or vocations. These include a tourism and hospitality school in Livingstone that is currently under development, information technology training, and instruction in the traditional crafts industry. With an emphasis on targeting lower-class urban and poorer rural communities, the objective is to increase access to skills training to boost capacity for national development. And while many of these vocational schools are government run, others are privately established.
After a decade of rising tax revenues that helped drive education spending, the economic tides have turned and teacher's salaries are being paid at the expense of other social spending. However, most analysts are certain that prices will move up in the coming year. In August 2015, copper started to appreciate once again. Zambia's willingness to increase spending on schools against a backdrop of uncertain global markets and slumping commodity prices speaks to a commitment that will pay off when a resurgent mining industry must compete with other sectors for a new generation of skilled and educated young Zambians.