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Board Gives School System Failing Marks

 IPS 31 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) Primary and secondary school education in Zimbabwe has "fallen woefully behind" other southern African countries due to shortages of textbooks and other materials as well as deteriorating working conditions and resultant low morale for teachers.  - By Vusumuzi Sifile


HARARE - Primary and secondary school education in Zimbabwe has "fallen woefully behind" other southern African countries due to shortages of textbooks and other materials as well as deteriorating working conditions and resultant low morale for teachers.

Most affected are girls, who form the majority of children at primary and secondary schools.

According to a newly published report by the National Education Advisory Board (NEAB), there is now "a high level of absenteeism (being) reported, including of school heads".

The 14-member NEAB was appointed by the Minister of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture, David Coltart in March to look into problems affecting the education sector and come up with recommendations. Its chairperson, Dr Isaiah Shumba, is a former deputy minister of education.

"Parents and pupils had deserted schools because of the lack of teachers. Teachers were reported to be poorly motivated and afraid. They were neglecting their professional duties most of the time," reads the NEAB report, released just days before teachers called off a nationwide strike over low pay and poor working conditions.

The report says 196,000 children drop out of primary school annually, out of a total primary school enrolment that stood at just under 2.5 million at the end of 2008. If the current trend continues, half of these children won't proceed to secondary school.

"Such a large number of dropouts can prove a politically and socially destabilising force, particularly given the lack of economic growth and lack of employment opportunities," reads the NEAB's Rapid Assessment of Primary and Secondary Education (RAPSE).

Failure to contain the situation could have "a serious potential for political and social destabilisation", as it condemns the youths to unskilled and poorly-paid work, if not outright unemployment.

"The shrinkage of secondary education also raises concerns," says the RAPSE.

Girls constitute 50.5 percent of the enrolment at primary and secondary school at present. But enrolment is one thing, actually getting an education is another.

"(Girls) are often not at school, (which) renders them even more vulnerable to abuse in various forms," the NEAB report says. At school, "girls are often raped by their teachers, especially headmasters."

Though the report contained no statistics, it suggested that incidents are most common in the new resettlement areas, where children have been uprooted from communities which would normally offer them some protection.

Following land seizures by the government, a number of schools have been set up, usually in warehouses in former commercial farms, to cater for the children of the "new farmers".

The water crisis in urban areas, which has led to the collapse of sewer and reticulation services, is also impeding education. Girls are often forced to walk long distances looking for water, exposing them to contact with raw sewage and unsafe drinking water. This exposes them to diseases, which also affects their participation at school.

The report has proposals that could see school become the focal point for rural water supply. It says the construction of at least one "borehole for every rural primary school will assist girls and women who have to collect water for the household. Girls will then be saved from having to fetch water from distant areas."

The NEAB urges the Ministry of Education, Sports, Art and Culture "to undertake some immediate reforms, many of which do not require additional funding."

Among these reforms, the report proposes "bringing teachers and communities closer together through a community development approach to fund raising for the school". The establishment of school fees sub committees will also ensure that fees are charged in line with the economic status of parents, encouraging more accountability of fees and bursaries, in particular recommendations to BEAM.

To ease the shortage of textbooks, the report says the government should "remove customs duties on raw materials required for printing text books, and suspend tax on sale of textbooks to enable schools to acquire textbooks".

"There is a serious shortage of textbooks in schools at present, making it difficult for quality education to be achieved."

The report also proposes that primary education should be free for all pupils, as is the case in some southern Africa countries. Early this year, the government announced that primary education in rural areas would be free.

Pupils in urban areas pay 20 U.S. dollars in high-density areas and $150 in wealthier parts of town. Secondary school pupils are required to pay between $50 and $200. But while the tuition fees are low, most schools are charging more than double those amounts in development levies.

It also proposes that at secondary schools, parents should contribute part of teachers' salaries. In cases where parents cannot afford this, the state and donors should subsidise indigent families.

Teachers' unions however view the plan as scandalous.

"As teachers we are opposed to that," said Raymond Majongwe, Secretary General of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ). "It will create dual allegiance, where teachers ultimately don't know who their employer is. We should go back to a rare ZANU-PF success story, where the government paid for the education of all children. It would be scandalous to allow a situation where parents are fleeced of their hard earned cash."

Majongwe supported the view contained in the report that scholarships should be structured in a way that benefits girls, and cushion them from dropping out. He said teachers should be specially trained to cater for girls' needs.

"At the moment, the environment at schools favours boys than girls. A lot of these girls come to schools in numbers, but if you look at the top the girl child is not there. This has long term effects even on the presence of women in decision-making positions."

Most girls who fall pregnant at school are expelled and usually find it to resume after maternity. Majongwe said there was "need to make sure that those girls that fall pregnant at school should be accommodated."

The U.N. Children's Agency (UNICEF) has partnered with international donors to inject 70 million U.S. dollars into the education system. The money would be used to purchase textbooks and "reach every child in Zimbabwe with a text book within 12 months."

The announcement was made by UNICEF representative in Zimbabwe, Peter Salama, who also announced that his organisation was reviving the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) to assist children with fees.

In the view of Education Minister David Coltart, no matter how much resources are put at schools, the biggest challenge is to convince teachers to work under current conditions while negotiations continue. Coltart got some relief on Sep 19 when the Zimbabwe Teachers Association called off a three weeks long teachers strike.

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