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Populist policy takes gloss off education

By Ray Matikinye

HOW Zimbabwean secondary school students pass their School Certificate or General Certificate of Education Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations at the end of each ye

ar in some of Bulawayo’s working-class suburbs could easily be compared to trying to mount a galloping horse with one’s arm tied behind their back.

The problem is not much of student-to-teacher ratio brought about by a phenomenal expansion of schools which is routinely touted by the Zanu PF government as one of its major success over the past 25 years. Neither is it due to lack of professionalism or low morale among teachers over dispiriting working conditions and low pay, but something more daunting.

Hard-pressed parents of high school students in Bulawayo’s working class suburbs are not pouring honey on books like Jews of the ghetto used to do so that their children appreciate learning is sweet. Neither is the government pouring money on textbooks to spice up students’ education and allow them to learn more effectively.

Students are forced to go to great lengths to complete each assignment given by their teachers due to a critical shortage of textbooks. The high cost of imported textbooks spawned by a steep depreciation of the Zimbabwean dollar against major international currencies has nettled poor and middle-class parents alike. It is now commonplace to come across a class of 40 pupils sharing only five prescribed textbooks in Zimbabwe’s urban and rural secondary schools.

“We have devised a cluster system where five or more pupils who live near each other share a prescribed textbook on a rotational basis,” says Magadelene Ngwenyama, a teacher at a school in one of Bulawayo’s working class suburbs of Luveve.

Sharing textbooks among so many students also diminishes a book’s lifespan.

Like other high schools, students living in the same section of the working class suburbs share a single textbook to do their homework. Teachers cannot copy a whole lesson involving a lot of figures and tables on a single chalkboard they also share with another class and still give instructions in an allotted 35-minute lesson.

“That is impossible,” Ngwenyama, who teaches accounting, says, adding: “The school managed to buy only two prescribed textbooks this term because parents resist levy increases proposed by the school committee to raise enough money to augment textbook stocks.

“It is so frustrating to both the teacher and the students,” she says with a sigh of resignation.

A skewed populist policy grounded on putting a lid over levy and fee increases by the ruling Zanu PF government to endear itself with the electorate mismatched by dwindling resource allocation threatens to unhinge an erstwhile praiseworthy effort by the state.

The Education Sport and Culture ministry gives schools grants for textbooks from its budget allocation each year but the cost of replacing torn ones has risen dramatically over the years, forcing at least five pupils to share one textbook. Parents and guardians have to buy textbooks at enormous cost as well.

“School textbooks and exercise books are expensive for us that depend on a monthly pension,” bemoaned 70-year old pensioner Trynes Sibindi, who fends for his two grandsons at high school that were bequeathed to him by a son who died three years ago.

But parents seem to have found a good bedfellow in Education minister Aeneas Chigwedere who has rebuked school committees and headmasters for raising levies and fees to meet escalating administration costs without his ministry’s consent.

Last year the ministry suspended several headmasters and ordered some schools to close for ignoring a ministry directive not to increase fees or levies.

Others, particularly white-dominated schools, were penalised and accused of attempting to maintain elitism. Concerned parents, keen to give their children the best education they can, took the ministry to court over the issue.

For instance, a single set of imported, prescribed textbook costs almost half the monthly salary of a general worker and unless parents scour used textbook vendor stalls littered along the city’s pavements, there is little hope for them to buy new ones. Some enterprising parents have tried to photocopy textbooks but still the costs for doing so are prohibitive.

“We charge $75 000 levy for a term and are the cheapest,” says a bursar at Magwegwe secondary school who refused to be identified. “Others such as Sikhulile in the same suburb charge $300 000,” she added.

A term’s levy charged at Magwegwe secondary school is half the price of a literature textbook such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Twelfth Night and a third of the price charged for a Thomas Hardy paperback, Far From the Madding Crowd.

Ngwenyama says: “Our job as teachers is like bricklayers expected to construct a house without being given the bricks.”

But despite all the shortcomings in the administration of education,

Zimbabwe’s education is highly rated in the Sadc region, attracting students from almost all neighbouring countries each year, although critics say this is more for what the education used to be than for what it is now.

In addition to the debilitating and morale-sapping shortage of textbooks, Zimbabwe has lost thousands of its trained teachers and other professionals to neighbouring countries while general school infrastructure is collapsing.

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