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Sorry plight of rural schools ignored

Own Correspondent

A CHARM offensive apparently targeted at luring support among high school students who will come of suffrage age by the March general election has obliged President Mugabe to travel to some

remote parts of the country in the past few months donating computer equipment.

Each hand-over ceremony provides an opportunity for Mugabe to capture the attention of rural voters among both the students and villagers who throng these events.

Ironically too, the in vogue donations seem to counterweigh Information minister Jonathan Moyo’s bid to thwart information dissemination through the Internet.

Yet Zimbabwe’s rural primary school infrastructure is crumbling, gnawed to a point of dereliction by decades of neglect. The schools are stretched to breaking point by increased enrolment without financial resources to match.

A visit to most rural primary schools reveals cracked walls and floors, peeling paint, sagging rafters, unglazed windows and dilapidated structures.

The rot has been accelerated by an education policy that reposed responsibility for the upkeep of buildings in community self-help projects run by poor rural peasants.

In instances where donors have lent a hand by providing building material, the schools have fared better.

More importantly, policies tilted heavily in favour of upgrading and expanding secondary schools to bridge gaps in national human resources shortfalls as a result of the brain drain in commerce and industry has come back to haunt education administrators and policy makers.

One of the resolutions the ruling Zanu PF party in Matabeleland North made this week ahead of the party’s National People’s Congress could throw the decrepit educational facilities in the province a lifeline.

“We want the congress to pass a resolution compelling government to improve the education facilities in the province,” said party provincial chairman Jacob Mudenda.

“Most buildings at primary schools in rural areas have become a hazard to work in and pose a threat to both pupils and teachers,” says retired educationist, Polife Simelani.

“It is a miracle that some of the classroom blocks have not yet collapsed on pupils.”

Except for a few modern houses built from donor funds, teachers at rural primary schools have learnt to live with sharing ramshackle accommodation.

Simelani blames former students associations for some of the woes faced by rural primary schools. He says these associations have tended to identify themselves with the secondary or high schools they attended whenever they raise funds for improvement of infrastructure.

“There are numerous students associations. Most of them want to improve conditions at the last secondary schools they attended. None seem to want to identify themselves with the needy primary schools which are in various states of dereliction,” says Simelani.

Besides, the nominal per capita grant that the Education ministry disburses to schools annually for each child falls woefully short of the education requirements for a primary school child.

The grant disbursed by the ministry based on each school enrolment is meant to cover books and stationery as well as maintain school infrastructure.

Because the grant is too small, serious shortages of textbooks and other reading materials have become a common feature at rural schools.

Primary school textbooks now cost between $50 000 and $100 000 each, while exercise books range from $3 500 to $7 500.

Although Education minister Aeneas Chigwedere has acknowledged the per capita grant disbursed to each school for acquiring textbooks is insufficient he has blamed schools for not maximising grant disbursements.

“The money may not be adequate but the major problem is that schools do not take care of the books,” Chigwedere said. “Most of the books are stolen and resold on the black market.”

Poor peasants are expected under the Education Act to form school development committees and associations empowered to raise funds through levies for the maintenance of school buildings. But problems arise when other parents opt to enrol their children at more distant schools, which charge less, to avoid paying increased levies.

“Every morning I see children run past my school to the next one that is eight kilometres away because it levies a lesser development fee than we do,” says Titus Gwelutshena, a teacher at a primary school in Nkayi.

In a worse position are farming communities, particularly those displaced by the land reform programme together with newly resettled farmers. Parents have watched helplessly as their primary school children cram into former tobacco barns where lessons are conducted under stifling conditions.

In Chigwedere’s Wedza constituency tobacco barns at Chad, Chirume and Bolton farms have been converted into makeshift classrooms.

Yet the Education ministry has always received a lion’s share of allocation in the national budget. In fact the ministry has only expended 21% of its 2003-2004 budgetary allocation.

Officials in the ministry say 94% of its national budget appropriation goes towards teachers’ and administrators’ wage bill.

Hundreds of rural schools built decades ago by missionaries scrambling to evangelise rural communities claim a membership stake and a sphere of influence within the communities they operated in. Most of these have retained their vintage without additional buildings since then, making them susceptible to damage by strong winds and prone to collapsing.

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