Editor’s Memo: GNU Must Prioritise Education Sector

WHEN Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 President Robert Mugabe promised “Education for all by the year 2000”.

Schools were built everywhere to ensure that every child had a school within walking distance. Secondary schools were added to primary schools in rural areas and tertiary education was also expanded, with the hope of ensuring that there was at least one university in each of the country’s 10 provinces.

To cater for adults who had not been able to receive education, the government’s department of Adult and Continuing Education focused on those who wanted to continue studying. In addition to adult literacy classes, free correspondence modules were supplied to villagers with no access to formal schooling.

Mugabe managed to create an education revolution, raising literacy rates in Zimbabwe to 98% by the late 1990s. The education system in Zimbabwe was named the best in Africa. But all this is now coming to nought –– and nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s rural areas.

According to shocking findings from the Rapid Assessment of Primary and Secondary Education report by the National Education Advisory Board released recently, an increasing number of pupils who enrolled for Grade 1 did not proceed to secondary school. In some provinces, like Matabeleland North, “the dropout rate was high, with over 50% dropout from Grades 1-7”.

Unicef estimates that the Grade 7 examination pass rates declined from 53% in 1999 to 33% in 2007, while 50% of Zimbabwe’s children graduating from primary school were not proceeding to secondary school. To worsen an already dire situation, close to 70% of students who were supposed to sit for Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations failed to meet the September 25 deadline to pay their exam fees.

In what can be described as a heartless response to the crisis, Education minister David Coltart this week said it was too late to do anything about the pupils’ plight. He went further to say any changes would disrupt the “smooth running” of the public examinations. How can they be smooth when 70% of students will have their four to six years of education thrown out of the window?

What angers most is the fact that Coltart is even aware that less than half of prospective candidates had registered. While he is estimating that slightly over 50% failed to register, teachers’ unions have put the figure at around 70%.

Coltart added that they are sticking to their deadline because the examinations had already been delayed enough by an earlier week-long extension on registration. Honourable minister, how were you expecting impoverished families in rural and high density areas to raise the US$10 and US$20 per “O” and “A” Level subject respectively in a week when they failed to raise that money over months.

Rural folk are already struggling to make ends meet. They rely on selling their agricultural produce to the cash-strapped Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and other such institutions.

Most farmers have harvested their maize and other cereal crops but they are not happy with the prices that are being offered by the private buyers. The prices are too low and farmers are not able to break-even or to recapitalise in preparation for the next cropping season. The GMB is buying at US$265 a tonne but does not have ready cash and growers have to wait for a long period before being paid. The farmers are now being forced to buy from private buyers at low prices such as US$165 to US$180 a tonne.

Did the government take these factors into consideration? –– Obviously not.

According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the country’s unemployment rate is over 90%.

Those formally employed earn an average US$150 a month. The minister needs to explain to the nation how they arrived at the US$10 and US$20 a subject considering the country’s economic situation and employment levels. When Zimbabwe decided to localise examinations in the 1990s, the main reason was to make it affordable since examinations set by the Cambridge examinations board were expensive.

While the government is charging US$10 a subject for “O” Levels, it costs US$15 a subject for Cambridge examinations. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that there is no way the government figures can be described as affordable. Isn’t this tantamount to privatising the education system in the country?

If the government can source funds to buy luxury vehicles for legislators, how could it not try to raise money to subsidise the poor families in our societies. The reason for the extension was because they had realised that a significant number of students had not paid.

Did anyone hear of any talk of government trying to find ways to ensure that the 30 000 plus pupils write the examinations? It is clear that there were no such efforts. Is this the bright future for the education sector which Coltart was talking about at the launch of the Basic Education Assistance Module recently?

The minimum requirement is five “O” level passes to proceed to “A” level or to qualify for an apprenticeship or gain admission at nursing and teachers’ colleges. Most jobs also require a minimum five “O” level passes. So what future do these children have?

Instead of making noise about outstanding Global Political Agreement issues the inclusive government should seriously sit down and find ways to ensure that the affected students write their examinations.

What is shocking is the deafening silence by all the parties. President Mugabe –– what happened to your dream of education for all and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai –– what happened to the promise you made at the signing ceremony of the GPA in September last year to prioritise education?

 

Faith Zaba

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