A TWO-TIER, class-based education system has taken root in Zimbabwe as many upmarket private schools have ditched the scandal-ridden local examinations administered by Zimsec in favour of those administered by the United Kingdom-based Cambridge University.
Established in 1996, the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec) has the mandate of producing syllabuses and conferring qualifications in Ordinary (‘O’) and Advanced (‘A’) Level school examinations, but these have been shunned by most private schools amid concerns about credibility resulting chiefly from perennial leakages of examination papers and inconvenient re-sits.
Zimsec is an internationally-accredited examinations board with syllabuses approved by the National Academic Recognition and Information Centre in the UK and found to be equivalent to the General Certificate of Education Standard offered in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, United States and other English speaking countries.
The journey to the full localisation of examinations began with a cabinet decision in 1983 which led to the first local ‘O’ Level examination being written in 1991. Zimsec was eventually set up in 1995.
The first ‘A’ Level Zimsec examination was written in November 2002, but Cambridge examinations continued to be offered in private schools.
However, the examinations body, which lists “professionalism, integrity, honesty, accountability, security and confidentiality” as some of its core values, has suffered a serious loss of credibility over the years owing mainly to the endemic leakages of examination papers and delays in the release of results.
Last November, ‘O’ Level English Language Papers I and II and Mathematics Papers I and II leaked at a secondary school in Lower Gweru while students at privately-owned Fountain College and two men from Chitungwiza were sentenced to six-months in jail each by Chitungwiza magistrate Donald Ndirowei after they were convicted of leaking the ‘O’ Level Commerce and Science papers.
This came against the backdrop of similar leakages in 2012 when 13 ‘O’ Level examinations had to be reset at a cost of US$850 000 after a headmaster lost the exam papers while travelling on public transport from Bulawayo to his rural school in Matabeleland.
It is such developments that have caused the more affluent, including top government officials, to opt for private schools which offer Cambridge examinations rather than public schools and the discredited Zimsec examinations. After ‘A’ Levels, their children attend universities abroad, shunning local tertiary institutions.
While Zimsec say they cannot force private schools to offer local examinations, some teachers’ unions feel that this distinction has created a dichotomy in which there are two separate systems of education for the affluent and poor, which are only serving to entrench education apartheid and social disparities.
Takavafira Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) laid the blame on the state’s doorstep, accusing government of “hypocrisy in perpetuating and propping up a rotten Zimsec to continue harming poor people while they send their own children to schools offering foreign examinations”.
“The reality is that we now have discrimination based on education and the leaders are only too happy to have this continue because it serves to set them as an elite class apart from the poor,” Zhou said in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent on Wednesday.
He said Zimsec, which has lost credibility owing to leakages of examination papers, will never improve as long as politicians continue to publicly defend it instead of condemning and taking remedial action.
“It is pointless to even go to parliament to speak about the rot because these are the same politicians who will defend Zimsec claiming that we are an independent country which should have its own examinations board. But this is all hypocrisy because they are the first to send their children to private schools to write Cambridge examinations,” Zhou said.
Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) president Sifiso Ndlovu said the growing polarisation between public and private schools risked creating an inferior education for the majority, but blamed lack of adequate government funding for public institutions.
“The failure to adequately fund public education has led to the commodification of quality education so that it is only affordable to a few in the private schools,” Ndlovu said.
“The government must invest more funds so that public institutions can have all the required learning resources and even have a more balanced teacher-pupil ratio.”
He also said Zimsec examinations remained credible as evidenced by the “acceptance of Zimbabwean students into tertiary institutions in South Africa and many other countries where they do very well”.
Ndlovu said leakages are not unique to Zimbabwe.
“Of course, we have to grapple with the challenges of leakages which are in the public domain, but that does not mean that they never happen with the Cambridge examinations,” he said.
“There is nothing wrong with the quality of Zimsec examinations and it is not true that Zimsec is inferior. It may even be better than Cambridge. I can even give you an example of a candidate who went on to get “A’s” in the Cambridge papers after having initially got Ds in the Zimsec examinations.”
Since his appointment in 2013, Education minister Lazarus Dokora has failed to stem the rot with many accusing him of misplaced priorities including moving swiftly to ban incentives for underpaid teachers, banning extra lessons as well as directing the re-training of qualified teachers.
Efforts to obtain comment from Dokora were not successful as he was not reachable on his mobile phone.