Basic Fundamentals - Education

When I was going to school, my mother was virtually a single mom, trying to raise 4 kids. Life was very tough and there were very few luxuries, we had the basics, but could afford little else. I went to school and because of an accident of history; I was able to get a world class education at virtually no cost to my family, because I was white. I went to State school where I now recognise, I was in the hands of teachers who were dedicated, reasonably well paid, and first class.

I look at what my class mates have done with their lives - some are doctors, a couple, Professors at good Universities, others have done well in business and the professions. But no matter where they are today - they are all real achievers and recognised as such. That was not where they came from - we were a rough bunch and came from a generally poor community.

It was the school that gave us our foundation for life and I think this lesson has to be learned and appreciated by all in our society if we are to give education its rightful place and spend what is needed to empower the next generation.

Education costs money. In our new budget for 2013, we in the MDC have committed over 27 per cent of the national budget to the education sector - much more than is called for under AU guidelines. For the first time our national state expenditures on education will exceed $1 billion. But the reality is that spread across 3,2 million children of school going age and perhaps 150 000 students in tertiary institutions, it's a pretty thin budget. It has to provide salaries to about 120 000 professionals who are involved either as teachers or administrators.

That's $225 a child for a year's education and $1600 a year for a student in tertiary education. My own grandchildren all go to private schools at a cost of about $3600 a year each, when they go to University and have to go outside the country to do so, it will cost their parents $6000 a year or more.

Our private schools do a great job, at a cost about half of that in South Africa, they offer a world class education in a great environment, plenty of sport and recreation and the students involved get a well rounded background for life. But the system is tiny and only provides schooling for perhaps 60 000 or 70 000 children. What is needed is to get the whole system up to this standard and that can only be achieved by the following steps.

First it is critical for the State to continue to do what we are doing here in Zimbabwe, and commit a bigger share of national tax revenues to education. I think at 27 per cent we are at about the ceiling on what is possible. We are collecting a very high proportion of our GDP (perhaps 30 per cent) and so this is quite an achievement. We need to look at ways in which we can spread the impact and enhance the resource envelope.

Although the world has adopted the Millennium Goals for 2015 and included in those goals are universal education rights, they are in fact not doing a great deal to ensure that poor countries can actually provide a decent system of basic education. Here in Zimbabwe the international Community is spending about $900 million a year of which only about $50 million finds its way to education.

What I think we have to do is to set up a benchmark against which we set our goals for funding. To me in a country like Zimbabwe the benchmark is a 5 year old girl child, from a peasant family in rural Zimbabwe, who has to walk 6 kilometers to her school. When she walks through that gate, she should enter a first world environment - maybe not in terms of fancy infrastructure, but certainly she should be safe, able to have a food supplement if food is in short supply, meet her teachers in a clean, well built classroom that has electricity and be taught by a well trained and motivated teacher. To cap this experience she should have access to the international world of the internet and IT services.

Is that too high a benchmark; too far ahead of our ability to fund the system? I do not think so if we get our priorities right and put our collective shoulders to the wheel. What is needed is to first empower the child - give her the basic resources to pay for her own education by adopting a basic school grant system. Instead of funding the teachers and the school directly, give each child a grant per month that can accrue to the school they chose to go to. Put the power into the hands of the child and her parents. Make the schools compete for students, punish schools that do not perform or give service.

Secondly, involve the Parents in every aspect of the education system; put School Boards in charge of the schools with Boards elected by parents. Give School Boards responsibility for selecting and paying the teachers. Give the teaching profession the right to negotiate their terms of employment with their employers. Provide enough money to pay teachers as professionals who are highly regarded and respected in their communities. Give teachers the opportunity to buy their own homes and vehicles through special credit schemes. Provide the profession with decent retirement rights. Pay special attention to Heads of Schools.

Thirdly, provide for a rigorous system of education with a curriculum that will prepare every child for life in the career of their choice. National examinations that will give the schools and their parents and future employers real standards against which they can assess the abilities of every child.

Fourthly, provide financial support systems that will ensure that every child can complete at least 12 years of formal education before they have to start making a living, as a basic human right. School fees to be set at a level where the schools can provide the above education to every child in every community.

If we put such systems into place, parents would make sacrificial efforts to make sure that it happened. Foreign donors could be sure that the money they put into the system at any level (school nutritional support, school grant aid support or individually targeted financial support for children from poor families or orphans) was well spent and productive.

No other programme of government would yield bigger or better results. No other programme could empower and enable the least advantaged in our societies. Nothing could compare to this as an investment in our common future. Let's meet the needs of that small girl child and the rest will fall into place.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 25th November 2012