Education and the Rights of the Child

A great deal is talked about how to empower young people and give them a decent start in life and in the past three years or so, the Islamic movement in North Africa calling itself Boka Harum has set itself the primary goal of destroying the modern education system in areas where the Muslim faith is dominant. I think we all sat in front of our televisions when that young Muslim girl from Pakistan made that remarkable speech to the United Nations about the right to education for the child.

From my own perspective, if you want to give a child something that they will never leave behind, it is the right to a decent education. I grew up in a racially segregated society where people with my skin colour were given every opportunity in life and a world class education at virtually no cost to my family.

My mother was trying to raise 4 kids with a dysfunctional husband who had become an alcoholic. She herself only had two years of formal education and had taught herself to type and write shorthand. She got a job with an international company and was soon promoted to the position of PA to the Managing Director.

Even so things were very tough. Once a month we got a small selection of comics, I never had a jacket to wear until I went to College and my older brother bought a jacket for me. But I went to State owned and operated schools and in the process, although I did not appreciate it at the time, I received an education that was about as good as any in the world. Our teachers were quite well paid, professionals with degrees from good Universities and very dedicated. A Headmaster was an important personage in our society.

With a decent Matric after 11 years of school, I was accepted into an Agricultural College and then to University emerging in the end with a degree from London University that got me my first job as an economist. These doors would never have opened to me had I not had the benefit of a decent primary and secondary education.

The fact that I lived in a semi slum area, had patched clothes and an old bike meant nothing at school – when I walked through the gates I was in the first world and it opened the gates for me to the global community when I needed the access.

As an African, I have always held that the greatest gift we can give our children – especially the girl child who is so discriminated against in our indigenous cultures, is access to a decent education. I have a dream that one day, every child in Africa will be able to walk down the road from their home village and through the gates of a school where they will find themselves transported into another world. A world with internet and libraries, a world guided by dedicated, well qualified and remunerated teachers. A world that will equip that child with the qualifications and tools that they need to make their way in a highly competitive global market place.

I estimate that such a gift would cost $50 per child per month. Not a great deal of money, but way beyond what we can afford at this time. To achieve such targets we all have to put our minds to the task and all have to strive to do what we can.

In Africa, our largest inflow of cash for basic human needs comes from remittances from the Diaspora. Zimbabwe is no different and I estimate that monthly inflows from this source runs at about $200 million a month. If we were able to tap into this inflow and harness it with the money we raised from taxes on our people, we could hit this target, but even that would not be enough.

We need to ensure that the schools are managed properly. In my day, while the State provided the money for salaries and buildings and equipment, the school “Parent/Teacher Association” provided a great deal extra. Parents raised money, helped with services and support and provided much needed supervision of the education their children were getting. Parents met with teachers once a term to review progress and poorly trained or motivated teachers were swiftly dealt with.

Parent participation in education is essential to maintain a decent school system. Nobody is more motivated to ensure that teachers and school heads do their jobs properly and that their children attend school and do their home work and participate in extra curricula activities. For this reason, I prefer a school system that is controlled by local government and boards drawn from the Parent body. Government participation and support should be in the form of a per capita grant followed by school supervision as well as curriculum development and examinations.

Is this possible for every child in the world today – yes it is, there is ample money in the global economy to finance such basic needs if we have the collective will. The International Community has to join us in the struggle and I thought that the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) were meant to mobilize such support. The International Community in Zimbabwe does a great deal for the people here and spends nearly a billion dollars each year doing so without thanks or recognition. But I must say that education services are not high on their agenda and this must be rectified.

My view is that we all need to adopt the approach that a decent education is not a privilege, it’s a right and everyone has a responsibility to do what they can. We in the Government in Zimbabwe are doing what we can – we commit over 20 per cent of our budget to basic education, one of the highest allocations of any government system in the world. But that amounts only to $20 per child of school going age and we have to take steps to ensure that everyone pitches in: parents, the Diaspora and the International Community.

South Africa is in a position to fund the needs of the child in this way but they have a very poor record of success. This shows that money alone is not enough and we have to pay attention to management and treat education as a business. School Heads must administer large staff and budgets and are often ill-equipped to do so, they need specialized management training. The administration systems used for education needs to be reformed to bring Parents into the system as supervisory agents of the State and caretakers of the needs of their children.

We need to restore the status of teachers in our society as an elite, recognised and respected and adequately remunerated. Until we do so, our children will continue to attend underfunded institutions that release them after many wasted years in the mainstream of society, ill equipped to meet the challenges of daily life. It’s a mistake that we must rectify and as soon as possible.

Eddie Cross
Harare, 17th January 2015