The Crisis in Education

The evolution of education in Zimbabwe is an interesting story which is seldom told. When the first settlers arrived in 1893, they immediately set up schools for their children and many of those schools grew into major institutions with a proud record. For their own children the settlers and their successors did not limit what they spent on education. The result was a network of State controlled schools with an outstanding reputation – Plumtree, Milton, Prince Edward, Jameson, Girls High and Evelyn and so on.

Very little attention was paid to the need to educate the majority indigenous population and when the Church decided to take up this challenge in the 30’s the State welcomed the initiative and divided up the country into enclaves allocated to specific denominations or missionary societies. For this reason education for the majority came out of the Christian Church and by 1965, 90 per cent of all education in the country was managed by the Churches and Missions. Because many of the schools created during this period were staffed by many dedicated and gifted Christian men and women from Europe or the United States, the quality of much of this education was also exceptional – but not because of what the State was doing.

When, eventually, the Rhodesian government picked up the challenge of providing education to the majority population they created a system that was deliberately no larger than the system for white, Asian and “mixed race” children. But it was of the same standard in all respects and attracted many exceptional people as teachers and school heads. As a result many of the small minority that were able to attend these schools obtained an excellent basic education, many going on to find places in Universities across the globe so that when we became Independent in 1980 under a majority government there were 17 PhD graduates in the first Cabinet.

But with Independence, the influence of the Church in education declined as Missions scaled back their input and control – in the process handing over to the new Government many schools built up over the previous three decades. Also at Independence there came the rush to expand the system – the new government was opening a school a day; thousands of new teachers were turned out in an emergency response to the need for them.

By 1990 we had the great majority of children in primary school and a significant minority in secondary schools and a much larger number of students in tertiary education than ever before. But there was a cost. Total expenditure on education rose to a quarter of the national budget and even then could not keep up with the demand – educational quality suffered as a result but even so, Zimbabwe achieved one of its proudest achievements – over 95 per cent literacy and an oversupply of skilled and educated people for the productive sector.

Since then, this generation of educated people has been very largely lost to Zimbabwe as we had created a highly mobile population with skills much in demand elsewhere in the world. Today 600 000 Zimbabweans occupy skilled and managerial jobs in South Africa and in some sectors like Banking, they play a key role. Overseas you can find Zimbabwean medical staff in many Hospitals. Obtaining skills here has become a gateway to opportunity abroad.

In one of our own businesses we paid for the education of the daughter of our production Director and when she graduated with a degree from UZ she immediately left the country for Canada and then went to the UK where she works today. The great majority of our doctors and nurses leave after graduation.

But as our economy has shrunk over the past 15 years, the cost of maintaining the system created after Independence in 1980 has simply become unsustainable and although we still spend over 20 per cent of the national budget on education, it is not enough to pay staff a decent salary or to support all other essential educational services. The whole system is now in crisis.

On the State side of the equation the government is confronted with a sharp decline (20 per cent) in revenues and is simply unable to pay salaries. In an effort to curb demand they have dismissed 20 000 part time teachers from the civil service and when this resulted in a massive shortage in schools they attempted to cancel all leave for those teachers who remained. They have told all civil service teachers working in private and Church schools that they must resign from the service and become fully supported private sector employees.

The private and Church schools, already struggling to raise the funds to maintain their operations, are now faced with the choice of also losing staff and operating with a shortage of qualified and experienced teachers or increasing fees to cover the additional costs. Given the widening economic crisis in Zimbabwe this is not going to be easy, in fact the reality is that the majority of parents can barely afford what they are already paying and thousands of children may well have to relocate to the State schools that are now in real crisis themselves.

The decline in the quality of State education is nothing new and the stark reality is that Zimbabwe is now turning out tens of thousands of children, who after 7 years of primary education, cannot read or write or speak English properly. Overall our literacy rates must be in decline despite all our claims to be the best educated population in Africa.

The stark reality is that until we can grow our economy to the level that it can support a State controlled and managed education system that will give the great majority of our people a decent education, the task is beyond the State on its own. By my calculation we can only afford $20 a month per pupil at Primary level and not much more in Secondary schools. This is just not enough money to cover costs and maintain standards. The only answer is to hand over the responsibility for education to the Communities whom schools serve.

State support would then be in the form of a per capita grant to all schools, supervision and quality control with school inspectors and curriculum development and examination standards. Parents through the school Boards would take responsibility for the rest – salaries, recruitment and management. They would set school fees and these would have to be met by parents or relatives in the Diaspora or a Basic Education Grant system.

Our experience shows that good education requires the full engagement of parents and the great advantage of a community based education system is that this is automatically provided. The State can then concentrate its resources and efforts in quality control and teacher training. Leaving things as they are is no longer tenable and the future of the great majority of Zimbabwean children is at stake.

Eddie Cross
Harare, 15th February 2016