The Crisis In Education

Education is in many ways the very foundation of the world economic system today. More than ever, the workplace is dominated by knowledge based industries. The largest companies in the world are no longer the famous engines of growth in the past like steel, automobiles and general manufacturing. Today it is intellectual property that holds the key to prosperity and in no other sector is this more evident than in education.

Those countries which have an excellent education system are at the cutting edge of this revolution and the competition for the brightest and the best is fierce and global. My eldest grandchild is now 18 and she will graduate from her school with straight A’s in all subjects in internationally set examinations that will qualify her access to the best Universities in the World. Already we can see the competition for her presence from many countries.

The specter in the past two months of students in South African Universities destroying the institutions that will give them access to that new world and trying to stop students who want to write their exams, is a real tragedy. They are campaigning for free universal higher education – something that exists in very few countries. Education does not come cheap or easy; otherwise everyone would have access and be eligible to join the struggle for excellence.

In Zimbabwe we have a multi tiered system of education. At its pinnacle are a small number (less than 100) private schools that offer a world class education and excellent facilities that offer everything a smart student could want. It does not come easy or cheap and one of the top schools here has an annual budget of $60 million. Then we have a tier of excellent State controlled schools that are strongly supported by former students and parents. These offer a high quality of education and good, if perhaps run down facilities and are not that expensive, although beyond the budget of most.

A third tier is occupied by faith based schools – all excellent and low cost but dependent on some support from Church institutions and parents. The Catholics take the lead in this activity but all faith based organisations have schools and even a few Universities.

The last tier comprises the many thousands of State controlled schools fed by our majority poor communities. Most were built either before Independence in 1980 (about half) and the rest in the first heady days of Independence when we thought our bucket would always be full!

Since then, despite migration and declining life expectancies, the number of school going children has doubled and the school infrastructure is now totally inadequate. Recently this overcrowding and congestion has been massively exacerbated by the decision to force primary schools to take on preschool children for so called “Early Childhood Development”. This has brought perhaps another 600 000 children into schools that were already struggling with high class numbers and a shortage of staff and everything else.

Last Monday and Tuesday I toured the primary schools in my District, meeting Heads and the Chairpersons of the School Boards. I visited classes and saw ECD classes of 120 children per classroom – impossible numbers, the children sitting on the floor and jammed together. Average class numbers are over 50 per teacher in many schools. Teachers are poorly paid, and with little motivation to do more than supervise the children under their care for the day.

Perhaps a third of all children come to school without breakfast – so the Minister has again “instructed” schools to feed the children with a hot meal once a day. This is an impossible task in current circumstances. The feeling among staff and parents is one of despair and despondency. What might be possible would be to give each child a high protein drink once a day – when I was at school we were given a 300 ml pack of whole milk to drink and it made a difference to many.

I my view the one global indictor that matters is an assessment of just what happens when a 5 year old girl child starts school in a rural district anywhere in the world. Does she have to walk more than 5 kilometers to her new school, does it have a roof and walls, electricity, a telephone line or connectivity, a desk and a chair for her, decent toilets and clean water? Is her teacher properly trained, adequately remunerated and accepted as a “change maker” in this community? Is she supervised and motivated and does the girl student have access to a computer and the internet? If the answer is no, then that society, simply cannot expect either to compete globally or to offer that girl child an escape from poverty and a open door to opportunity.

In many societies it is even worse than that because the girl child faces many challenges that the boy child does not. Her parents may not see her education as a family priority, as she grows, if she has no alternative opportunities she might well become locked into a culture that tells her she is a minor all her life, that she has no choices of her own – her husband is chosen for her, she has little control over her own body and may in fact face slavery in one of the many forms that now prevail in the shadows of our Cities.

Zimbabwe has 4,2 million young people of school going age. Our State budget is perhaps $1,2 billion for the system that is charged with their education. That is just $24 a month or $1 a day for every working day for each student. But that tiny sum represents 35 per cent of total State resources, a much higher percentage than almost all other countries spend on education. So when you boil it down to the absolute basics, it is all about money.

Our Diaspora does its part in that we estimate that they put another $1,2 billion into our school system last year – about 40 per cent of all remittances. Even so that just doubles what we are able to spend on schooling. Perhaps our parents kick in another $500 million a year in all different forms. It still leaves a wide gap in funding that can only be covered by the generosity of others. If our little 5 year old girl is able to claw her way up through the system and finally emerges from high school with decent grades that enable her to gain entry to University – even once there she will face challenges that might well demand that she turn to sex work to cover her essential needs, even for the most basic things such as food and shelter.

Basic education is today accepted as a right and the international community has adopted goals that include making sure that my girl child has the opportunities that her country may not be able to provide for her. But in reality I see little signs of those commitments being translated into tangible policies and giving that might make that promise a reality. My challenge to everyone out there is to step up to the line and make a difference. Adopt a school and let’s build the basic facilities needed to provide every child a place with a desk and a chair. Adopt a girl child and make it possible for her to go to school until she matures. My sons Church has a programme that supervises just such a programme for hundreds of children in remote areas of the country.

I was born into a poor family – my mother was for many years the only bread winner with 4 children. I got a decent education because I was white, when I went to College I got a bursary from a farmers Association and every month my mother sent me $50 to help – at great sacrifice. I was the first in my family to get a degree and rise to the top in my vocation. I know that education is the key to the future, for all of us, everywhere. Help us make it happen and help us create a world in which that girl child will be able to break the constraints that will otherwise keep her in poverty all her life.

Eddie Cross
Johannesburg, October 21st 2016