DESPITE the political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, UN research shows the country to be one of the most literate in Africa.
But teachers are paid half of what their counterparts in South Africa are. The government spends just R18 a child each month. School buildings are crumbling, yet the system continues to produce scientists, mathematicians and linguists accepted into universities in South Africa and all over the world.
In comparison, the South African Education Department spends R2 000 a month per child, according to departmental statistics. Teachers and schools are, in the main, well resourced, but the sector is dogged by controversy, inefficiency, watered-down standards and a woeful literacy rate as demonstrated by the Annual National Assessment tests last year.
Education analyst and development activist Graeme Bloch says despite the different histories of the two countries, which he says cannot be ignored, Zimbabwe could teach South Africa a lesson or two.
“They show you can still have a good education system and lousy politicians. They also prove that throwing money at the problem is not the answer. It’s about accountability.”
He said in Zimbabwe, children who failed, repeated the year and were not pushed to the next grade as they often were in South Africa.
“It’s not about getting a certificate, but understanding the importance of learning.”
Zimbabwe’s teachers have not played the blame game, he says.
“They haven’t used the lack of resources or their political situation as an excuse and that’s why they do so well. Zimbabwe (education) is a lot better than us.”
In an exclusive interview with The Mercury, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sport and Recreation, David Coltart, spelled out the challenges, the triumphs and the fundamental passion which has kept the candle of learning burning bright in the pariah state’s 8 500 schools.
“The education foundation in Zimbabwe is very strong,” he says. “The system has been in place for over 50 years. There is a passion for learning in this country, discipline in our classrooms and a respect by pupils for their teachers.”
Coltart admits the sector is in crisis. Buildings and infrastructure have crumbled and teachers are underpaid.
“My department has the biggest budget, but we still spend a pathetically small amount on education. We did not have a teachers’ strike last year, but our relationship with them is still tenuous. They are paid less than half of what teachers are paid in South Africa.”
He said the country had “lost” 30 000 teachers, mostly to South Africa, during the “dark” years from 2007 to 2009.
“We have managed to put 15 000 teachers back into the system.” He describes them as “underqualified”, resulting in “poor outcomes”.
“But our teachers are in the classrooms. They are still teaching. It is a tribute to them. It is because of that very fact we can get the education system back to what it was in 1999 in less than five years. To me it’s what’s happening in the classroom that matters; the physical elements we can fix later.”
When asked to compare the education outcomes and standards between South Africa and Zimbabwe, Coltart pulls no punches.
“In the 1950s the policies in the two countries were diametrically opposed. In the then Southern Rhodesia, Sir Garfield Todd and his wife, Grace – who is an unsung hero – developed an outstanding curriculum. At the same time the nationalists in South Africa were devising Bantu education. In Southern Rhodesia – and eventually spreading to the whole of what became Rhodesia – education was open to all people. If you were black and clever you could make it to the top just like anyone else. In South Africa they wanted to keep black people as labourers. Even at the height of the war in Zimbabwe, education was never disrupted.”
He alludes to despot President Robert Mugabe’s first 10 years of office as a time when the government poured money into the existing system.
“Successive governments – and even to this day – also allowed missionary schools to run with what they were doing.” But, the seasoned politician and lawyer says what saved schools in the country, which for the past 20 years has seen its economy collapse, were parents.
“In South Africa parents were deliberately kept out of schools. You have a lost generation. In Zimbabwe there is a deep-rooted love for learning and during the years of trauma and crisis it was parents who sustained our schools because of that love. They paid their school fees in fuel, cooking oil, cabbages and meat. Those outside the country donated money back into the schools to keep them going.”
It is this ethic his department is working hard to retain.
“All over the world the trend now is to allow more autonomy and less government interference in schools. The success, particularly in the US and the UK, in turning around failing schools by adopting this strategy, is remarkable.”
He refers to a recent trip to America and the UK which he says was “eye-opening”.
And while Coltart says he takes the recently concluded United Nations Development Programme research finding, that Zimbabwe is the most literate coountry in Africa, with a “pinch of salt”, he says as the country began to collapse, autonomy was passed to parents and teachers which resulted in continuous graduates of a high standard.
“The UNDP research was only conducted among schoolgoing children. Only one third of the children who enrol in our schools successfully graduate. That is an alarming statistic which we are working hard to turn around,” he says.
But that number is concomitant in South African schools as departmental statistics in 2011 reveal two thirds of those enrolled here also dropped out before Grade 12.
This year, for the first time in years, says Coltart, parents struggled to find places for their children in the country’s schools.
“They are coming back, in numbers, it’s wonderful.”
The country still adheres to the Cambridge qualification which is assessed outside the country, and Coltart says “we have never fudged the figures”.
“As I understand from my colleagues in South Africa, your government has watered down the pass rate, probably for political reasons, and played around with the curriculum. When I came into office four years ago, I told my department categorically, they must not drop the pass standards or fiddle with the curriculum.”
He says the political turmoil in the country, particularly during electioneering, has had a devastating effect on more than 3 million schoolgoing children.
“As a result we have this bubble coming through where we are seeing standards plummet. Our distinction rate at A and O levels has also declined.”
Coltart says the country has levels of assessment which include an exam at the end of Grade 7 when the children leave primary school.
“If we had fudged the Grade 7 results we wouldn’t have realised the major crisis we were facing. Those children were going through primary school when teachers had no textbooks.
“The literacy and numeracy levels at that level are now shocking. But we have implemented policies to bring the level up with extra teaching. We have come up with solutions which are already beginning to make a difference. But, it is like a tsunami; the earthquake happened way back and now it is wreaking havoc.”
But he says teachers and parents remain the saviours.
“Zimbabwe’s education system is still in crisis, our teaching profession is still in crisis, but our strength is that passion and deep-rooted love of learning. Because of that it is not going to take a huge effort to get us back to the standards of 1999.”
Coltart’s overriding goal for this year is to extend the curriculum and restore teaching as a profession.
“We will definitely still follow the Cambridge system, but we want to bring in (information and communication technologies), better sport facilities, civic, environmental and vocational curricula.”
He describes the system as overly academic.
“You know if you are a scientist, a mathematician or linguist in Zimbabwe you will get a great education, even today. But if you want to be a mechanic, a toolmaker or go into manufacturing there’s nothing. That’s not good for our economy.”
Similarly, says Coltart, the graduates have served mainly the export market.
“All our top pupils have gone into universities in South Africa or elsewhere in the world and very few come back. That is also not good for us.”
With a system that still allows corporal punishment, Coltart says discipline at schools is impeccable, but there are concerns over abuse.
“We need to refine the system where corporal punishment is only meted out when there are serious misdemeanours. We certainly don’t want to go to the other extreme. We have to keep that balance.”
And while he agrees billions of rand will be required to ultimately restore education facilities in Zimbabwe, Coltart says it will not be difficult to raise the funds.
“Spending less on defence, downsizing the government and strong measures against corruption must be implemented to allow for increased flows into treasury.”
But, he adds: “ Sadly there is just not the political will right now, so we will continue to muddle along. Hopefully the elections will not be too disruptive. From this month we start working on wide-ranging legislation which will consolidate and rationalise 30 years of ad hoc legislation.
We want to produce a legislation bible for schools which will give them more autonomy, less central control and focus on children’s rights to cut down on abuse. Children learn in our schools and we don’t want to change that.”