Revelations that as many as one million children are in need of financial support to access basic education in the country paint a grim picture of how education has become a tradable commodity out of reach of many in need.
REPORT BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI SENIOR FEATURES WRITER
At independence in 1980, the new government implemented an ambitious programme in which every child in the country had free access to primary education. The move meant to repair the extensive damage done by the past colonial regimes and it saw the country ranked high on Africa’s education list.
But over the years, rising challenges associated with the macro-economic meltdown which undermined social services provision has seen programmes such as the Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam) rendered obsolete.
BEAM is a national programme implemented in the country’s 61 districts, covering urban and rural areas, to provide educational assistance to orphans and other vulnerable children aged between 6-19 years.
Education Minister David Coltart
Coltart said according to the Beam evaluation report, “there are approximately 1 million children currently in need of Beam support. There are an estimated 3,6 million school age children (primary and secondary) in Zimbabwe. The Beam evaluation estimates that approximately 27% of these children are on average orphans and vulnerable children who are too poor to be able to afford school fees and levies.”
When the 2012 school year started in January, many students failed to return to school because both public and private institutions had raised their fees by an average of 40%.
Observers have argued that the country’s education sector was now too elitist and commercial as a result of increased privatisation and lack of funding as well as the lack of political will to increase accessibility for marginalised groups.
Parents who spoke to NewsDay in a random snap survey expressed disquiet on how education, classified under the Education Act and the UN Convention on Children’s Rights as a human right, has however, become a preserve of the rich.
Lazarus Mudhokwani, a parent from Dzivarasekwa, said it was unfortunate that while there were millions of children out of school due to no fault of their own, government was not capacitated to create effective social safety nets to ensure they get education regardless of their circumstances.
“As a parent, I feel for these children. It’s almost like the criminalisation of orphans. What this means is that once a child loses their parents, successful completion of their education is not guaranteed,” he said.
The figures published in the media about children out of school, he said, were scary. He said such a situation was ripe for the creation of a generation of uneducated Zimbabwean children.
“Obviously, this will be a dent on our otherwise illustrious education record as a nation,” he noted. “What that implies is that we need to find way of ensuring we continue that legacy.”
There has been widespread condemnation of the implementation of Beam, whose administration is shared between the education ministry and that of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.
Coltart said the statistics, culled from a Beam evaluation report, showed there were gaps and weaknesses in the programme, indicating the need for refinement of the selection process.
“The Beam evaluation was long overdue. Gaps and weaknesses identified should form the basis for continuous training of heads of schools and the community selection committees (CSC) in Beam processes and procedures,” he said.
Speaking at the launch of the Beam Evaluation in Harare recently, Coltart said the evaluation revealed that approximately 27% of these children were either orphans or vulnerable therefore could not afford school fees.
“Those children identified in the Beam and Zela (Zimbabwe Early Learning Assessment) report are registered and in school. The number of out-of-school children not included in these assessments is not known,” Coltart said.
Another parent, Sarudzayi Matumba, said the situation of orphans was dire. She, however, appreciated that government was pressed against the militating backdrop and there was need for stakeholders working towards children’s welfare to pull together.
“Obviously education has become expensive. Some parents are actually struggling to raise money for their children’s fees, and what this means is the issue of orphans and vulnerable children needs to be addressed,” she said.
Oswald Madziva, the Education Coalition of Zimbabwe board chairperson, said it was tragic that although education was a right in the country, it was however not free.
“Education is said to be a right, but is neither compulsory nor free. This is the problem we face in this nation. As long as government does not play its role of providing education, then the burden will be shifted to parents,” he said.
Most parents were forced to make monumental sacrifices to provide education for their children because in most cases, school fees and other such educational requirements gobbled far much more than their salaries.
Madziva said government had to be responsible enough to ensure that every child’s right to education was not violated regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. According to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child was entitled to basic education.
“The fact that there may be need for other partners to work with government in ensuring that all children access their right to education does not mean government should abrogate its responsibility,” he said.
Coltart concurred, observing the importance of effectively playing its role in ensuring access to primary education for all and to lift the burden off the over-stretched Beam.
“Ultimately, Government must move towards honouring its obligation to make primary education compulsory and free (for those who cannot afford to pay), which in turn will remove some of the necessity for Beam,” he said.
Districts including Tsholotsho, Bubi and Gwanda had percentages of out of school children as high as 24%. The Beam evaluation report indicates that 784 000 (28%) of primary school students are in need of support but only 456 400 (16,3%) had accessed it.
For secondary schools, 192 000 (24%) of 800 000 students required Beam support but only 140 000 (17,5%) received it. Of the 976 000 primary and secondary school students identified as needing Beam support, 380 000 were not receiving anything.
“From this, one can conclude that we have a very grave situation on our hands,” Coltart said. “Given an approximate 3% enrollment increase, an estimated $53 million is required to cover the full annual Beam requirement in 2013.
“This will not cover the ‘out-of-school’ children, the number of which are still not known, but could be as high as another 1 million children.”