BY VANESSA GONYE
THE year 2020 has been described as the worst year for the education sector in Zimbabwe in six decades. Learning time was heavily curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the strike by teachers who demanded a living wage of US$520 or equivalent in local currency. Teachers refused to go back to work until government agreed to their salary demands. They have been on industrial action since September 2020. At the same time, government opened schools despite counsel that it must not do so because of the coronavirus. Some schools were affected by the pandemic, resulting in schoolchildren writing examinations in isolation. Education sector analysts commented on the 2020 academic year.
David Coltart, the former Primary and Secondary Education minister
2020 has been the worst year for the education year in probably 60 years. It has been worse than 2008 when schools were closed and there were only about 27 days of teaching that whole year. The harsh reality is that a vast majority of students have been out of school. Most schools have not had online learning. If government does not develop specific programmes to fill those gaps those children will remain disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.
The teachers‘ strike, I am afraid, is likely to continue. It has gone beyond a strike. Teachers cannot report for work given the wages they are being paid. They, quite frankly, can make more money by being vendors or waiters in South Africa or elsewhere. This is an absolute tragedy for our education system. When the Finance minister talks about having a budgetary surplus, he is being disingenuous because that surplus has only been achieved through the decimation of the education sector. Teachers cannot come out on the equivalent of US$40 or US$50 per month. These are professional people and most of them are bread winners. We are not just talking about a strike, we are talking about the destruction of the teaching profession as we note in Zimbabwe. Government seems to be blind to the gravity of the situation. As bad as 2020 has been, if this is not addressed in 2021, our children will go to school and find that there are minimal teachers there.
In reality teachers have been placed in a predicament, they can hardly afford even to get to school and that needs to be addressed. This is a profound problem that needs a change in our budgetary policies, a mind shift totally in government.
Turning to COVID-19, while I supported the closure of schools in the beginning, I think government has used a very blunt instrument to show no finesse in dealing with this. The reality is that most children are not adversely affected by COVID-19, and a majority of our teachers are not in the high risk groups. The majority of teachers could have come back and could have gone back to school.
The crisis in education, while it has been exacerbated by COVID-19, has become deep rooted. Even if the pandemic was to go away, the principal problems are teacher conditions. I am not just talking about the salaries, I am talking about the way they are viewed and treated by government. COVID-19 is no longer the major problem we face in the education sector. The major problem is how we get the teachers back into classes.
Learning time in 2020 has been an absolute disaster. There are hundreds of thousands of students on the streets who have not had time in class. The harsh reality is that the majority of children have lost a year of education, we literally have to reset. It seems to me government is completely blind to the extent of this problem. We cannot even reset in the coming weeks because there seems to be no plan to address the legitimate grievances of the teaching profession prior to the commencement of 2021.
Turning to exams, it seems that the least affected children are those who were in Form Four or Upper Six although clearly their education has been undermined, it has been completely destroyed in the last two years. There is no doubt that pass rates will be down but at least they may be able to rewrite certain exams and get to tertiary education.
If we do not address this fundamental problem of the profession, then going forward we are going to see the results deteriorate progressively because of major gaps in children’s education and the policies of government in the preceding years. I do not see government expressing concern about this. I do not see this reflected in the budget although in theory education has got a large allocation.
Obert Masaraure, leader of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe
The job action, which was staged from September 28, 2020, was a first in a very long time and it went a long way to revive the fighting spirit among the teachers. The sell-out stance of yellow unions costed us but a lot of positives were recorded. An enduring unity was also nurtured among the progressive teacher unions.
COVID-19 exposed our structural inadequacies as a people. We were saved from a catastrophe by some factors still to be fully comprehended. The ineptness and unethical conduct of our leaders was exposed as the leadership failed to lead us out of the crisis but instead looted the little resources that were available for handling the pandemic. COVID-19 was used as an excuse to escalate State repression and withdraw fundamental rights and freedoms from the people.
95% of learners lost eight months of learning and were later forced to sit for public examinations that they never prepared for. The examinations were highly chaotic, both the learners and the examination board were unprepared for the exams. Learners were forced into the examination rooms without completing designated learning programmes. The shambolic examinations were also undertaken in schools which were not safe from COVID-19. Other learners failed to access examination centres because of flash flooding in the absence of bridges and related infrastructure. The examinations should be rewritten in 2021.
Takavafira Zhou, Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president (PTUZ)
2020 saw the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as government was against the closure of schools in March 2020, teachers forced the closure of schools on March 24 2020. It is sad that since then until September the government did not adequately prepare for procurement and placing in schools of COVID-19 abatement equipment. Teachers’ professional advice was discarded. As such, lack of testing, personal protective equipment (PPEs) and the absence of social distancing, bloated classes, overcrowding in hostels, among many other factors, resulted in a quantum leap of COVID-19 cases with government virtually adopting fire fighting methods of closing most affected schools. COVID-19 remains a challenge in schools next year and there is need for testing of teachers, pupils and ancillary staff before opening next year.
Students did not have adequate learning time more-so because of restrictions in ICT in our pedagogy in schools. More than 80% of the country had no access to radio and television frequency thereby rendering useless attempts to introduce radio and television lessons. Students were not adequately prepared for exams and as PTUZ we had preferred that exams for 2020 be postponed to first term 2021.
Exams were shambolically managed with massive leakages, mixing of exam papers, failure to supply some centres with rightful papers by Zimsec, wrong subject entries for students and provision of different times for writing exams on candidates’ entries and timetables. Consequently several students failed to write examinations, or were entered for wrong exams, with some writing exams until past midnight after spending the day waiting to get exam papers from schools that had written during the day.
The year 2020 was a wasted year in terms of proper management of the education system and it witnessed cold and calculated educational vandalism. Sadly, the vandals are in government. Our constructive criticism that nourishes leadership is that government must always listen to professional advice proffered by teacher unions in order to entrench a veritable education system that resonates with Agenda 2030.
With the 2021 education budget that is 12,8% of the total budget against the Dakar framework of a developmental education budget pegged above 22% of a nation’s budget, the challenges in the education system would continue unabated in 2021.