BY FAY KING CHUNG Very recently Zimbabwe had a marvellous parliamentary and ministerial statement that the government had introduced an amendment to the Education Act which would extend free education not only to primary, but also to secondary schooling, as well as introduce readily available supplementary secondary courses for adults.
At the same time we have had endless protests and demonstrations from teachers and other educational personnel that they cannot survive under their cripplingly low salaries: they were not able to feed themselves, transport themselves to work, or pay for their own children to go to school.
Can the government afford the ideology and policies it is openly promoting? Or are these empty promises that will be broken very soon?
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of school children were missing days of schooling as teachers were illegally demanding that they pay US$1 a day to be taught: those who refuse or who cannot afford it were not allowed into lessons.
Government has condemned such teachers as “criminals”, asserting that parents were already paying school fees and the teachers were already being paid by the government.
Nevertheless teacher unrest has continued unabated, placing millions of children into a difficult situation where they are not enjoying the education they need and deserve.
Zimbabwe’s Per Capita GDP is variously claimed to be between US$1 049 and US$2 500 a year by various expert organizations, including the World Bank and the Zimbabwe government.
At the same time we are told by the government itself that 70% of the population suffer from some form of poverty, with 62% actually facing shortages of basic foods and dependent on food aid.
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Yet we see parents, children and communities determined all the time to provide education for their young.
It is also true that government will find it difficult, but not impossible to expand its already existing taxation system, which is highly dependent on the very small formal economy employing less than a million workers out of a population of seven to eight million adults.
However it is possible to place a larger percentage of US dollars into civil service salaries.
Presently Finance minister Mthuli Ncube boasts that he is saving millions of dollars a month in civil service salaries: this so-called “saving” should be avoided, and civil servants should just be paid more.
Not necessarily the US$540 a month that they are agitating for, but at least by adjusting their salaries to match the US$185 “cushioning allowance” that they presently receive.
This will certainly make a great difference to their practical expenditure.
There is also a similar sized population of young people desperate for education or employment.
Certainly some expansion of state expenditure is essential as Zimbabwe is spending a much lower percentage of its GDP on state investment than internationally recommended.
Nevertheless, innovative and creative ways of finding additional funds for education and for development is required.
One obvious way is to utilise what parents and private companies have done by imposing feasible and affordable fees so that the hundreds of thousands of children presently prevented from attending school can do so.
Thousands of illegal classes and schools have been established. What can parents and society afford?
Why should everyone expect government to provide everything “free of charge”?
The free primary and secondary education policy is definitely popular: everyone loves it. But it is not being implemented.
During the “lock down” probably only 30% of children could afford to utilize the internet schooling that was provided so well, but this was only available to wealthier urban based families.
Today tens of thousands of families and their children cannot afford essential textbooks because they are too expensive: schools depend on generous donors to provide such textbooks, but they are too expensive to replace.
There are a number of obvious solutions.
One is that the number of teachers has increased from a few thousands to up to 150 000 since Independence.
Before independence only standard qualified teachers, mainly Europeans, were paid an average of US$500 a month, compared to African teachers who were paid a quarter as much.
Now that nearly all teachers are qualified the standard payment is naturally demanded.
The economy is created by dedication and labour.
In the first 20 years of independence, parents and communities built their own primary and secondary schools, with the government providing one third of the funding through building grants for doors, windows, cement and roofing, and parents, communities, war veterans and students building bricks, transporting sand and water, and doing actual construction.
The role of the government, of local authorities, the private sectors, parents, communities and teachers all played a part in providing education for all.
Government still pays the teachers, but it now fails to support community school construction and purchase of textbooks.
It has failed to support national textbook publishers, instead seeking the most expensive American textbook publisher.
The partnership that brought such tremendous success, making Zimbabwe the number one country in education in Africa in the 1980s, has been seriously undermined by government wanting to do everything on its own.
This centralisation of power is of course good for elections, but disastrous for education as well as for the economy.
Let us share responsibilities, and enable wealth creation through education, training and institution building to start again.
The state is absolutely essential. So are parents and communities. So is the private sector.
For the government it is essential to re-establish building and administration grants to schools, communities and responsible authorities. This used to comprise about 5% of the education budget and is still very affordable.
De-link politics from professionalism: don’t deprive people of their essential rights to education and training by giving these only for political support.
Parents can do more for the education of their children, as they did in the first 20 years of Independence.
But government must make it both possible and affordable. If a fee of US$10 was made for a teacher’s salary and US$6 for textbooks in addition to present fees, given a class of 35 pupils paying US$16 a month, this will augment the US$175 a month “cushioning allowance” that a teacher gets today.
This amount would be paid to the responsible authority for salary and textbook supplements.
Finally it is essential that government stops centralising the employment of teachers: this is the way they ensure that their children are employed, but it is not necessarily good for the school and the community, especially for the majority who live in the rural areas.
The ministry should now return to the situation in the 1980s and 1990s by giving some salary grants to schools and responsible authorities, especially for new teachers who should predominantly be from the community itself.
Teachers colleges should train enough teachers and teacher assistants for all schools, and ensure that they come from the various districts where they will serve.
The ministry should move towards ensuring that supervisors and schools heads are not only fully qualified, but have had the right experience in the different types of schools in the country.
Such a move will decentralise not only employment but also boost economic growth all over the country.
Communities everywhere will be able to develop themselves.
- Chung was a secondary school teacher in the townships; lecturer in polytechnics and universities; teacher trainer in the liberation struggle; civil servant and UN civil servant and Primary and Secondary Education minister.
- *These weekly articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadege, independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe. Email- [email protected] and Mobile no. +263 772 382 852