London Letter: High literacy rate belies declining quality of education

In the past fortnight British parents and pupils have been celebrating yet another fruitful year of record-breaking passes in the GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’-level examinations.

Overall, seven out of every 10 GCSE entries were awarded at least a C grade. It is the 23rd year in a row that pass rates have been rising in the UK. The pass rate for A-levels rose for the 28th year in a row, with 97.6 per cent of entries gaining an E or above.

I couldn’t help making comparisons with the state of my own country’s education sector, which is largely modelled on Britain’s.

A recent conference convened in London by the Link Community Development and the Commonwealth Consortium on Education afforded the Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture Senator David Coltart the chance to brief international development partners on the state of Zimbabwe’s education sector.

Coincidentally, shortly before the conference the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had published a report putting Zimbabwe at the apex of Africa’s literacy tables.

We had leapfrogged Tunisia to land at a whopping 92 per cent literacy rate. Many Zimbabweans at home and abroad felt a deep sense of pride at this new achievement. It confirmed our long-held pride and self-confidence as the continent’s most educated society.

However, upon closer inspection there appears to be quite a few issues to worry about concerning the state of our education sector. For a start, the UNDP’s literacy tables are determined by considering school enrolment and attendance figures – they do not interrogate the quality of the education that pupils receive, including such key aspects as the school curriculum.

Senator Coltart and his Minitry officials came armed with a detailed assessment report of Zimbabwe’s education sector and a draft interim strategy that seeks to respond to and resolve identified challenges.

To put this discussion in context, I should state that Zimbabwe’s education sector continues to tower head and shoulders above most countries in Africa. But outside of that broad comparative context, there is scope to explore our current situation against our own previous standards and in relation to our future projections.

As things stand, our education sector faces a myriad challenges that demand urgent solutions if Zimbabwe is to avoid spawning a generation of ill-equipped and poorly educated young people.

For starters, 10 to 15 per cent of children are not in school at all. According to UNICEF, Grade 7 examination pass rates declined from 53 per cent in 1999 to 33 per cent in 2007. Figures from 2009 showed that almost 50 per cent of Zimbabwe’s children graduating from primary school were not proceeding to secondary school.

Books and learning materials are in short supply and secondary schools in particular have been hit hard by the flight of teachers abroad, especially to neighbouring countries, leading to a severe shortage of teachers in key subjects such as maths, science and technical subjects.

More than one quarter of teaching posts are not filled by a qualified teacher. Moreover, there is a highly distorted distribution of qualified teachers, with some provinces having over 45 per cent of posts ‘vacant’. To cap it all off, the Ministry describes its curriculum as having ‘lost credibility’.

But it is the remuneration of teachers that poses the greatest challenge to the quality of education in Zimbabwe. Beginning teachers are paid a measly $176, with head teachers taking home $212. The physical infrastructure of schools, including water and sanitation provision, is in poor shape.

The Ministry’s top priority in the short term is to improve the status and morale of teachers, through raising their basic remuneration and improving housing and sanitation conditions for rural teachers.

The UNICEF-managed Education Transition Fund (ETF), through which donors are channelling funds for the provision of textbooks and basic learning facilities, is a useful interim measure. But it does not extend to the provision of recurrent expenditure, such as the improved salaries without which the professional status of teachers cannot be restored.

As Senator Coltart explained at the London conference, donors do not trust his government sufficiently to give it direct budgetary support. As long as the government is seen as corrupt and lacking transparency and accountability, there will not be any direct financial support from donors and other international partners.

This, of course, is only half of the real issue at hand.

The crux of the matter is that the inclusive government, with its enduring melodrama of conflict over unfulfilled promises, is seen internationally as a capricious creature whose character is defined largely by the previous order under ZANU PF. That order is discredited does not command confidence among donors and international lenders.

For Zimbabwe’s education sector to be fully restored and improved, therefore, the inclusive government would have to cut a clear trajectory towards unbridled governance reform in order to attract much needed international support.

Otherwise, the country will have to look to its own resources to plough into the education sector to ensure that Zimbabwe remains not only the most literate nation in Africa, but also one with the best quality education on the continent.


Brighton said…
Goop article man.