Getting our priorities right on education

HARARE - It is now quite clear that those countries that give close attention to the education of their people are those that do best in the global markets of the world and succeed in raising the standard of living of their people in the process. 

I ask myself how it was that before independence we did so well in education?

It was not because the Rhodesian government put a very high proportion of State expenditure into the State administered school system, they were very reluctant to put money into education for the black population.

I went through the State school system in those days and now recognise that we had excellent teachers who taught us at a very high level. 

We came out of school with qualifications that allowed us entry to the best universities in the world and many of those that I grew up with have done exceptionally well.

 

Our school buildings were modern and we had good facilities and sport and other recreational facilities were excellent. 

It was also basically free.

When the Rhodesian government finally recognised that black children should also get a decent education, they built a small system which took in the elite and made sure that the standards were on a par with the system for white students. 

The two systems only catered for 300 000 students — about 10 percent of all those who needed an education, but the standard was very high and the cost to parents low. 

There were very few private schools.

But for the black student there was another system — the mission or church schools. 

Up to independence over 90 percent of all education services were provided by the church. 

These attracted men and women from all over the world, many of exceptional talent and commitment because of their faith. 

It was these exceptional individuals who set the bar in the non-State system that served the great majority of black students. It was no accident that all the exceptional early leaders like Sithole, Herbert Chitepo and Robert Mugabe, came out of the church system.

So almost by accident, Zimbabwe out of the shadow of racial discrimination, sanctions and war, produced a generation of educated men and women who today are driving the economy of South Africa and many thousands of firms across the world. 

Our Diaspora is in demand everywhere. 

Had we retained that generation within our borders and put them to work here at home, we would be a very different country today. 

The Mugabe regime drove them out in their millions and the rest of the world was the winner.

So what is the state of our education system today? 

We have over 95 percent of all children of school going age in school at the primary Level. 

Half in the secondary Level and about 20 percent at tertiary institutions of learning. 

Overall we have nearly four million students at school and college. 

Our education budget is the largest in the National Budget and is about 25 percent of all expenditure and reaches over $1,4 billion. 

The problem is that if you divide that sum by 4 million students you come up with a figure of $350 a year. 

It is just not possible to deliver a decent education to anyone for that sort of expenditure.

So the problem is basically one of money. I have often wondered why the global goals for education get so little attention — in the health sector, the international community doubles our budget allocation. 

In education the contribution is negligible. 

The other harsh reality is that when we cripple our economy with stupid policies, the first to be affected are our young people — especially girls. In 2008 at the height of our economic collapse, three quarters of all girls were taken out of school as parents struggled to meet school fees.

So I am afraid I think that our State school system with some 3,2 million students is in a pretty terrible condition. 

Teachers are very poorly paid, school heads even worse and all Parents will know what I mean when I say that a school is only as good as the person at the top. 

In terms of national development and the provision of education, the Heads of Schools rank number one in my book. Our salary system does not reflect that.

What we do have is a strong system of private schools — the recognised and registered ones have about 80 000 students attending all at fees running from $500 to $1500 a month — far in excess of the $20 a month we spend on a government primary school child. 

In fact, over 90 percent of the State budget goes to pay the 140 000 teachers in the system. 

Everything else has to come from Parents. Over 40 per cent of all State schools do not even have electricity.

We have to now admit that in trying to educate all our children we have over extended ourselves. But if the future depends on education and if the future of every girl child depends on whether or not we can give them an education, then we have no choice but to ask how we can pay for a decent education?

My list of priorities is quite simple – first we need more schools, another 2 000 in fact. 

Then we need more classrooms — another 16 000. That will cost a billion dollars at today’s costs. 

I think we have to go to the international community for this sort of money and then give School Development Committees the opportunity to borrow money at low interest rates for school infrastructure. 

I have been in classrooms where there were so many kids that there was no room for furniture. 

We have thousands of children learning under trees, classrooms with no doors, no windows no blackboards.

Then we have to make sure all schools have electricity – even if it solar, and also access to the internet. 

We need to be able to communicate with all schools, send them examinations for printing at the school. 

We need to establish at least one computer centre at all schools so that kids can do their homework and scan the internet for information. 

Eventually every teacher must be connected and as soon as its possible, every child should get at least a tablet. India is doing just that – why can’t we? 

My concern is not the student attending St John’s in Harare but the girl child who walks 10 kilometres from her village to the local school and who has to fetch water in the afternoon.

We have to find more money — one third of all children in State schools cannot pay school fees. It does not matter how much we try to cajole the grandmother or the parent, they just do not have the money.  So we need to pick up the tab. 

My own view is that we can deliver a decent primary school standard of education with about $50 a month per child. 

The State provides $20 so the balance must come from the family or a fund like BEAM. 

There is virtually no money in the Fund so this has to be found from other sources. 

My challenge to the Global Community is this — if you want to liberate millions of children in the poor countries of the world, make it possible for them to go to school, especially girls.

If we take our own need’s we need BEAM to have funding available for about 1 million students at $30 a month — $360 million a year. 

Is that too tough a target? 

We have the diaspora and already I know that relatives in the Diaspora give over US$1,2 billion a year to education. 

Without this our crisis would be very much greater. 

Parents have to also accept that those who can pay fees must continue to do so. Zimbabweans have always been exceptional in this respect.

Just one other thought – thank you to all those teachers, senior teachers and school heads who stay at their posts and do everything they can to make the system work. You are all hero’s in my book.

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