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Poor families lose out in education

Battling a skyrocketed inflation rate, the fall-out from restrictive economic reforms, and the effects of a drought, Zimbabwean parents are finding it more and more difficult to send their children to school, as prices for uniforms and other materials fall outside of their grasp.
Rodrick Mukumbira

It’s 4:00pm. A steady stream of chattering secondary school students, on their way home, passes Kundai Makumbe as he tends his street corner market stall.

At 15 years of age, Makumbe should be one of those students attending the high-density suburban government school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Instead of sitting in the classroom with his former classmates, however, he now sells an assortment of sweets to them, having had to drop out of Form Two two years ago following his father’s retrenchment.

"The next thing my father did after losing his job was to announce that I was old enough to take care of myself," explains Makumbe. "And without any basic skills this became the only profession for me. At least I can count the change."

Makumbe is just one of thousand of students who have fallen victim to a government that has weaned itself from the provision of education due to an ailing economy.

With lack of investor confidence after the March presidential poll, which analysts say was stolen by 79-year-old Robert Mugabe who has been in power since 1980, and a ravaging drought, more and more children are likely to drop out of school as bread winners find themselves jobless.

Once acclaimed by the international community for providing the best public education system in southern Africa, Zimbabwe now finds itself hard pressed to match world standards.

Zimbabwe has an estimated population of 13 million, of which 55 per cent is within school-going age. But ever since the introduction of economic reforms in 1991, Zimbabwean families are finding it hard to provide their children with basic education. With the country’s inflation rate hovering at 116 per cent, the cost of education, like any other basic commodity, has not escaped the effects of poor fiscal policies.

When President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government assumed office at independence from Britain in 1980, on its list of priorities was making education accessible for all.

In a move welcomed by local and international observers, it made primary education free, with secondary level fees and levies being subsidised, as it attempted to give everyone who had been affected by the 13-year-guerrilla war a chance to get an education.

Achievements of this period in this sector are always fresh on the lips of ZANU-PF officials. When addressing most campaign rallies leading up to the March poll, President Mugabe always highlighted the successes of his government in the education sector. According to him, the government inherited 424 primary schools and 121 secondary schools with only 19 that could offer advanced level studies.

By 1990, he would say, Zimbabwe had 2,751 primary schools and 4,200 secondary schools, with 170 offering advanced level education. Also, UNICEF reports that literacy levels increased from 30 to 95 per cent during that period.

For a country that has one of the best adult literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa, in its State of the World's Children 2002 report UNICEF says 39 per cent of boys and 45 per cent of girls of secondary school-going age are out of school, 30 percent of them having dropped out after Grade Seven.

The honeymoon period is now over, as Zimbabweans must fork out more to afford basic education for their children. While primary education is cheap, higher levels demand thousands of dollars every term.

In primary schools, students pay approximately Z$150 (US$3) per term. But the figure is not inclusive of stationary and school uniforms. For secondary schools the fees varies between government and private owned. The tuition fees of Z$1,300 (US$23) may be similar in both cases, with differences emerging in levies.

Levies in government and private schools currently hover between Z$8,000 (US$150) to Z$ 40,000 (US$ 800). An average factory worker earns a minimum wage Z$4000 or US$77. But this would not be enough to sustain the family and pay rent. Most families remain in debt after paying fees and levies every term.

During the pre-reform period, most education institutions did not include levies with their tuition fees, as these were heavily subsidised by the government. With the coming of reforms, the government was forced to remove these subsidises, resulting in the cost of education going up.

Although it is now three years after economic reforms were abandoned for an unclear policy, ZANU-PF still blames them for having left the country’s economy in disarray. Many companies have closed down since the economic reforms and more are still closing as international investors abandon the country while the government pursues a controversial land resettlement programme that includes forcibly taking land from white farmers for distribution to blacks.

Writing in his book State, Ideology and Education 2001, educationist Rungano Zvodgo attributes all the problems in the education sector to these economic reforms. "New financial demands are being put on parents in the quest to reduce government spending on education and the economically weaker sections of society are being disadvantaged in terms of opportunities and the ability to remain in the system," writes Zvodgo.

He adds that the economically well off do not only find easier access to education, they also gain control of social, political, and economic power.

Bulawayo-based social commentator, Arnold Payne, says the problems in the education sector intensified in 2000 when the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture announced that public school fees had to be paid at schools to cut down on bureaucracy. Before that, schools had to wait for the money to be returned after being deposited with the treasury.

Although the ministry had said that an equalisation grant was to be provided to schools, headmasters, faced with the task of formulating their own budgets, were forced to increase fees and levies to cope with the financial demands of running the institutions.

"A head master now owned the school and could do what ever he wanted with it," says Payne, adding that these fees have been rising at 109 per cent every year.

Figures indicating the number of secondary school dropouts are not available nationally, but reports from independent institutions are alarming. For instance, Misheck Chirimo, a headmaster of Nketa Secondary School in Bulawayo, says that over 66 students from a total enrolment of 1,400 have dropped out of school, a figure he attributes to a closure of factories and companies due to uncertainty after the March elections.

"More will follow suit as the term progresses," he says, referring to the fact that schools just opened on May 2 for the second term after a 30-day holiday. "Right now the figure is distorted as the term is at the beginning."

Besides paying school fees, parents have to fork out more towards school uniforms. While the government has been successful in controlling the prices of other basic commodities, especially foodstuffs, it has not been successful with the price of school uniforms.

The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe says the price of uniforms has increased by over 200 per cent in the last two years. A complete secondary school uniform for a student from an average family would cost close to Z$12,000 (US$218). But is a private school the type of a uniform varies according to seasons resulting in parents paying out more.

This term, Tabitha Murenga was transferred from a missionary boarding secondary school. "My parents failed to raise the $30,000 (US$545) fee for the second term," she says. She is, however, content that the type of examination written all over Zimbabwe is the same.

Economically disadvantaged parents have pointed out the cost of secondary education is threatening efforts to invest in their children’s future. "Continuous raising of school fees and levies is a polite way of saying children of the poor people should not go to school," says Tabitha’s father, Diniwe.

It’s not only the problem of school fees that is affecting the delivery of education in Zimbabwe. Some secondary school dropouts have gone as far as Ordinary Level but did not write the final exam after failing to raise the examination fees.

In April, a few days before schools opened for the winter term, the government placed a blanket freeze on increases in fees and levies. Aeneas Chigwedere, the Education, Sport and Culture Minister, announced that authorities of institutions that impose increases without the authorisation of his ministry would be prosecuted.

"From a business perspective," laments Fidget Muregi, the director of a reputable private school in the country, "there are high interest rates, inflation is going up, and the running costs of these institutions are increasing. Teachers want good salaries and we also want to retain good revenue."

While arguing that he is in the education business to make money, Muregi admits that the real disposable income of consumers has been grossly eroded over the years and that people no longer have confidence in what is going to happen tomorrow.

From an enrolment of 290 Advance Level students in January 2001 at Muregi’s school, only 215 eventually wrote the final examination. "In short parents are finding it hard to pay," he says.

Programmes such as the Social Dimension Fund and the Better Education Assistance Module put in place by the government to help poor families pay fees and levies have not been effective. Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) says high-ranking government officials are looting the programmes, while the government argues that these programmes are failing to cope as the number of people seeking assistance keeps swelling because of retrenchment and HIV/AIDS.

But there is always a silver lining. Realising that there is money to be made out of the education sector, some unregistered backyard schools are mushrooming. Owners of these schools charge less in tuition but employ unqualified teaching staff and pay them low salaries that ultimately degrade the delivery of quality education.

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