Our education system tends to reward high performers with those that are found wanting in other subjects deemed essential falling by the wayside in the well-established system that screens pupils and students through examinations at prescribed periods.
All subjects carry the same weight in theory right from primary level, but in practice English, Science and Mathematics appear to be key subjects that many pupils re-sit many times in the hope of getting a better life in future.
Pupils have to pass a minimum of five subjects at O-Level, including the three key subjects and even though some pupils do up to 10 subjects, the additional subjects might count for nothing in the absence of Mathematics, Science and English.
It is against this background that Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Dr Stan Mudenge (deceased) this week ordered institutions of higher learning to stop turning away students who do not have Mathematics at O-Level, but instead initiate internal remedial bridging programmes.
We believe this is an area that requires attention since our education system is churning out brilliant pupils and students who may be good in other areas, but poor in English and/or Mathematics. There are three options that should be explored as we try to get those that do not have all the required subjects to feel they have not been tossed overboard.
The pupils can ensure that they keep attempting a subject until they pass it at O-Level, or proceed as suggested by the minister and then have a bridging course to ensure they pass their mathematics or the third option of ensuring a separate route in terms of career for those that do not possess mathematics, so that the other subjects that take up so much space on the certificate also get due recognition.
For many years now, only the first option of repeating was open to many pupils to gain acceptance into college and many dreams lie shattered. We believe such discrimination, positively called screening, has smothered many students' self-esteem due to failure that has led many to believe they were actually failures in life.
We are not calling for discontinuation of this route, but would like to urge pupils to take these subjects seriously at O-Level as they have a serious impact on their career path. Also, teachers of these subjects should be able to teach in vernacular so that pupils grapple with concepts only rather than the language in which the subject is taught.
We believe the admission by the minister that most aspiring students did not pass maths is an acknowledgement of an inherent problem in our education system whereby our performance in Maths has been consistently below par.
The second option of colleges having bridging programmes for Mathematics is a good idea, but could be difficult to implement in the Zimbabwe context where there are many pupils with a full O-Level certificate roaming the streets. Does the college offer a place to someone without Mathematics ahead of one that has the subject and then start teaching them the subject, together with their intended course?
This is where the dilemma might arise though there is a general feeling that there is need for affirmative action especially for pupils from regions where materials for science subjects teaching are lacking.
The Minister said this had been done successfully elsewhere.
"A number of universities, including the Lupane State University in Matabeleland North have successfully conducted the remedial bridging programmes and 1 600 students, most of them girl children, had second chances to pursue their dreams," said Dr Mudenge.
Going forward, there could still be room for a third option that does not condemn high achievers in humanities, but rewards them equally as those with passes in science subjects. This would see artists having an opportunity of getting a college education without the burden of subjection.
When someone has to suspend and put aside all their subjects in pursuit of just one subject at O-Level, it makes that one subject more valuable than the others and raises questions over whether the five subjects are really necessary or just the three key ones would suffice.
What can never escape any policy maker's attention, however, is that our educational screening mechanisms need a review so that they are geared more towards rewarding and encouraging people in areas that they are good at instead of condemning and punishing those that do not fit the traditionally accepted route.