opinionBy Tabitha Mutenga
WHEN David Coltart was appointed Education, Sports, Arts and Culture Minister at the dawn of the inclusive government in 2009, a lot was expected from him.
Before his appointment, the education sector was in ruins. A number of schools had closed; teachers were on strike and infrastructure was in a state of disrepair.
The ship needed a crew of sober habits to manoeuvre the tidal waves that were threatening to sink what was once seen as one of Africa's success stories.
Immediately after independence in 1980, government had done commendably well. It had gone out of its way to make education accessible to all.
A policy of education for all was introduced and heavy investments made in infrastructural development. These efforts had been duly rewarded as Zimbabwe's education became the envy of all.
Literacy rates shot up to 96 percent, the highest on the continent. This saw Zimbabwe turning into an exporter of skills.
Thirty-two years down the line, the sector is in the doldrums. Not even the advent of the inclusive government has changed anything.
Results from this year's "O" Level examinations exposed the deep-rooted nature of the problems facing the country's education sector.
Out of the 172 689 candidates who registered for public examinations last year, only 31 767 candidates managed passes in at least five subjects or more.
The 'O' Level pass rate stood at 18,4 percent, a 1,1 percent drop from the 2011 statistics.
Previously, the pass rate had been as follows: 2003 (13 percent); 2004 (10, 2 percent); 2005 (12 percent); 2006 (14, 2 percent); 2007 (9,85 percent); 2008 (14,44 percent); 2009 (19,33 percent) and 2010 (16,5 percent).
Social commentator, Tawanda Zata, described the results as a disgrace.
He advocated "a systems approach" that looks at education as a system integrating learners, teachers and infrastructure.
"This will allow for the interrogation of the three elements of education and in this regard, an All Stakeholders' Conference should be the starting point to identify the structural challenges, weakness and recommendations for the education system," he said.
Zata said government should pay attention to rural development, increase funding for education, improve conditions of service for teachers, scrap hot-seating and create a conducive learning environment for all.
"The Nziramasanga Commission, which was set up to chart a new path for the sector, recommended the abolition of hot-seating. Regrettably, no action has been taken and even the former Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere, in his ill-fated tenure, failed to implement the recommendations," said Zata.
Coltart has repeatedly acknowledged that the country's education sector is in a crisis. The sector, according to Coltart, is still weighed down by challenges experienced in the last decade.
For example, the violence experienced in the 2008 elections brought about untold suffering to both teachers and students.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that the same pupils who sat for their grade seven exams in 2008 are the students who failed their 2012 'O' Levels.
Ironically, these were the same students who started their grade one at a time when the country slipped into an economic recession spawned by the controversial land reforms of 2000.
Over 20 000 teachers have deserted the sector for greener pastures in the past decade.
Even now, those that remained behind are still not happy with their salaries which are way below the poverty datum line.
"There are still some very troubling things out there such as the situation regarding teachers' salaries. It is still very fragile; teachers are still not being paid enough. Their conditions of service do not match their profession. The physical infrastructure at schools is in a disastrous state; they have not been maintained for two decades and the curriculum is very old. It still has not taken into account some of the principal findings of the Nziramasanga Commission (1989) such as the importance of vocational education," said Coltart.
A Rapid Assessment of Primary and Secondary Education Survey (2009) conducted to determine the state of education in the country indicated that teacher morale was very low in all the schools visited.
It said teachers were de-motivated by low salaries, lack of security in rural areas where they became victims of political violence in 2008, lack of accommodation and shortages of teaching and learning resources such as textbooks and stationery.
"The image of the teacher was at its lowest since independence," noted the report.
There is also a severe shortage of furniture in schools, particularly rural schools. Large numbers of pupils in rural areas do not have a place to sit or to write; even blackboards and teachers'
tables are shared. The situation is even worse in secondary schools.
At one point, textbook availability had deteriorated to worrying levels.
At the time the Rapid Assessment of Primary and Secondary Education Survey was released, over 20 percent of the primary schools had no textbooks at all for English, Mathematics and African Languages, all compulsory subjects.
At secondary level, one third of rural schools had no textbooks for English language, and 22 percent had no textbooks for Mathematics and Ndebele/Shona, all of which are compulsory subjects.
One of the first steps towards addressing the situation was the establishment of the Education Transition Fund, a mechanism that saw over 22 million textbooks distributed to over 8 000 primary schools, along with other supplies including those for early childhood development centres.
This resulted in the textbook-pupil ratio improving to 1:1 from 1:10.
Last year, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Education, Sports and Culture, also emphasised the need to reduce the teacher-student ratio.
It observed that most rural teachers were being forced to attend a class with an average of 60 pupils, which is unrealistic as the teacher cannot monitor all the students, leading to poor performance by both teachers and students.
In addition, heads of schools were full time classroom teachers who were responsible for planning, recording, teaching, evaluation and monitoring, supervising and at the same time executing administrative duties.
The Committee also reported that private schools had become a menace to the education sector, with particular reference to some unregistered colleges.
"The public complained that the commercialisation of the education sector was not an ideal policy as it has been abused by unregistered private colleges and some registered private colleges," the Committee observed.
Funding has also remained a challenge. The 2013 national budget allocated US$754 million to the Education Ministry, which means it can only spend US$1 per month per child instead of the expected US$7.
An acting head at a school in Harare who spoke on condition of anonymity blamed the government for the rot in the education sector.
"For over a decade the government watched the situation deteriorate without any form of action; what did they expect would happen? The pass rates have been there to prove that all is not well in the sector but the responsible authorities ignored the cry for help from the teachers and the pupils. No one should blame the teachers and even if teachers are to get a salary increment today there is no guarantee that there will be a 100 percent pass rate.
"The students and parents have to develop a positive attitude towards the whole concept of education. This is the e-generation, they just lack the spirit to learn. The same teacher who produced a 56 percent pass rate yesteryear is the one who produced the 18 percent - same syllabus, same techniques but different students, different attitudes and different environmental social and political factors," she said.