ZIMBABWE has reportedly approached Britain for funds to help cover school fees for an estimated one million pupils who could be forced out of school because the cash-strapped government cannot finance a scheme meant for poor children.
According to the UK-based Telegraph newspaper, Harare appealed to London ten days ago to extend a programme under which the British government paid school fees for about 300,000 pupils over the last three years.
"We received an initial request from the Zimbabwean Government and we are considering our response," the newspaper quoted an unnamed official with the UK Department for International Development (DIFID) as saying.
Started under the former coalition administration between Mugabe's Zanu PF and the MDC parties, the programme also saw the UK, Germany and other European donors pay for more than 13 million text books for schoolchildren.
The scheme ended last August after Mugabe's re-election which was disputed by main rival Morgan Tsvangirai whose claim that the vote was fraudulent received backing from Britain and other Western countries.
But speaking at his inauguration Mugabe, who regularly berates Britain blaming the former colonial power for the country's economic problems, said he was not concerned adding his government would survive with support from friendly nations such as China.
"Today we tell those dissenting nations that the days of colonialism and neo-colonialism have gone and gone forever ... We dismiss them as the vile ones whose moral turpitude we must mould," he said.
However, the government now admits facing serious budgetary constraints amid a failing economy.
Early this month, a top official revealed that some one million orphans and vulnerable children supposed to benefit from the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) were likely to fail to attend school this year due to lack of funds.
Acting principal director of the Social Services Ministry Sydney Mhishi told Parliament that the US$15 million allocated by Treasury would far short of requirements.
"The implication is that 167,000 children would not be able to access government assistance for secondary education. For primary school the target is 750,000 children at a total cost of US$8 per child per term which amounts to US$28 million per year," he said.
The crisis has now forced the country's labour and social services ministry to approach DIFID for help, the Telegragh claimed.
Education minister Lazarus Dokora however, told the newspaper no one had been forced out of school due to non-payment of fees.
"As far as my pupils are concerned, they are all in school. None have been excluded. (The fees) never flow in a synchronised way, and come in usually as a postscript each year," Dokora said.
Dokora's predecessor, David Coltart said many students would likely fail to pay fees even if the UK managed to chip in.
"The school system is grossly underfunded by government and was designed for a different economy," he said. "It is not coping to ensure that all eligible children will attend school."