21 February 2014

Zimbabwe: Local Education System in Doldrums

ORDINARY 'O' Level results have always generated a lot of interest and inevitably debate over the pass rates which largely reflect the health of the sector.

In the current results the top 10 schools were mostly mission ones with Monte Cassino Secondary school (100%) leading the pack, followed by Anderson Secondary school (97,1%), Zimbabwe Republic Police High School (96,58 %), John Tallach Secondary School (96,15%), Nyanga High School, the best performer in 2012 (96%), St Ignatius College (95,95%), Nyazura Adventist (94,63%), Regina Mundi Secondary School (93,75%), St Dominics (Chishawasha) Secondary (93,26%) and Kriste Mambo Secondary School (92,31%).

This has raised questions about the standards and what determines the grading system as well as how much the results reflect on the quality of education. The overall pass rate for November 2013 is 20,72% - a 2,32% increase from the 2012 results and the highest in the last 14 years. Out of 173 856 candidates who sat for five subjects, only 36 031 passed five subjects or more with a grade C or better.

While Zimbabwe had made tremendous progress in education since 1980 - achieving the highest literacy rate in Africa - there are concerns standards are collapsing and institutions are now producing generations of mediocrity.

According to a report, The Commonwealth and the State of Education in Zimbabwe 2011, written by ex-education minister David Coltart, since 2000 the political crisis and precipitous economic decline induced shocks and pressures that left many sectors, including education, on the verge of collapse.

"Evidence on the ground suggests that the country's education system is now also facing a crisis - one of the most serious in its history. Government, with support from development partners and other key stakeholders, invested heavily in the sector over the two-and-a-half decades following independence in 1980," Coltart wrote in a report which still largely reflects the current situation.

"By 1990, the country had met the original Education for All target of universal primary access, and was able to report among the highest adult literacy rates in Africa well into the last decade.

Primary schools and their pupil numbers increased from 2 410 and 820 266 in 1979 to 5 560 and 2 445 516 in 2006 respectively. The country attained a near-universal access to basic education while simultaneously maintaining high levels of quality and equity. And yet, today, the education system is in crisis."

Coltart said the capacity of government to deliver quality education had been seriously compromised.

"A significant number of schools are now unsafe and structurally unsound, and there is a severe shortage of toilet facilities, which poses a grave health risk," he said.

Since 2000, Zimbabwe has had to confront multiple and complex challenges that had been partly due to the country's social and political instability. Reaching a peak in 2008, the meltdown left everything, including education, in tatters.

"Poor examination results suggest that the combined shortage of infrastructure, high pupil ratios, and lack of teaching and learning materials have had an adverse effect on the quality of learning," Coltart said.

"Textbook supplies, which had been largely financed by parents from levies and their own household income, have dropped to a record low. Unicef estimates that there are 15 children for each textbook in the core subjects in primary schools, while a recent survey showed that at least 12% cent of secondary schools had no maths textbooks at all in 2009.

"Decreasing government expenditure on education has forced schools to increasingly rely on tuition fees and levies. The consequent rise in fees and levies has been a serious obstacle to educational access and completion for many school children. Lack of resources disproportionately affects the marginalised, especially girls. The use of student levies and fees to supplement salaries and retain teachers has exacerbated inequalities between students who can afford higher supplements and those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds."

Zimbabwean journalist based in Namibia Wonder Guchu, in a report titled Figures Don't Lie - The State of Our Education, described the 'O' results as a fiasco, which damages Zimbabwe's much-celebrated education system.

"Figures like pictures do not lie and in this regard, the true picture of the state of our education is reflected in the statistics which show massive decline over the years," he said. "These frightening figures make it imperative to implement the recommendations made by the Nziramasanga Commission on Education of 1999."

The commission was appointed by President Robert Mugabe in 1998 to look into the problems in education. The commission took a swipe at poor administration and irrelevant curricula, recommending vocationalised education. It also recommended that the teaching methods should be changed to focus on skills, while reducing the focus on examinations.

Guchu said Zanu PF adopted the Nziramasanga report last year, while problems identified in it had persisted unabated. "It means that a whole generation -- 2 693 898 was lost -- humanity broken," he said.

However, Coltart this week told the Zimbabwe Independent the results were improving.

"Zimsec 'O' levels have been set at a very high standard and educationalists will tell you that they have been designed for an anticipated pass rate of about 24%. In other words one can lower the standard and get a higher pass rate but then that amounts to a lowering of our overall educational standard," he said.

Coltart, who pointed out that it was not pass rates that were planned but standards, said he "deliberately instructed Zimsec not to lower standards or to meddle with the pass rate during my tenure".

"What is of concern is that so few children get a secondary school qualification but the solution does not lie in lowering 'O' level standards," he said. "Our Zimsec 'O' levels are primarily academically-orientated and herein lies the rub. The solution lies in broadening our curriculum to include far more vocational or practical subjects to accommodate those children who are not academically talented but who have enormous practical talents."

Zimsec acting public relations manager Tryfine Dzvukutu said: "The 2013 Ordinary Level results were not adjusted at all. Please remember that the Ordinary Level standard is an international standard and during grading we always benchmark with other examination boards whose representatives attend our grading meetings.

"There was no adjustment made to the results. The results issued out represent the assessed performance of candidates at the ZGCE Ordinary Level. An increase in pass rate means an improvement in performance by the candidates hence Zimsec can only say the pass rate is indicative of an improvement on last year's performance."

Godfrey Museka, an educationist with a local university, said the results were a "true reflection of the mental aptitude of children in Zimbabwe".

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