A LOT has been said about Zimbabwean education. Much of it is very true. Government had a hand in it but so did the parents.
In the wake of the #FeesMustFall movement, maybe it would help people understand how Zimbabwe pushed for what is referred to as free education. I am a beneficiary of that system.
The government came up with policies that made it possible for every school-going child to attend school. It paid salaries and launched teacher training programmes.
It also took parents to do their part in putting up infrastructure and ensure that what the government started would survive. Even the children too saw no reason to loiter in the villages when others were at school. Education became accessible because schools were within walking distances.
This is not what I have seen in most African countries where people are crying for free education. The sense I get whenever the issue of free education crops up is that the government must and should do everything.
Educating children is a joint effort between the community and the government. Demanding and waiting for the government to do everything - especially years after independence - can only break the economy.
In Zimbabwe, before independence in 1980, there were very few secondary schools. Most of them were mission or government boarding schools. Yet, there were more primary schools.
As a result, many pupils would end at Grade 7 after failing to get a place in the few secondary schools. Some became manual workers, while others were swallowed by any type of job they came across.
Although there were special technical government schools known as F2s, again not every child qualified for such schools.
Soon after independence, the Zimbabwe government mobilised parents and communities to come together and build schools known as upper tops.
These schools were and are still attached to existing primary schools. They are day schools accommodating children from the areas around the school. Most if not all of the pupils who attended such schools did not qualify for mission or boarding schools either because their parents could not afford or they did not have good passes.
The government put up a two-classroom block and a lab to kick-start the process. Parents and communities took over by extending these upper tops. They moulded bricks and contributed to a school fund to build more classroom blocks.
As a result of the upper tops, the number of secondary schools in Zimbabwe rose from 197 in 1980 to 1 535 in 1985. Primary school enrolment rose from 1 235 994 in 1980 to 2 482 508 in 1995.
There were no trained secondary school teachers then. So those trained for primary education were taken through crash courses in science, mathematics and a few other secondary school subjects.
They were then deployed in the upper tops. At that time, most of the upper tops were decentralised under regional councils. Recruitment and procurement were done at regional council level.
The expansion did not just end with upper tops. Polytechnics emerged and their curricula widened to cater for more people. Engineering, boilermaking, journalism and various other courses became readily available through polytechnics and technical colleges. These too were not free but students got study loans, which they paid back.
In order to bridge the yawning gap between qualified and unqualified teachers, the government initiated the-training-on-the-job method known as the Zimbabwe Integrated Teacher Education Course (Zintec).
Untrained teachers would attend training during holidays and then go back to work in the term. Their lecturers would move around checking progress.
The Zintec programme saw 5 887 teachers gaining qualifications. Of this number, 5 401 were still working in primary schools by 2012.
At the time, there were no proper textbooks for upper tops but modules written by university lecturers. Even the laboratories did not have sophisticated equipment but improvised spatulas and burners.
I remember vividly parents, including mine, rallying behind the development of the nearby upper top. Most of us were also dragged to do small chores as the schools took shape.
Even then when education was supposed to be entirely free, parents had to pay sports fees for buying equipment and material. There were also building fees for developing the schools. Of course, there were no tuition fees.
This was not the same situation with mission and even government boarding schools. Parents who sent their children to those schools still had to pay. There were no questions about it and nobody demanded that such schools should offer free education.
The government of Zimbabwe was wise to create an enabling environment that gave access to learning. It came up with stop-gap measures to set off the education system even in what were considered the remotest areas of the country.
When people talk about free education today and use Zimbabwe as a model, it appears they do not have full information about it.
Indeed and yes, there are poor parents but honestly they can do their part and meet the government halfway.
I believe that it would not have been possible for the Zimbabwean government to spend a lot of money on infrastructure and still have enough left for teacher training and salaries.
* Wonder Guchu is News Editor at The Namibian.