Underfunded, under-resourced and disrupted by recent political and economic unrest, Zimbabwe's schools may have left a generation uneducated and unskilled.
Mutare - Over recent years, political turmoil and economic collapse in Zimbabwe have received plenty of attention and coverage. At the same time, however, a crisis in the country's once well-regarded education sector has been developing more quietly, even though its implications could be as significant for Zimbabwe's future.
Amidst national unrest, teaching was disrupted from 2006 to 2009, and with few mechanisms to help pupils catch up or re-take years, when they returned thousands found themselves unable to gain a meaningful education.
Also underfunded and under-resourced, in 2011, a tide of schools recorded a 0% pass rate in national ordinary ('O-level') examinations. Now, Zimbabwe faces the serious challenges of dealing with a damaged education system in which thousands of pupils are at higher levels than they can cope with, and a lost generation of young people many of whom were left unskilled and uneducated.
School's out: Pamela's story
Pamela Mudzingaidzwa, now 20, is one of the young Zimbabweans who missed out on the education she expected and had long hoped for. "I carried my parents' hope", she recalls to Think Africa Press.
But despite excelling in the early years of her schooling, by the time she sat for her O-levels in 2010, she had lost all hope. "After four years of irregular learning during which l was just being pushed along and not ready to sit for an exam, l changed schools to retake my classes." Against Zimbabwe's education policies which do not allow for second-chance education, Pamela explains, she moved to Mutare to stay with her sister and enrol in another school.
"But it only became worse. I was placed in a condemned class ... Teachers did not show up so much that some of us would sneak into other classes to learn. Some pupils would abscond a whole week and no-one would even care."
Unsurprisingly, Pamela left school having failed her exams. Nevertheless, she sees herself as one of the lucky ones compared to some of the rest of the generation that missed out on an education. After leaving school, Pamela was afforded a vocational training opportunity and is now studying catering. "If l didn't have a caring family l was going to be working 15 hours a day as a housemaid", she says.
Not all can hope to be as fortunate however. A UNICEF report notes that an estimated one million children do not have access to schools or the resources to improve their knowledge and skills. Similarly, data from the Ministry of Education, Sports, Art and Culture (MoESAC) reveals that between 2000 and 2008 more than 2 million children and young people failed their O-levels or dropped out aged 13.
As well as insufficient funding, amidst the country's political and socio-economic crises, Zimbabwe's schools lost part of 2006, the entirety of 2007 and segments of the 2008 and 2009's academic years. UNICEF found that 94% of rural schools were closed by 2009, with pupil attendance plunging from over 80% to 20%. Over 3 million skipped fundamental steps, and without the opportunity to retake years, pupils were simply pushed to higher grades and forms regardless of their mastery of previous levels.
When teachers returned in 2009, after the establishment of a coalition government, they encountered pupils who had skipped as many as three levels. It is not surprising then that the national pass rate for O-Level exams in 2009 was a mere 19% - a significant drop on the 72% pass rate enjoyed in the mid-1990s.
A 'Rapid Assessment of Primary and Secondary Schools', funded by the European Commission and conducted by the National Advisory Board in 2009, confirmed that the decline in quality of education was due to a lack of teaching and lack of sufficient learning materials.
Furthermore, a primary school teacher at a rural school in Manicaland told Think Africa Press how he has 4 levels in his class in which no-one is at the appropriate level. He is expected to help each group catch up, but not all teachers possess the appropriate skills to teach infant concepts successfully.
The government has made a few minor attempts to repair the system, including revising the policy prohibiting second chance education. Development charity Plan International is exploiting this to get children back into school - particularly girls who often lose out when families favour the education of their brothers. According to Willard Nengomasha, Plan International's Learning Advisor, around 420 girls have so far been taken back to school in a pilot programme in the town of Chiredzi.
A study by MoESAC also led to the implementation of the Performance Lag Address Programme (PLAP). This initiative submits pupils to a diagnostic examination to establish their "last point of mastery" then helps them catch up to where they should be. Singling out English and Mathematics, PLAP dedicates time to revisiting the syllabus and targeting concepts that have proven persistently difficult for neglected pupils to catch up on.
However, the scheme has been implemented with mixed success. Many secondary school timetables are failing to accommodate the programme, which requires teachers to go out of their way to work with children. Furthermore, UNICEF claims that up to 25% of teachers do not even meet the minimum teaching qualifications MoESAC demands.
PLAP is an ambitious programme which hopes to remedy the problem in just 3 years - but this may be too little too late for the thousands who have been completing (and often failing) O-levels since 2006. Furthermore, the programme will not be available to those sitting their national examinations in the near future, for fear of interfering with their preparations and learning of the syllabi.
However, if successful, the model could also be extended to non-formal training settings and vocational training institutions. In this way, those who have missed out could eventually also benefit from the programme.
But perhaps the underlying issue that needs to be overcome is an ingrained government mentality which fails to recognise the importance of education. MoESAC chief David Coltart has gone on record complaining that the unity government has failed to make education a priority, scathingly remarking that Zimbabwe's education crisis was being perpetuated by officials "spending three times more money on globetrotting compared to education". For Zimbabwe to build a better future, the government will need to address both its current education crisis as well as cultivate longer-term appreciation of the importance of education.
Bernard Chiketo is a Zimbabwean journalist with more than 10 years experience. He has reported extensively on health, children, environmental, political and women's issues in Zimbabwe.
He has also been doing health communications for over a dozen local organizations covering reproductive health and HIV and AIDS interventions at community level gaining insight into how sub-Saharan African economies and politics impact on the life of ordinary people.