Cletus Mushanawani and Sallomy Matare
THE demand for learning places at primary and secondary schools is increasing annually, with existing structures failing to cope, leaving some learners stranded, and this has resulted in calls for the construction of more schools getting louder.
The introduction of the national Early Child Development policy in 2004 compounded the situation as most Government, local authorities and mission schools cannot accommodate the ever increasing numbers.
Parents have also been found wanting as school authorities are blaming them for failing to pay development levies, leaving them with nowhere to raise funds for the construction of new classroom blocks.
Although the availed 2014 Zimstat statistics showed that the number of primary schools more than doubled from just 2 401 in 1979 to 5 863 in 2014, while secondary schools increased from 177 to 2 424 during the same period, the situation has remained dire.
Some of the learners are now being accommodated in makeshift structures, while others are being forced to enrol at sub-standard private institutions, which do not have required facilities like sports fields. Some school are now forced to introduce hot-sitting.
The increases in school fees at most boarding and private institutions have forced parents to turn to cheaper Government schools.
Some children whose parents cannot pay boarding fees are now staying in bush-boardings (cheaper lodging at growth points), where the children stay alone during the week and go back home at weekends.
This has resulted in a bloated teacher-learner ratio, as some classes now have an average of 60 learners instead of the recommended 35.
This has also been blamed for the poor pass rates being recorded at national examinations as teachers are now grappling with an increased workload.
Slow learners suffer the brunt, as teachers will be biased towards high fliers.
Government has acknowledged the deficit in the number of schools.
"We have a deficit of about 3 000 schools, both primary and secondary across the country, said Acting Primary and Secondary Education Minister Professor Amon Murwira.
Last year, Government managed to construct 17 schools, while private organisations and individuals contributed 150.
"For 2020, we are looking at the construction of between 100 and 200 schools. We know that this is below the expected numbers, but we are seized with the matter since education is a basic human right."
In a recent interview, Primary and Secondary Education permanent secretary Mrs Tumisang Thabela said they needed to recruit more teachers in 2020 to address the shortages affecting mostly ECD classes across the country.
"It is our wish to progressively lessen the burden on the schools," she said. "It is public knowledge that we have a shortage of teachers. In fact, our records have shown that we need about 15 000 teachers for 2020.
"We were, however, granted authority to recruit 5 000 teachers. We hope that as the situation improves, we will get all the required teachers."
Some parents were struggling to secure places for their children when schools opened last week.
Harare City Council spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme said they were building more primary schools in the city to cater for the ever increasing population.
"The law stipulates that local authorities can only build primary schools and we are playing our role," he said. "Work is progressing on well at Tariro and Glaudina primary schools in the city. We are also in the process of reclaiming all land that was reserved for the construction of primary schools that was parcelled out as housing stands to individuals by unscrupulous land barons."
Roman Catholic Mutare Diocese education secretary Mr Lawrence Chibvuri said schools opened under difficult circumstances.
"Our schools, especially here in Manicaland, are a brand and most parents want to have their children enrolled there," he said.
"Statistics that I have at hand show our enrolment at our boarding schools are almost at 100 percent, while at primary school, especially in rural areas, is above 80 percent as some parents opt to have their children enrolled at the very last minute.
"Our staff turnover was also excellent and we are under pressure from parents who are besieging our headmasters' offices looking for places for their children."
Mr Chibvuri said plans were afoot to increase the number of schools in the diocese, with St Gabriel Primary School in Nyanga expected to have its first enrolment in 2021.
"Remember, we have one of our schools, St Charles Lwanga that was badly damaged by last year's Cyclone Idai and we are working on its reconstruction," he said.
"We are spreading to all the corners of the province. While we want more schools to be built, our efforts are being hampered by lack of resources. We do not want to commit ourselves to many projects which will be difficult to complete. We are just biting what we can chew and we will continue complementing Government in providing quality education to Zimbabweans."
Nettleton Junior School head Mr Leo Sungisai Busvumani said they were having challenges in developing the school due to non-payment of fees.
"Parents are not paying school fees," he said. "We need money to construct new classroom blocks as well as maintaining the existing infrastructure. Our parent ministry is encouraging us to recover all outstanding debts before embarking on new projects, but we are continuously hitting a brick wall.
"We tried the small claims court, but parents are still defaulting."
Mr Busvumani said Government should allow schools to bar learners who would not have paid fees from attending classes.
Harare High School head Ms Priscilla Satande said they were faring well even though they could do better.
"We are building a double storey for A' Level classes, she said. We are trying by all means to play our part. As for fees payments, we allow parents to negotiate a payment plan and this becomes easy for both parties."
Ms Satande said textbooks were a major challenge, but they were coping through the use of Information Communication Technology.
"Since textbooks are too expensive, we have resorted to the use of ICT and its effective as learners can access information online," she said.
A parent with a child at David Livingstone Junior School in Harare, Ms Tsitsi Maunga, said very little investment had been witnessed in education for a long time.
"Some of us went to the current Government schools where our own children are now being enrolled, she said. The same old infrastructure is being used and with the growing population, most schools cannot accommodate all learners even from their catchment areas.
"The spill-over is now being accommodated in private institutions which do not have adequate resources.
"You can imagine that the same ablution facilities that we used in the 1980s are now accommodating larger numbers and they will surely not cope."
Another parent, Mr John Shirichena called on Government to avail cheaper stationery as most parents were struggling to buy it.
"The school fees has not been reviewed from $160 per term, but if you look at the total amount that we spent to ensure that our children start school this year is more than $1 000 per child," he said.
"We are being asked to supply our own exercise books and textbooks. Government should look into this area."