THERE has been a countrywide outcry over a poor pass rate in the recently released Grade 7 Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec) results. Academics are predicting a similar trend in the yet to be released ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level results. Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education chairperson Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga (PMM) blames the poor results on government’s neglect of the education sector. She speaks to NewsDay senior reporter Miriam Mangwaya (ND).
ND: The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted various sectors in the country and education is no exception. What is the overall outlook of the education system in the country?
PMM: The overall outlook of the education system is not looking very good. It is not just about Zimbabwe, but it is a global issue. But particularly in Africa, and in Zimbabwe to be more precise, there has not been physical learning during the lockdown period.
However, we also have a legacy problem where the government has not invested enough in education. What has been clear is that over the years, we have had a situation where parents have carried the burden of making sure that the education system is running.
Therefore, when resources are not available to parents or when they are struggling economically, generally it will also mean that the sector will struggle. The education sector has been largely funded by parents themselves.
There has been very little money that has been put into the education sector by government.
Although the budget allocation to the education sector has been increasing over the years, human resources have gobbled a greater share of the budget than has been utilised for infrastructure and other necessities such as textbooks, stationery and other learning aids required by learners.
ND: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what are the major factors which contribute to poor pass rates?
PMM: The major challenge that is being faced by learners and teachers is lack of preparedness. In most instances, issues to do with personal protective equipment have not been addressed.
Pupils with disabilities have not been catered for and have been largely excluded during the lockdown. Social distancing was impossible due to over enrolment, hence difficulties in adhering to the World Health Organisation protocols.
Yes, government has indicated that it is preparing for the reopening of schools and we welcome the move. Parents really need the physical learning because they cannot afford or cope with home schooling.
However, the challenges remain the same, and these are water and sanitation. On another important issue, no resolutions have been made in as far as the issue of teachers’ remuneration which has resulted in an impasse throughout the year 2020, is concerned.
Government should address the issue so that when schools reopen, learning will resume under proper functional schools. There is a new phenomenon of urban poverty, and so there is need for critical consideration on where resources should be channelled.
ND: Some teachers unions have called on government to nullify the 2020 academic year, arguing that no learning took place, what are your thoughts on the matter?
PMM: The issue of nullifying the 2020 calendar is now water under the bridge. We have raised it in Parliament over and over again, but government did not take heed. Government insisted that there should be writing of the Zimsec examinations, which were written. The question now is what we should do with the pupils who have written the exams.
Consideration should be made on whether those who failed should rewrite or undergo remedial processes if they are to proceed to the next level. This is to ensure that the learners recover what they lost in the curricula.
What we have been very clear about as parliamentarians is that we do not want a situation where children are being treated as conveyor belts, and are pushed to the next level when they have not mastered important issues of the previous grades.
ND: What do you think are the key areas which government should focus on?
PMM: Government has to be serious about investing in the education sector. We have focused much on prevention of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, it is commendable that government is concentrating on the issue of vaccines, which is important in fighting the pandemic, a major blow to the education system and all other sectors in the country.
However, it is important to also look at what we have lost and what we should do to recover. Right now, the use of the new information and communication technologies is the way to go. It is the new way of running education which has arisen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We have realised how bad our education system is during the pandemic, which has magnified the deficits that are in the education sector.
ND: Parents have raised concern over exorbitant school fees and mandatory purchasing of uniforms at schools, which is tantamount to ripping them off their hard-earned cash. What is the government doing to protect them?
PMM: There is no policy that gives schools power to order parents to buy uniforms at institutional level. Parents are free to buy from their own desired shops. Schools should not monopolise selling uniforms to parents by making it mandatory.
On the issue of fees payment, schools cannot charge fees which have not been approved by the government. If the fee is approved, amid the pandemic where school terms are being opened in phases, they should charge it on a pro rata basis, meaning that this must be proportional to the time that the pupil attended school, hence school authorities should be guided by government policy on decision making so as not to disadvantage the guardians.
ND: Lastly, given the 2020 experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic which is still raging, what do you see happening in the 2021 academic year?
PMM: The year 2021 will be a difficult academic year because we are carrying over the challenges from 2020. It all depends on what we do to rectify where we erred the previous year.
Resolution of the teachers’ impasse is very important to map the 2021 year. There is need for serious discussions on how we deal with the sanitation issue. Water is very essential for hygienic purposes. Government should ensure that there is running water at every school for hygienic practices.
Other hygienic essentials such as soap should be availed to the learners. I am worried about the availability of water and soap, at school. Addressing those issues will shape the 2021 academic year. If all hands are on the deck, it will be a successful year, insofar as education is concerned.