By Daniel Mugwanda & Felix Tagutanazvo
Many years after independence, Zimbabwe has pushed through to a high literacy rate throughout Africa. At its independence, Zimbabwe initiated an education for all policy that was earmarked at closing the educational gap between the whites and the native Zimbabweans. This programme of educating many Zimbabweans saw the government focusing on infrastructure development that would enable Zimbabweans to access education. This prompted government budget focus on the less privileged communities, the high-density areas and the rural areas. Albeit all, the education system was so knit in a way that in any part of the nation there was curricula standardisation, which meant everyone enrolled in Zimbabwean schools would be tested by standard test through Zimsec.
Standardised examinations have worked so well in Zimbabwe in closing literacy gaps among constituencies, ceteris paribus. This is how the nation became a wholesale to the global labour market as most of the products from Zimbabwe schools would be well adaptive and highly valuable in the labour market. Over the years, education became a pillar to the development across communities like rural albeit the gap. The success was until the socio-economic environment deteriorated because of high inflation rate, investor-repelling policies and ballooned unemployment rates. All these have impacted education directly or otherwise. Making the rural folk more vulnerable, as evidenced by the rural-to-urban migration experienced beyond the year 2000.
With a myriad of crises having come and gone, some political, some natural and the development crises imminent in the nation, then came Covid-19, the reader would know from our previous presentations how the pandemic has put a halting hand on education and on rural education in particular. The enforced lockdown restrictions have disrupted the teaching and learning process, then came the “new normal”. How the new normal has been a nightmare to the rural areas can’t be ignored, the switch to online classes, its applicability can only be imagined yet not feasible in all truth. This reality has inspired a debate on whether the government, through the Primary and Secondary Education ministry should reopen the doors to class. The worry from the writers which any legacy leader shares would be on the rationale behind the November examination sitting.
The Primary and Secondary Education ministry announced that both Cambridge and Zimsec candidates will open by the end of September and are expected to sit for their final examinations by December 2020. This means that learners have, at most, two months to revise, recall, learn and unlearn and master exam techniques.
This, of course, seems like ample time in “normal” situations, but we are talking of a situation where the last time some learners had anything to do with school work was in March 2020 before the government announced a full lockdown. This stems out of the realisation that candidates learn at different rates.
Learners have different aptitudes; different levels of motivation and definitely have different learning styles. We have urban learners exposed to every other learning means (amid Covid-19) and a rural candidate with no access to the internet, radio lessons etc and probably overwhelmed by household chores cannot be expected to have the same amount of revision time and sit for the same exam.
During the current Covid-19 restrictions, evidence on the ground shows how well coordinated classes have taken place in most urban constituencies either through Zoom, Google Classes or more generally through the WhatsApp platform. The understanding can’t be applied for rural learners because at least more generally 80% of the rural learners have just been home. It is with this realisation that the decision to okay the writing of November 2020 examinations is gravely unfair on all rural learners bearing in mind the standard examinations. This begs an answer on the fairness of the examinations system amidst the Covid-19 crisis. This question is of legacy perspective — will this not erode the gains of education that have been there for years and will it not just exacerbate the knowledge gap which isn’t a reality between urban and rural schools? Surely the examinations could have been postponed to a more feasible date that would factor in all possible gaps, perhaps to early 2021, after all the candidates would have learnt enough for examination. The most obvious reason given for proceeding with the final exams is that we have to adapt and learn to live with the virus and, of course, learning has been going on (through radio lessons etc). This rationale, however, borders on ignoring key aspects; for instance, people are unique and what works in one place may not work in another place, at least not in the same way.
As was established in the previous articles, myriad factors make the 2020 exams not so desirable to many candidates and hence the decision to have these exams written this year is not a popular one. With the traditional learning methods (physical learner-teacher interaction) replaced by the “new normal” (online learning) for the whole of the second term and part of the third term, the reality remains that teachers and learners experience the curriculum differently.
Overall this article is not to challenge a standardised curriculum, or to advocate for preferential treatment of the rural learner. It is, however, out of realisation there there exists a gap and Covid-19 has worsened the gap. Policymakers should be adaptable in their crisis response. We all hope for a Zimbabwe whose growth and development is generic through communities and this can highly be achieved by consistent and adaptive education policies that assure all citizens of equitable access to education.
Wisdom from the chief coordinator of the National Response to Covid-19 is to be watchful to see what works and what does not work, especially learning from those that have dealt with similar circumstances. However, the policymakers need to be wary of the impact of this decision on exams on the future of rural education, statistics will speak loud.
l Daniel Mugwanda and Felix Tagutanazvo are independent opinion contributors with particular interest in career development-based models to education. They are both directors at Centre for Career and Leadership Training in Zimbabwe, a community-based organisation aimed at supporting education by practicalising formal education. For feedback email: email@example.com