Zimbabwe's education system, once regarded as the finest on the continent, was a casualty of the country's economic meltdown in the 2000s, when it nearly collapsed - but lately there have been signs of recovery.
The education malaise was widely blamed on hyperinflation, which made teachers’ salaries worthless and funding for school materials and maintenance impossible.
But with economic reforms of 2009 and the establishment of a donor funding mechanism, the school system is seeing modest, gradual improvement. Still, vast challenges - from poor infrastructure to teacher shortages - remain.
David Coltart, the education minister, told IRIN that the country's education crisis actually predates hyperinflation.
“Contrary to what many people think, the downward spiral began long before hyperinflation occurred. It started with the sector not getting as much as it got during the first 10 years of independence,” he said. Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.
The education system’s deterioration accelerated under the effects of hyperinflation. Then, in early 2009 the country ditched its local currency and adopted a multi-currency financial system using the US dollar, the Botswana pula and the South African rand, ending hyperinflation overnight.
By the time Coltart assumed his post in February 2009 - after the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, entered a government of national unity with President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party - the economy was beginning to turn around.
Coltart found the education system “chaotic”, with schools closed, teachers on strike and infrastructure in a state of disrepair. One of the first steps towards overhauling it was the establishment of the Education Transition Fund (ETF), a mechanism to allow donors control over their funds.
“The way the fund works is the donor community provides funding, I chair the education transition fund meetings, and UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund] is the ultimate manager of the fund. So we reach consensus regarding how the money is to be spent, and the ministry decides what its priorities are,” Coltart explained.
Funding for the ETF varies from year to year. A variety of donors - including the European Commission and the governments of Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US - contribute to the fund, which UNICEF then administers.
In 2012, the ETF was funded to the tune of about US$12 million, and in 2013, $25 million is earmarked for it, UNICEF said in a statement.
Green shoots of recovery
Hyperinflation had prevented the publication of school textbooks. “In some schools, as many as 15 pupils shared a textbook, while in some rural schools only the teacher had a bedraggled textbook,” Coltart said.
Julia Mapondera, principal of Gwinyai Public Primary School in Mbare, a poor neighbourhood in the capital, Harare, told IRIN that erratic attendance by students and teachers, combined with the unavailability of text books, proved a toxic mix.
Prior to the crisis, students learned to read and write in their first year of school; student Kelvin Bimha, now 11, didn’t gain those skills until his fourth year, and then only with the assistance of remedial classes during the holidays.
Donor funding has since helped address the textbook shortage; the pupil-to-book ratio is now one-to-one, Coltart said. Next are plans for the distribution of non-academic books to encourage a culture of reading; $9 million is budgeted for this in 2013, with donor support through the ETF.
At the height of the crisis, in 2008 - during which food insecurity and waterborne disease were widespread, and schooling was disrupted by political violence and teacher strikes - the pass rate for the final year of primary school dropped to 52 percent. The previous year, it had been 70 percent.
In 2009, only 39 percent of those who sat for the final-year exams passed. It has since improved, with 2010 seeing a pass rate of 42 percent and 2011 a rate of 45 percent.
Still, Coltart expects the pass rate to remain low for several years and then gradually improve.
Long way to go
Principal Mapondera says lack of infrastructure continues to undermine the education system. In 2012, the number of students at Gwinyai was close to 2,000 - nearly double its intended capacity. The overcrowding has led to a practice known as “hot seating”, in which some children attend morning classes and others attend afternoon classes.
Coltart says the situation is not unique to Gwinyai. “We've got 8,000 schools. If you go to most of these schools, you'll see the infrastructure is crumbling - schools not being maintained, toilets in a terrible state of disrepair. Many schools don't have desks, don't have blackboards.”
He said the $500,000 from the 2012 national budget for school maintenance was “less than drop in the ocean”, and his ministry would be seeking donor assistance. “We could spend a billion dollars on the education sector, and we wouldn't address all these structural problems.”
The education budget for 2012-2013 is $750 million. More than half of this, Coltart says, goes to primary and high school teachers’ salaries, which average about $300 a month.
During the hyperinflation years, many teachers just walked off the job, as their salaries fell to the equivalent of $1 or less a month. The ministry has declared an amnesty for these teachers, and many have returned. But many others moved to other countries in search of employment and better salaries, and it has proved difficult to lure them back. It is estimated that 20,000 teachers left the country between 2007 and 2009.
There are currently about 106,000 teachers; about 30,000 more are required. However, even if the teacher target is achieved, Coltart says, there will not be enough classrooms available for them to teach in.
He says the government’s relationship with the teachers’ unions - such as the Zimbabwe Teachers Association and the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe - is improving. But threats of strikes are never far from the surface.
The education sector had been stabilized, but remains fragile. “Until we see literacy rates starting to improve, until we see grade 7 [the final year of primary school] examination results getting back to the levels they were perhaps 10 years ago, I will remain concerned about the education sector,” he said.