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EDUCATION-ZIMBABWE: Students Quit Classes – and Country – As Crisis Deepens

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Oct 8 2009 (IPS) - Schooling is increasingly becoming a privilege of the rich, , Zimbabwean parents and teachers’ unions complain.

The country’s cash-strapped education ministry is charging a fee of 20 U.S. dollars per ‘A-level’ subject to cover costs – but a majority of students have failed to register at all as they can’t afford it.

Secondary school students hoping to on to higher studies, secure an apprenticeship or a place in a technical college must register for either five Ordinary Level subjects at U.S. $10 each, or three Advanced Level subjects at $20 each.

But many families are unable to find the 50 or 60 U.S. dollars needed to register.

“Where are we supposed to get that kind money?” complains Zanele Dube, herself a teacher who says she failed to raise examination fees for her two children.

“This is the reason why we are always demanding salary increments. Imagine a teacher failing to send her own kids to school,” Dube said. Zimbabwean teachers earn about U.S. $170 per month, but labour unions have pegged the minimum wage at 430 dollars.

The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) says that 75 percent of the 300,000 students who had been expected to sit for their “O” and A” level examinations in November had failed to register before the September deadline.

Last month, one prospective public exams candidate took the Minister of Education to court in a bid to force him to extend the examination fee payment deadline, a further sign of the desperation of many students whose parents’ monthly incomes are frequently as little as $20, to raise the money needed to write their finals.

Last week, a government official from Matebeleland announced that one rural school in the district had failed to register even one student for public examinations after parents failed to raise exam fees.

While the ministry extended the deadline to December before the court ruled on the application by the prospective examination candidate, as part of efforts to allow parents time to raise the money, this will not help, says PTUZ.

Minister David Coltart says his ministry does not have the money to undo years of damage. While the ministry has sought assistance from the European Union and various agencies, nothing has come through yet.

This has meant there is no money to subsidise the costs of administering the examinations. Coltart says his ministry needs an immediate injection of at least USD100 million for the exams to held and their subsequent marking.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has lamented the decline of the country’s education sector in a country where teachers report that up to ten pupils share a single textbook.

“Zimbabwe’s education sector, once a model in Africa, continues to be riddled with challenges. Public financing of the sector declined significantly over the last decade, leaving most schools with no funds to purchase even the most basic teaching materials such as text books and stationery,” reads a recent statement by UNICEF.

In September, UNICEF, working the international donor community unveiled a U.S. $70 million Education Transition Fund to assist underprivileged children, but with lack of interest in education among many students here, this rescue package could prove to be a little too late.

However, for students like Munyaradzi Muzanhenhamo, the continuing salary impasse between government and teacher unions might mean another idle year ahead as there was hardly any learning this year because of the strike by teachers.

Teacher unions have already threatened they might not return to work next year if government fails to commit itself to meeting their salary demands.

“It is possible we are not going back to classes next year even if we miss writing this year’s examinations,” Muzanhenhamo said. “And this could be because there are no teachers at all or that we failed once again to raise both tuition and examination fees.”

Last year at the height of the teacher exodus, parents working in South Africa were reportedly transferring their children from Zimbabwean schools and enrolling them in South Africa where education in some schools is free.

Now however, children are quitting school altogether – sometimes without telling their parents – to head to “the place of gold” – as Johannesburg is known here.

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