Will schools reopen next year?

HARARE – “FINALLY we have come to the end of Grade One. It has been a great experience for us. It’s been a year full of fun, hard work and play…,”a class of excited and neatly dressed young girls recite a prose to thunderous applause from their parents at one of the country’s elite schools.

Behind the children, the wall is brightly decorated and two posters with the words “Merry Christmas” sum up the mood at the school, one of the few privately-run institutions in Zimbabwe to complete a full calendar year of learning in a country where 80 percent of the children attended a meagre 22 days of learning.

With most public schools largely now dysfunctional and paralysed by a teachers’ strike, the country’s elite schools — a tiny fraction of the country’s public schools — scrapped through 2008 by demanding fees in hard currencies or in fuel coupons to keep their institutions running.

And as the country’s schools shut down this week for the annual festive season, an atmosphere of doom and gloom hangs in the air.

Zimbabwe could be headed for its worst school calendar year yet as the slow formation of an inclusive government further drags the economy deeper into the woods.

Stakeholders in the beleaguered education sector have warned that if conditions that prevailed this year, such as poor salaries for teachers and food shortages, persist into next year there is no guarantee that schools will be functioning normally, let alone reopen.

Although this week is the official end of the third school term, more than three quarters of government and mission schools ground to a halt mid year after teachers walked out of class citing the pathetic wages and poor working conditions.

Many boarding schools were also forced to shut down due to severe food and water shortages threatening to plunge the country into its worst humanitarian crisis since Independence in 1980.

“To be frank with you, we cannot guarantee that the schools will open for proper lessons under the present scenario,” said Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) chief executive, Sifiso Ndlovu.

“The preparations for next year must start now. The third term was not normal after teachers failed to attend class due to poor salaries. Schools may open without teachers again next term if the issues affecting education in this country are not addressed,” said Ndlovu.

ZIMTA, which lost 10 percent of its 58,000 members to neighbouring countries between January and October this year, has recommended that a “national Indaba” be convened to discuss the crisis facing the country’s education sector, which has completely lost its glamour.

The Progressive Teac-hers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) has also called on the Zimbabwe government to engage all stakeholders before the country loses the remaining teachers.

During the second term, 40 percent of the country’s total teaching posts at primary and secondary levels were vacant.

While it is still not clear how many more teachers left the country in the third term, unconfirmed reports suggest that over 20,000 teachers have joined the brain drain since January.

Figures being bandied around suggest that the sector could be running on less than half its total requirement of ne-arly 120,000 tea-chers.

And a new th-reat loomed large last week after South Africa ann-ounced it was scouting far and wide across its borders to fill a staggering 94,000 vacant posts for teachers over the next seven years.
South Africa’s massive need to immediately fill some 62,000 teac-hing posts has a potential of completely wiping aw-ay Zimbabwe’s re-maining teachers.

“We are getting very worried as the politicians are not promising us anything in the New Year as more and more teachers are ready to leave. Two thousand and nine promises to be a dark year,” said PTUZ president, Raymond M-ajongwe.

“The departure of our members to other countries is shocking. We are encouraging them to stay home, but they tell us that there is no reason to because there is no indication from government that their plight would be addressed. Teachers have been ignored.

“A teacher is earning the minimum withdrawal limit of $100 million announced recently by the Reserve Bank governor (Gideon Go-no) and that’s a mockery to our profession,” added Majongwe.

However, a mi-xture of a dismally performing and crumpling economy of a country that is failing to feed itself, infrastructural breakdown, hunger and disease, like the presently ravaging outbreak of cholera, are real push factors that are threatening the welfare of the most vulnerable in society – children.

Some five million people require food assistance after nearly a decade of poor harvests due to a combination of drought, corruption, mismanagement and misguided government policies.

Catherine Braggs, the United Nations’ deputy emergency relief coordinator, has warned that the appalling state of the country’s education sector is “a real concern for us because school is one of the safe environments for children, including orphans, so it is both a literacy issue and a safe environment issue”.

Braggs said the plight of Zimbabwe’s children is being graphically highlighted by the number of the country’s starving people, which “is going to rise as we go into the hunger season, traditionally between January and April” while the country breaks down across all sectors.

Briefing journalists from the UN offices in New York recently Braggs said: “The situation is acute and is expected to worsen by the end of the year, and probably get even worse in the beginning of the year. So, without massive assistance, this situation is going to get much, much worse…”

Although the UN has marshalled millions in donor funds to avert a possible humanitarian crisis, without a properly functioning government in place to quickly address the crisis in the education sector, the majority of Zimbabwe’s children may not attend school next year.

Recent UN statistics indicate that Zimbabwe’s sch-ool attendance has plu-mmeted from 90 percent to less than 20 percent to date.

And as the government, which is largely non-existent at the moment due to the protracted political struggles in the country, the parents have found themselves increasingly shouldering the burden of ensuing that their children get a descent education despite the difficulties. SOURCE: FINGAZ