The quandary of securing F1 places

TOP 100 O LEVEL SCHOOLS 2015Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe Review Editor
Adverts inviting prospective Form One pupils to submit their applications from both public and private schools have started appearing in the media. But a number of most sought after public schools have not yet placed their adverts. There are several factors affecting desirability of secondary schools with the pass rate of preceding years an important one.

Parents and guardians as well as the pupils seating for Grade Seven exams this year have expressed concern in the lack of clarity in just how and when selections for Form One placements will occur.

Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora banned entrance test fees in 2014 after media reports and complaints from parents that schools had turned the selection process into an unethical money spinning venture.

Most schools were inviting any willing pupils to take part in entrance tests for which they charged an average of $20 per candidate. There were reports that some schools would have more than a thousand candidates vying for less than 100 places.

Then on July 1 this year Dr Dokora then announced that schools would be allowed to hold entrance tests so long as they did not demand any payment for the service:

“The import of the policy on keeping the costs of education affordable has the effect that those who wish to undertake entrance tests should be able to do that without a cost to the parents,” Dokora said in Parliament while responding to a legislator’s question.

This development came on the back of problems at the beginning of the school calendar when reports indicated that some learners had still not managed to secure form one vacancies by January.

At that point Dr Lazarus Dokora announced the introduction of a new system of registration for Form Ones which would entail semi-centralised operations in which district offices would help parents with identifying schools in the area with vacancies.

“The Education Management Information System (Emis) will be used to allocate Form One places to avoid costs incurred by parents as they travel from one school to another, thus incurring unnecessary expenditures,” said Dr Dokora

According to Dr Dokora under Emis district education officers would be notified of vacant places in schools under their jurisdiction. They would then act as information channels for parents to identify schools with vacancies. The parents would thus be saved the inconvenience and cost of going to several schools in a blind search. A similar system is used to identify staffing requirements for schools.

Emis also required school heads to prioritise registration of local pupils by demanding proof of residence upfront. It was not clear if this directive was targeted at day schools or would also include boarding schools whose learners traditionally come from all over the country.

One parent said the uncertainty has left him stressed.

“My son is in Grade Seven at Nharira Primary School in Mbare. I would like him to go to a mission boarding school but now I am worried that the school that I want may just have their intake without my being aware of it.

“In the past there was a traditional period during which a parent would expect schools to advertise for entrance tests and plan accordingly. But this year we are not sure what is happening,” said Mr Aaron Mahumwe.

Mr Mahumwe said he had tried calling the school of his choice to ascertain when they would be doing their intake and he could not get a specific answer:

“They just said that they had not started and would send out information once they were ready. They would not even tell me if they were planning to have their own entrance test or if they would wait for the grade seven results.”

Another parent said that it would make sense for the ministry to coordinate intake systems instead of leaving schools to operate as they wish which creates room for corruption.

“The trust schools have a system whereby entrance tests are conducted at the same time so that teachers and pupils make up their minds as to just which school they are targeting. It stops the same pupil hogging places in different schools.

“Right now this system where no one is sure what exactly is happening gives too much power to heads and that is why some of them ask for bribes to secure places. Another thing is that this will force many parents to go to private schools because if you have the money securing a place is easy. But these are expensive options and not everyone can afford it.”

The head of a boarding mission school outside Harare said that the removal of the entrance tests fees has not made life easier for parents.

“In the past we would hold our entrance tests at a school in Harare because that is our largest catchment area. The money that we charged went towards paying our expenses like hiring the venue as well as travel and subsistence for the staff involved.

“We then had another one (entrance test) at the school for the local community and for that one we did not charge anything. We also invited the Harare people to attend that one if they so wished.

“But all of them opted for the Harare tests because it costs them more to come here. If the parent is driving then they will spend more than $20 on fuel alone before even factoring in things like refreshments.”

But the head admitted that looking at the numbers of applicants made to pay the entrance test fees by some institutions he could not rule out that some of the schools had decided to use the tests as money spinning venture.

A Grade Seven pupil at Livingstone Primary School in the Avenues area said she would like to go to a girls’ mission boarding school but she is afraid that she will miss her big chance because she just does not know what is going on.

“My friends and I would like to go to the same school. We all sent our application letters last term but we have not received any replies. So we don’t know if we have a chance,” she said.

Effort to get comments from the ministry on the matter were not successful after they had not yet responded to questions on email by the time of going to print

Last year 308 888 pupils registered for the grade seven examinations compared to 299 673 in 2013. Figures for registered candidates for this year have not yet been released.