"We have received, with concern, continuing reports that some children [in Zimbabwe] are not going to school because there are no teachers," said Roland Monash, deputy representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF keeps 150,000 Zimbabwean children at school by paying their fees.
"There is need to do an assessment of the situation as soon as possible with our partners in the NGO sector and the government, so that we have an understanding of the situation," he added.
Many teachers have left the profession for better paying jobs in neighbouring countries, and the remaining few have been on strike since 2 September, demanding a pay hike, said Raymond Majongwe, secretary-general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ).
"Teachers cannot afford to go to work because of poor salaries … We now have a strange situation where professionals who are in the teaching field are doing menial work in Zimbabwe and within the region," he said. "The few teachers who continue to teach are unqualified relief workers, who are being paid with groceries."
A teacher earns US$10 a month, which has little value in an economy struggling with an inflation rate of more than 11 million percent.
The headmaster of a school in Mabelreign, a suburb of the capital, Harare, has asked children to return to school after two weeks; at another school, IRIN found children had been told to spend the day in the playground.
"Out of a staff complement of 30 teachers, there are only five who are reporting for duty, but not doing any work," a teacher at one the schools in Harare told IRIN. "The rest have either left the country or cannot be bothered to report for duty because of the paltry salaries that we are getting."
Orirando Manwere, a parent, told IRIN that at one of the schools, children writing exams had been asked to contribute cash to enable teachers to afford transport to come to school to invigilate. "The teachers expect to get money from parents, but parents also don’t have money."
Zimbabwe is experiencing a shortage of paper currency, and people are only allowed to withdraw Z$1,000 a day – enough to buy a loaf of bread or a one-way bus ticket to town.
PTUZ’s Majongwe said exams should be called off. "We are the teachers and we know what has been going on: there was no teaching and no learning. We would rather delay in coming up with a good complete product [children properly equipped to sit the exams] than produce a half-baked product."