By Tendai Chabvuta
On 6 February, the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) announced the release of the 2020 Grade 7 examination results. The tabulated report shows that a total of 327 559 learners sat for the exam but only 37.11% managed to obtain a pass.
A large portion amounting to 62.89% of the learners failed the exams. A number of government leaders have blamed the poor results on the Covid 19 pandemic. It is true that schools in Zimbabwe were closed in late March 2020 and there was no education for the better part of the year especially for public schools that could not afford to set up online learning systems.
However, this reasoning could be too simplistic for several reasons. For example, the fact that close to 90 schools had zero percent pass rates are located in historically marginalized places such as Matabeleland raises eyebrows. It is not a secret that throughout 2020 there were labor actions that resulted in strikes by teachers across the country rendering learning in most public schools a nullity.
However, a simple perusal of the results also shows that the Government of Zimbabwe dismally failed to rise to the occasion. For instance, it would not be surprising that the schools that had zero percent pass rates did not have enough teachers as well as reading materials.
Moreover, in places where there were poor results, it is also true that the pupils are not fed nutritious meals because their parents and guardians could not afford to feed them well.
Moreover, the distance from the schools attended by some of the learners is another cause for concern. The marginalization of some of the areas that had poor results shows that Government has not invested adequately in the schools for example in providing proper school buildings and incentives for the learners to attend school. Some of the challenging issues will be discussed below.
Covid 19 disrupted learning
That the Covid 19 pandemic disrupted the education system and took almost everyone by surprise is indisputable. All schools were closed indefinitely and were only opened for exam classes in early October 2020.
The Zimbabwean Government has for a long time neglected the education sector especially in rural areas and was not prepared for the disruptions that were caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. A negligible number of affluent schools, especially in the private sector managed to arrange online lessons through different platforms such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and some even by text. The results from the 2020 examinations shows that most of these schools had good results.
The same cannot be said about the primary schools in rural areas as they did not have facilities to continue with online learning as an alternative to the disruption. The sheer cost of acquiring laptops for teachers and learners as well as the data needed to sustain such platforms was inhibitive enough. The Government of Zimbabwe will need to look into providing alternative learning platforms so that Zimbabwe’s children are not left behind.
No cushioning funds were availed to the learners and their schools
When the Government of Zimbabwe announced the Covid 19 regulations, there was a promise that they would give vulnerable families assistance through cash vouchers, food etc. A small portion was allocated to all civil servants through a $75 USD allowance they called the Covid 19 cushion fund. This was helpful generally to the majority of civil servants.
The government, however, did not set aside any funds to assist schools to provide any form of learning for schools. Instead there were lessons that were conducted on radio and television. However, with a country that is not served with tv and radio reception, the overture did not go far to alleviate the problem.
Government through its Ministry of Education and the one on ICT should have come up with mechanisms that would allow learning to continue without exposing the learners to the deadly Coronavirus. Judging from the cellphone penetration levels in Zimbabwe the use of simple text messaging packages would have gone a long way.
In 2019, there were 90.1 mobile subscriptions registered for every 100 people which means that even in the rural areas it would have been possible to reach a huge majority of the leaners, including those in remote rural areas. Without such assistance from the government, it would have been impossible to see a higher outcome for the learners.
Lack of learning facilities for learners
It is a well-known fact that Zimbabwe’s rural areas remain underfunded with little or no basic amenities such as brick and mortar classrooms as well as running water and even ablution facilities. While some sections would want to argue that they went through the same scenario and still made it in life, that reasoning does not give the Government any reason not to be able to facilitate the building of such amenities.
- Where schools are available, some learners have to walk distances of up to 20 kilometers to and from school in some instances crossing flooded rivers.
- Government will need to assess the pupil teacher ratio especially in the schools that performed dismally. In most instances, it has been noted that there can be up to 80 or more leaners in one class. This scenario is unacceptable and Government needs to provide more teachers as well incentives to make sure that teachers can stay comfortably in those rural schools.
- In most rural areas, the schools and homesteads are not electrified. This situation makes it difficult for the learners to study in the evenings or when its dark. Government could also partner with international organizations in the UN and the private sector to provide low cost solar energy power production which would be used by the learners to study.
This state of affairs also contributed to the poor results in some rural areas. Hundreds of schools and teachers’ unions have been lamenting this state of affairs for a long time and the Government has unfortunately failed to heed their calls.
General lack of development in some parts of the country
It is common knowledge that the Government of Zimbabwe has not made any significant moves towards uplifting rural schools. Thus the lack of electricity, running water and even hospitals close to the schools results in teachers not wanting to be deployed to such areas.
As a result the leaners in some of these areas are disadvantaged and could have led to the dismal performances seen in the 2020 Grade 7 results. The disregard for rural and remote areas when it comes to budget allocations by the Government is a major concern and the Government of Zimbabwe must remain seized with this matter until it is resolved.
One of the biggest challenges in Zimbabwe is that the country is run by a group that does not pay attention to the needs of its people. Their children attend private schools or study abroad and thus did not suffer any setbacks in the 2020 Grade 7 examinations.
The wellbeing of the learner in the Covid era affected learning
Most learners in remote rural areas of Zimbabwe suffer from widespread malnutrition. While it would seem far fetched, the truth of the matter is that generally a hungry, malnourished child cannot concentrate well in class and neither can he or she be expected to attend school consistently.
When the Covid 19 pandemic hit Zimbabwe, most peoples’ livelihoods were affected. Due to the fact no movement was allowed, most families failed to go to work and thus lost significant income which would have been used to look after their families.
There are local and international organizations that have helped Governments set up such school feeding schemes thereby ensuring that more learners attend school and not worry about hunger. A random survey of the Food Consumption Score would most likely reveal a correlation between the schools with low or poor pass rates and the nutrition levels in the same communities.
- Gendered dimensions that explain the results
If the Government of Zimbabwe had lived up to its promise of giving vulnerable citizens relief aid this would have helped in alleviating hunger and malnutrition that was related to Covid. Generally, however, there is every need for the Government of Zimbabwe to work with experts such as the World Food Program and either civil society organizations to ensure that school meals are provided at least in the schools that attained poor marks in the examinations.
Girls usually bear the biggest brunt when it comes to inequalities that are brought about by poverty. A majority of girls fail to attend school because of child labor, early marriages, period pain and even the lack of sanitary ware. Considering that the menstrual cycle lasts for a week, girls in some part of Zimbabwe end up losing three weeks of learning because they will not have menstrual pads, water to clean themselves up and even simple painkillers to alleviate the pain.
The Government of Zimbabwe could put more effort to ensure that the girl child is empowered to attend school without the fear of soiling themselves because of natural processes they cannot stop. It would be interesting to test the girls’ school attendance and their Grade 7 results vis a vis the availability of sanitary ware and clean water in the same schools.
Corona or no Corona, the 2020 Grade 7 examination results are a serious indictment on the Government of Zimbabwe. The failure of close to 63% of the young learners cannot solely be explained by the lockdowns and “Stay at Home” policies resulting from the Covid pandemic.
As noted above, there are different factors such as the lack of financial support from the government, the high poverty in households levels which leads to learners missing school or failing to concentrate because of hunger, the gender imbalances that see young girls missing school because of natural issues such as their menstrual cycles and even archaic practices of child marriages. Zimbabwe has committed to upholding their UN Vision 2030 goals that emphasize “leaving no one behind”.
The time has come for the “Zimbabwe’s Listening President” to pay attention to the youth of the country and its future leaders’ plight by allocating more funds to their education as well as supporting the teaching fraternity to deliver learning in favorable conditions. Ignoring these signs will only lead to an uneducated youth who will not be able to help the country in any way. President Mnangagwa’s patriotism should be seen in the way he will respond to this matter going forward.