By Debra Matabvu
Last year, Zimbabwe recorded the lowest Grade Seven public examination pass rate in five years.
At 37,11 percent, the national pass rate was down from the 46,9 percent recorded the previous year and the 52,08 percent in 2018.
Predictably, there was a public outcry over the results, with stakeholders demanding answers and accountability.
The pass rate was the sixth highest over the last 12 years, pointing to the fact that the majority of grade seven exam candidates rarely cover themselves in glory.
The pass rate has only gone beyond 50 percent once over that period.
While exam candidates from years gone by have had to deal with their own share of challenges, last year was a different case altogether.
Covid-19 affected lives like no other natural phenomenon witnessed in recent history.
Governments across the world responded to the outbreak by imposing harsh restrictions to contain the spread of the novel virus.
Schools were abruptly closed, adversely affecting the school calendar.
Innovative means of providing education remotely were introduced, but the efficacy of these new methods remain untested.
Before the pandemic, local education sector was already saddled with its fair share of challenges ranging from inadequate funding to recurrent industrial action by teachers.
Parliament invited Primary and Secondary Education Minister Cain Mathema to make a Ministerial statement to explain the dismal results. What went wrong last year.
Minister Mathema told Parliament last week that Covid-19 exacerbated challenges for a sector that was already grappling with other constraints. He said there was no meaningful teaching in schools last year.
“It is important to note that Grade seven candidate performance has been erratic over a number of years,” he said.
“The year-on-year performance changes because of a variety of reasons which any academic is able to put forward.
“Some of the reasons academics put forward are: access to teachers by learners; favourable economic environment which make parents access resources to support their children in school; and access to electronic learning platforms as the learning environments change.
“Attention needs to be drawn to the performance of Grade Seven examination candidates in the pandemic environment and that of 2009 to 2014 during the time of economic meltdown, which affected learning by students.
“During this period like in 2020, teachers were involved in industrial action (strikes) or were claiming incapacitation to carry out their work. There was no meaningful teaching in some schools. These are the factors that affect pass rates in any country in the world.”
A disaggregated analysis of the national results shows that Bulawayo province had the highest pass rate (66,83 percent), followed by Harare with a pass rate of 66,5 percent.
Matabeleland North recorded the least pass rate of 15,87 percent. Female candidates performed better than males in all the provinces.
Schools in urban areas performed better than those in rural areas. Experts say the country’s education system was already stretched before the global pandemic hit.
A gaping infrastructure deficit, budget constraints and human resources shortages have been identified as among the key contributors to the abysmal pass rates in recent years.
According to the UNICEF 2020 budget brief report published recently, the infrastructure deficit in schools remains severe to the extent that most satellite schools do not meet the minimum standards prescribed by the Ministry of Education for them to be formally registered and recognised as examination centres.
According to the brief, rural learners have been the most affected by the infrastructure gap, with pupils in resettlement areas having to walk long distances to the nearest schools.
This has, in turn, discouraged teachers to take up vacant places in these areas, which also have a high pupil dropout ratio.
Minister Mathema told Parliament that the country required an additional 3 000 schools to cover for the deficit.
“The idea is to eventually have a situation where no child walks for more than 5km to school,” he said.
“We are working towards that and we will achieve it — come rain, come sunshine.
While most schools were encouraged to adopt e-learning in the wake of the pandemic, inadequate internet and electricity infrastructure has hindered many pupils.
In some areas where radio and television frequencies are unavailable, pupils were not able to take advantage of learning programmes introduced during lockdowns.
According to a study conducted by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) and the World Bank in November last year titled: “Monitoring Covid-19 Impact on Households in Zimbabwe”, only 40 percent of learners in urban areas accessed learning through online platforms, while only 9 percent of their counterparts in the rural areas used such platforms.
“Out of those who continued learning, 40 percent of children in urban areas are learning through mobile phones; this number is 9 percent in rural areas,” reads the research report.
The Government, said Minister Mathema, was working to ensure that all schools have internet and electricity infrastructure.
He said, “We may be facing challenges at this moment in time that some schools do not have electricity or internet connectivity but the idea is that we are moving towards enabling each school to have requisite networks or infrastructure for each school to be able to provide online learning countrywide.”
Educationist Dr Caiphus Nziramasanga said investment in infrastructure will ensure that learning continues even in the face of natural disasters.
“We have seen how the pandemic has affected the education sector in the country, learners have lost a year of learning and this is set to affect the education system in the long run,” said Dr Nziramasanga.
“However, I believe this is a learning curve for all of us and it is time Government invests in infrastructure so that no learner is left behind.
“Obviously not everyone will be able to have access to the internet, however, providing radio and television lessons is essential.
“If statistics show that 17 percent of rural students used radio lessons, it means that there is potential in that area and the Government needs to focus more on that. This is one method that can be used as a form of online distance learning which is cheap and affordable.” The Sunday Mail