Successful massification of education – the Zimbabwean example

Home Focus Successful massification of education – the Zimbabwean example

When countries come out of wars, strife and natural disasters, sectors such as education, health, infrastructure and the economy will be in shambles. To deal with this mess and have their countries run again, governments, with the assistance of other nations, come up with various strategies to rehabilitate these crucial sectors and others. In this article, I will concentrate on the education sector and my country of focus shall be Zimbabwe. Why Zimbabwe, because it implemented strategies well to come up with the best education system in Africa after independence, an education system that has produced well-educated citizens who are all over in the diaspora. 

Arguably, Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa. How did all this come about? The expansion of both primary and secondary education after independence had its challenges. At secondary school, the government started what was called Upper Tops in rural areas. These were schools that offered Form 1 (Grade 8) to Form 4 (Grade 11) classes. They were housed at primary schools, to begin with, before they moved to their independent sites.  Initially condemned by educators and parents, and allowed to exist because there was desperation and it was a government project, Upper Tops became a bedrock of what was going to be Zimbabwe’s pride in the massification of education. Quality of education was a major problem. Reacting to criticism over Upper Tops, former President argued in their support that it was better to rule people who had gone as far as ‘O’ Level, whether they passed or failed. His was to be proved right in later years.

Upper Tops were run by primary-school teachers who had no experience in teaching at secondary school level. In addition, temporary, untrained teachers were hired to assist in these schools. Both primary school trained teachers and untrained temporary teachers became the heroes and heroines of the Zimbabwean education system as these usually dedicated men and women used all their knowledge in uplifting the literacy level of the country.   Upper Tops were headed by a teacher-in-charge who in most cases reported to the headmaster of the primary school where the Upper Top was based. This arrangement had its challenges, especially considering the boundaries control and power exercised by the two leaders. 

These rural secondary schools were easily accessed by learners who walked to school from their homes. Fees were affordable compared to fees charged at boarding schools and other day schools in urban areas.  The government made it mandatory that learners in Upper Tops and conventional secondary schools sat for the prestigious Cambridge School Certificate or General Certificate (Ordinary Level) examinations set and marked in the United Kingdom. This was long before the complete localization of these and Advanced Level examinations now under the Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council (ZIMSEC). The fact that learners followed the same syllabi and wrote the same examinations brought some uniformity among learners although they learnt under different conditions – some with limited access to facilities and equipment, and others enjoying modern facilities and equipment in conventional schools. The biggest challenge learners in Upper Tops was when it came to science subjects that required standard laboratories fully equipped with chemicals and models to conduct experiments and demonstrations. Instead, Upper Top science teachers used laboratory kits that were substandard to conventional labs. However, learning took place under these conditions at Upper Tops and some learners scored better results overall than those who attended conventional secondary schools, thereby earning stakeholders’ faith and trust in these rural-day secondary schools as they later became known. 

Another strategy the government used to ease the shortage of trained teachers in schools in the country was the recruitment of expatriate teachers from all over the world. The expatriate teachers were given long working permits so that their contribution to the education sector would be meaningful. Most of the teachers were deployed in new schools in the rural areas where possible, especially at secondary school level. Expatriate teachers brought experiences and knowledge from different countries that benefited both the learners and the ministries of education in the country. Expatriate teachers and lecturers were humanly treated and not scorned as foreigners who had come to milk the country of its resources. In other words, no xenophobia was shown to the men and women who had come from far countries to develop the education sector in the country. Some of them naturalized through legal means.

Also, the government rehired teachers who had been blacklisted by the white regime for pollical reasons. In addition, some retired teachers came back in the fold to assist in the building of a formidable education system. The retired teachers welcomed the government invitation as it gave them a new lease of life. Some people joked about retired teachers saying that government had committed a crime as some of them would collapse in front of learners.

Government trained thousands of teachers using a practical teacher-training model, the Zimbabwe Integrated Teacher Training Course (Zintec). Under the four-year teaching programme, student teachers were deployed to schools to take full charge of classes after spending only sixteen weeks at a teacher training college attending lecturers. They continued their training on distance while they were teaching in the classroom. This greatly transformed education in new Zimbabwe.

Government also sent hundreds of young men and women abroad to train as teachers and lecturers. The Cuban government trained many teachers who came back to teach in secondary schools. Some went to Russia, China, Germany, Britain and other countries to train as teachers under various schemes. The United States of America assisted in the construction of teacher training colleges in the country. Belvedere Teachers’ College in Harare is one of the institutions the US assisted in its construction.

All the above-mentioned and other government initiatives brought education at the door of almost every Zimbabwean child. A culture that had existed among Zimbabweans from long ago, even in the days of the white regime, was the emphasis on education in one’s life. Parents would sell all their cattle and goods to get school fees for their children. So, parents welcomed free primary school education the people’s government introduced at independence in 1980. During the seven years of free primary education, parents gathered money to pay fees for their children at secondary school. What was more to their advantage was that their children were able to attend secondary school from their own homes. Therefore, there was no reason why learners would not attend school. Parents and stakeholders welcomed the introduction of Upper Tops, the Zintec teacher training programme and expatriates from nations across the world. The result was a boom in education in Zimbabwe.