Zimbabwe’s high literacy rate has long been touted as a marker of the nation’s levels of enlightenment. But with the country having held this position of prestige for some time, one must ask whether a high literacy is all that is needed to produce world-class intellectuals who will lead in providing solutions to the nation’s problems.
This was, among other issues, a point of discussion at a recent Food For Thought (FFT) session organised by the US Public Affairs Section. The discussion was led by author and entrepreneur Dr Patson Dzamara, human rights activist Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya and EducationUSA Advisor for the US Embassy Rebecca Mano.
Ruhanya started his argument by stating that it was important to analyse the leadership that is in charge of governing the country before looking at the education system as this had important bearing on the former.
“Our problem lies with the equation of the ‘will to power’ versus the ‘will to transform’,” he stated. “Do those in power have the will to change and improve the situation?”
His interpretation was that there is a tendency by government to concentrate on the will to gain more power than the will to improve the policies and resources within the education sector for the benefit of the ordinary person.
Ruhanya’s position was that while the education system is still relevant, it is suffering the effects of a brain drain, with most qualified personnel having left the country. A 2010 article stated that at that time, the country had lost a total of 45 000 qualified teachers to other countries. This meant that schools had had to resort to whatever personnel, qualified or not, available to fill in the vacant positions.
To confirm this, an article published in the Financial Gazette late last year revealed that 15 000 unqualified teachers were teaching within the education system, especially at primary and secondary levels. Recently, there have been calls on the government to relieve unqualified teachers of their duties.
A difference between being literate and being educated?
Mano posed a very crucial question to the discussion by asking if there is a difference between being literate and being educated.
“Currently our syllabus seems to be producing kids who have the ability to write exams,” she said. “Our students should be able to do something besides passing exams.”
She added that Zimbabwe had lost the rich co-curricular culture that was, in the past, shown through the promotion of activities like the National High Schools’ Quiz show on national television. Also, reports in some sections of the media last year revealed that the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education had ordered schools to confine sporting activities to Saturdays only, an indication that less and less relevance is being given to activities outside the classroom.
Her arguments also dwelt on the issue of the recently published list of Top 100 O’ level schools.
“If we just rank our schools in terms of the total pass rate per school without breaking down the results to the quality of the passes, our statistics tend to be very misleading,” said Mano.
Schools around the country have different population sizes and Mano posited that statistics released by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZIMSEC) did not pay attention to the fact that the number of students may have an effect on the overall results per school.
Analysing grades is also important in the sense that it gives a view of the quality of grades, something more important than quantity. This year’s O’ Level pass rate showed a 10 percentage point increase from 20.72% in 2013 to 30.85% in 2014. As a pass includes any mark that is above 50% – which could be an A, B or C – there is a possibility that most passes in 2014 could have been C grades and that in 2013, there may have been more A grade passes. If we just applaud any higher number of passes we may encourage mediocrity within our schools without even realising it.
In his contributions, Dzamara concurred with those made by his colleagues as he reiterated that the education system in the country was relevant but needed transformation.
“The intellectuals of the 21st century should be able to unlearn, lean and relearn,” he said.
He emphasised the need to structure the education system in a way that would provide learners with relevant knowledge also useful to the available job and economic opportunities. He also suggested that for Zimbabwe to make its literacy level relevant, strategic and well-informed changes had to be made to the system.
Food For Thought is a weekly session organised by the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section where the public is invited to attend an open discussion on a different weekly topic led by a set of selected panelists.
All photographs are courtesy Yolanda Ndlovu.