Pic courtesy of Masvingo Mirror Online
Pic courtesy of Masvingo Mirror Online

Upon my return from graduate school I was very keen to reconnect with the schools that I had worked with before just to touch base and chart ways for our joined future work. In casual chat, school officials would ask me about my time away and I (in return) would ask about major school changes/developments in my absence. At every school, without fail, they would mention – we bought a bus – excitedly. I heard it so often that I began to wonder if there was something about this bus issue that I was missing. Even conversations with parents and students yielded the same excited sentiments. The more I asked and read around the more I found  that there was indeed a growing trend at that time [August 2014] for schools to invest in ‘state-of-the-art’ buses. A newspaper article reported how one school in Chivi district bought a bus worth US$110 000 and this was hailed as an empowerment to the school.

A little background

Schools in Zimbabwe are semi-autonomous institutions and as such have semi-free reign on how to utilize funds within their coffers. Most schools have a School Development Association (S.D.A) or School Development Committee (SDC) which is a body of advisers that are meant to give support and independent insight into school operations. The S.D.A is a board to which the school is answerable to at a local level and together with a school’s administration they are in charge of charting a school’s development pathway. The S.D.A board is often constituted of parents who are educationalists, politicians and/or distinguished members of the community.  S.D.As were introduced as a fail-safe audit system to ensure that school executives used parents’ levies effectively and efficiently. It’s not a system that is unique to Zimbabwe or in our dispensation alone. Arthur P. Briggs notes the relative importance of a Parents-Teachers Association as early as 1914 when he said ‘[T]here are at least seven justifiable and ample reasons why a Parents-Teachers’ Association is worthwhile. 1. It gives the greatest returns for the least expenditure…’ (1914, pg.484). One local school notes on its website that ‘[T]he SDC plays a pivotal role at the College as it acts as an interface for the parents/guardians’

The problem

So there is indeed value in having a school – parents interface such as an S.D.A. The assumption is therefore that if school heads and parents are placed in a room with a bag of money in front of them that will ensure the drafting of initiatives that maximize the education utility of students, right? Wrong.

At one school in Bulawayo’s high density – low income suburbs; the school’s capacity of 900 students has been exceed by over 1000. The school is carrying more than double it structural and staff capacity. The student to teacher ratio is around 150/1! Due the large enrollment hot seating is a must [This is whereby one section of the student body come into school from morning to early afternoon and then dismiss to make room for another section to come and commence classes]. I have been into many-a-high-tabled class rooms that bare little semblance of a laboratory that should train our future scientists. The problem also extends beyond the main curriculum activities; many sporting grounds for low income schools are bare dust bowls. Running tracks are drawn every year courtesy of a stick, measuring wire and maybe white wash paint. In 2013, I was shocked when I arrived at one school and three girls were laying on the floor in a make-shift dispensary as they had fainted during class from hunger.

The question then is; in light of these obvious problems why are S.D.As not advocating for greater investment into curricular and extra-curricular activities that will more directly improve the utility of education for their children? Why are the boards which parent-run not advocating for investments that will allow their children to learn with greater ease? The problem is threefold:

1. A school in Gutu, a rural district, bought a bus and the news article notes how Mupandawana Growth Point (rural shopping area) came to a standstill as people wow-ed and ogled the bus. With acquisitions like shiny new (or shiny refurbished in some cases) buses it’s an easy way of showing progress even when there is no actual progress. As a former retail/marketing manager I understand this very well. In a supermarket, if the retailer wants to sell more of a product they usually put it right at the front of the store and slap a large print sign on it and then wait for the customer buying frenzy. It elicits a psychological reaction that a product is new, on sale or running out – the truth is usually that the product fits none of the above. In the same way I believe buses are a bold marketing statement for schools. A follow up question would be why do schools need bold marketing? (This deserves a whole new blog post).

2. The second problem, which has claimed quite a bit of newsprint space is that the S.D.A handles large sums of money that are rarely or effectively audited. There is a lot of room for ‘mismanagement’ and this has surfaced quite often especially since the Zimbabwe economy dollarized. Buses then become ways of window dressing the real handling of funds at schools. One school bought a bus but failed to pay its water bill. Another bought a new bus but students attended class in rooms with no blackboards. Briggs notes that ‘when parents and teachers thoroughly understand each other, happiness and contentment follow’ (1914, pg. 484). I am sure underhand dealings and funds siphoning are not the forms of ‘contentment’ that Briggs meant but many Zimbabweans will understand fully what that really statement means.

3. How then do we proceed? Who should blow the whistle on the bus circus? Well, that would be the government – right? The challenge is that the Ministry of Primary and secondary Education seems to agree with current investment direction of schools. It revealed intentions to avail a fund that would enable the ministry to purchase buses from China on behalf of schools. The complicity of the ministry is further exposed when high ranking ministry officials often commission the buses. This exposes a weakness in the current system of education in Zimbabwe. There are no outside checks and balances (save the parliament, which has its own set of problems) to ensure that only highest education utils are prioritised.

A way ahead

Now when questions of the goal and priority of education surface they point to a need for a revaluation of the philosophy and ethos of education. In the Nziramasanga Presidential Commission of Inquiry [learn about the commission here] the patrons of the document submitted, inter alia, a need for an independent body for the nation’s system of education and an overarching philosophy to guide education (1999). A stand alone board would allow members of the from various sectors of the economy such as industry patrons, church clergy, civil society leaders and ordinary citizens to give an outside opinion as to the running of schools. I would riposte and say an independent education board is important but not at national level as submitted by the commission as this could make it less effective in the regions where the board does not physically sit. Regional independent boards could in this case serve better as they would provide regional context/understanding as well as being geographical near the areas of operation. There is need to refocus the efforts of schools so that they feed into their main objective which is providing young people the opportunity to actualise their talents and build a responsible citizenry.

The current curriculum review process is an opportunity that education stakeholders have to ensure that guidelines are laid down so as to create, in schools, a system that prioritises the highest education utility. The national curriculum itself is an encoded guideline which states the broad goals of an nations’ education. The Nziramasanga Presidential Commission of Inquiry notes that ‘[T]he curriculum is at the centre of education’ (1999, pg.234). As such all other facets such as local investments and local operations should build around it.

Buses are truly good additives to any school’s infrastructure but given the devastation of the dark decade (2002-2012) I believe schools and parents should be asking themselves what can they do to rebuild the lost infrastructure and improve the quality of education at a local level. S.D.As are still vital bodies in the provision of holistic education as they allow parents to take an active hand in the education of their children but there needs to be a revaluation of educational goals and priorities that each SDA had to observe.

It is frightening to think that a school had US$110 000 in its hands and the item of priority that came up was a bus – really! I wonder how many blocks of classrooms could have been built, how many books could the library been furnished with, how many sports fields could have been upgraded, how many more teachers (even on a temporary basis) could have been hired, how many meals could have been served? I guess the problem is also reflective of the political economy we find ourselves in presently that is engrossed (to a fault) on window dressing that is does not see there is no longer a window to dress. There is a need to address the real fundamentals of education so that we can be best serve our country’s young minds. Just a thought!


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