OPINION | Many of our once great public schools are falling apart. Here’s what to do about them

Pedestrian Opinion with Mike Murenzvi

“Charter schools, in particular, have proven a lifeline for millions of children stuck in chronically failing schools.” ~ Rachel Campos-Duffy

All across the country, there are many public schools with a rich history that are actively being lost due to administrative negligence and bad policy. With continually falling standards across the education system, how can a school’s heritage come into play to save it?

The Zimbabwe School System

Zimbabwe has two main classifications of schools, government and non-government. Non-government schools include private institutions and mission schools owned by religious organisations.

Most mission schools operate in the same manner as government schools. There is usually an agreement that the owners of the facilities delegate most of the tuition aspects to government, except for certain religious activities that are run by the institution itself.

Government schools, on the other hand, are owned and operated by government with the assistance of a school development committee. Tuition fees are standardised across the board based on the status and location of the school. Above this, each school has a general purpose levy to fund facilities and extracurricular activities.

Private schools operate independently and come with different ownership, administrative, and funding structures.

The Curse of Poor Funding

Public schools are woefully underfunded. They get very little, if any, support from the government. The general purpose fund that is meant to assist the effective management of each school and associated costs, is often limited to low amounts based on the economic means of the surrounding community. The standing rule on any levies charged is that they must be tabled before and approved by the school’s parents’ assembly. This must then be authorised by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

The entire fee structure in government schools is extremely low. While this may be relevant in terms of ensuring access to education by the majority, the lack of any further funding from the national purse means that schools are hamstrung in the services and facilities they can provide.

To further throw the cat amongst the pigeons, the 2020 amendment to the Education Act gave rise to free basic state-funded education from early childhood development (ECD) to form four (O-Level). This has not yet taken effect because of severe funding deficits within the national treasury.

In the meantime, government has been encouraging schools to embark on income-generating projects to supplement their available resources. While well-meaning, these activities, if not planned and managed effectively, take valuable time and resources away from teaching and learning and the costs far outweigh the benefits.

Alumni Networks – Benefitting from History

For all their worth, government schools have produced some of the most illustrious alumni in our country, but they have failed to harness those networks. A politically charged environment has caused all potential donations to schools to be heavily scrutinised for political mileage. Former students looking to give back to the schools that moulded them are subjected to endless interviews and bureaucracy to the extent that many often give up on the process altogether. The reason is that the donations may be viewed as political campaign material for opposition parties and candidates.

This short-sightedness in the name of protection from outside interference is extremely worrying and damaging to the schools. Surely, schools that have existed for more than 50 years have produced many well-to-do members of society. They may have wanted to also send their children to the same school that gave them their foundation and extend further financial support to improve the service offering and quality. However, there is an active movement to leave government schools, where possible, in favour of private schools. By their nature, private schools are significantly more receptive to donations and cultivating an alumni network.

Charter/Academy School System

Some parts of the USA have introduced and embraced a charter school system where poorly funded public schools are taken over by private organisations who then invest in them and improve their standards. In the UK, such schools are referred to as academies or free schools. One could say that they lease the school for a period of time and recover their investment through fees and levies that are on lower than the private school sector or, in some cases, maintain low fees but receive a grant from the government.

The benefit of this model is that the investor doesn’t have the costs of building a whole school from the ground up. Their cost is in repairs and improvements to existing facilities that have been neglected or are outdated. If they can combine that with reviving the school’s legacy, they can also entice the school’s alumni to reconsider giving back to their alma mater.

This model would need to be sufficiently modified for the Zimbabwean environment, but it makes a lot of sense for old schools that still have lots of potential.

Loosening the Reins

Government should depoliticise the school system and allow willing parties to donate to them accordingly. Allow schools to approach their old students with their development projects and allow them to flourish as best they can. Furthermore, they should allow the surrounding community more freedom to determine the trajectory of the school especially given that a school is situated within a certain community to serve that community.

Better Timely Funding from Government

The basic education model is premised on giving children the educational building blocks to life. It is worth increasing budget allocations towards it to ensure that the nation’s future will be in the hands of worthy custodians. The most disadvantaged within society currently benefit from school fees payments through the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM). This program is government funded but faces the challenge of delayed payments and arrears often spanning years.

Research and Political Will

As with most developmental issues within our country, it all boils down to political will and sufficient research into the most appropriate solution for each challenge. While free basic state-funded education may still be a pipe dream, the investment in public education should not be. We just need to harness and direct available resources in the right direction for the greater good.

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Mike Murenzvi writes in his personal capacity and his views are not associated with any organisation he is, or may be, affiliated with.