By Njabulo Ncube
26 January 2017
THE Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education continues to raise the ire of parents and guardians chiefly because of the controversial policies being introduced by its head, Lazarus Dokora.
This week the Financial Gazette correspondent Njabulo Ncube (NN) sought the views of former education minister, David Coltart (DC), on the present state of the education sector and how he thinks sanity can be made to prevail in this important sector.
NN: Generally, what is your take on what is happening in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education?
DC: While I have been encouraged by the fact that the curriculum review process that I started during my tenure has continued, I am worried about several disturbing changes in policy that have become evident since I left office. In broad terms, what I tried to do was grant as much autonomy (as possible) to schools, both government and private, across the nation. Included in that policy was, for example, the right given to parents to enhance conditions of service for the teachers teaching their children and allowing school development associations (SDAs) to control their own funding. Sadly, Minister Dokora has reversed that policy in a variety of ways, clearly with the intention of maintaining as much centralised control over education as possible, even to the extent of trying to get SDAs to submit monies raised to a central pot. I believe that one of the key strengths of our education system has been that parents and local headmasters and teachers have taken a keen interest in the running of their respective schools, which I think is being undermined by this desire to control everything from Harare.
NN: Where is the Ministry or Minister Dokora going wrong?
DC: If I have to identify a key mistake being made by the Ministry at present is its failure to adequateley consult with all stakeholders. It seems to me that a variety of policies have been announced without adequate consultation with parents, teachers, school leaders and teachers’ unions. It is apparent that some policies have been announced with almost no consultation whatsoever and others have been announced before a broad consensus has been reached. The formulation of education policy is unique in this regard because there is no deeper emotion than parents’ love for their children. While government can get away with minimal consultation in other areas of governance, it cannot do so when it comes to the education of children. It makes even running individual schools very different to, say, running a business, because one has such a broad range of stakeholders all with such fervent passion for the task at hand. One only has to see the difficulties experienced by Michael Gove, the former education secretary in the United Kingdom, when he tried to implement drastic changes; and indeed the woes of the South African government’s attempted introduction of a new curriculum, to realise how hard it is to implement new education policies.
It is in that context that, while no one doubts that there is great need for curriculum reform, I fear that there has been insufficient consultation, consensus building and planning. To give an example I wanted to consolidate all the education laws and worked hard on the production of a new single statutory instrument (SI) during my tenure. By the end of my term I had still not succeeded in building that consensus and so was unable to implement that new SI. I could have forced it on everyone as I had that power in terms of the Education Act, but I decided that it was more important that a consensus be reached. I fear this has not happened here.
NN: What about the new history curriculum, the pledge, heritage studies, not using English as the main medium of tuition in primary school, the new languages they want to teach when Shona and Ndebele are not being taught effectively, amid the collapsing school infrastructure?
DC: While there are some very positive aspects of the new curriculum, indeed certain features reflect many of my original policy goals, such as balancing academic education with vocational education, I am very disturbed by certain features of the new curriculum. In particular it seems to me that the new history and heritage studies syllabi are nothing more than propaganda. When I was minister I argued that objective, neutral historians should formulate our history syllabus so that it could be more factual and less politically-biased than the original syllabus. It appears that, if anything, the history and heritage syllabi have become even more politically-biased in favour of ZANU-PF. Key aspects of our history, such as ZAPU’s dominant role, the reasons for the original split between ZAPU and ZANU, Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, Zimbabwe’s war in the DRC have either been ignored or glossed over.
Another very serious development, which has been reported to me is an attempt to cut back on the teaching of English in primary school. While I have not had confirmation that this is true, if what has been reported to me is correct this is an appalling development. Whatever our history, whatever role that English has played in the subjugation of black Zimbabweans in the past, the fact remains that it is the business language of the world, much as Latin was 2000 years ago. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a solid knowledge of English. South African University professors often comment on the good grasp Zimbabwean students have of the English language; it is hard to demonstrate sufficiently how important this is to the education of our children. One of the key problems we had in my tenure was the dearth of experienced English teachers. If there is now to be a deliberate policy of downplaying the importance of English, combined with a stretching of already limited resources to the teaching of Mandarin, we may well undermine one of the main pillars of our excellent education system, with devastating consequences.
NN: But what would you have done instead, if you were still minister to prevent the disgruntlement in the sector which characterised the first weeks of the 2017 first term?
DC: It really comes down to what I have said before: Consult widely and build a consensus with all stakeholders. However, it appears that even if that consensus had been established the introduction was unplanned for. For example, has government produced new textbooks for Mandarin and Portuguese? I have not heard of them. It seems to me that this new curriculum has been hoisted on teachers without the necessary teaching aids being supplied. If this is the case it is a critical error.
NN: What is your take on the proposed teaching of foreign languages such as Mandarin, Portuguese etc. when the country has no requisite teaching skills even to effectively teach local vernacular languages?
DC: Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the new curriculum relates to the new language policies. On the face of it, the introduction of Mandarin, Portuguese and Swahili sound like positive developments, but my fear is that we are not yet in a position to effectively teach these subjects and other existing languages are already being taught badly. It has always been a major concern of mine that indigenous Zimbabwean languages are not being taught effectively. The harsh reality is that very few of our children can speak indigenous languages other than their mother tongue and English. It has been a serious indictment on our curriculum and syllabi that, despite the fact that children get some eight years of instruction in languages other than English and their mother tongue, most cannot speak, read or write another indigenous language at the end of their schooling. In addition, the teaching of minority indigenous languages such as Tonga, Kalanga, Venda, Sotho and Shangani is woeful. In my view, we should have concentrated on improving the teaching of these languages before venturing out to teach these other languages.
Had I continued as minister, I would have directed that more resources be allocated to the production of textbooks and training of teachers for these indigenous languages, rather than divert those scarce resources to the instruction of other foreign languages. My policy regarding languages such as Mandarin and Portuguese would have been to introduce them at some of the academies of excellence where children with demonstrable language skills could be taught these languages. Most Zimbabweans will never use Mandarin and Portuguese, but it is important that certain of our children, who are talented with languages learn those languages so that they can become interpreters and, for example, diplomats, in countries which seek those languages.
NN: The minister has directed headmasters to do away with Physical Science after he split it into two separate subjects, Physics and Chemistry at O Level, yet the country lacks such specialist teachers. Is this what the Nziramasanga Commission of Inquiry on Education and Training recommended?
DC: The Nziramazanga Report advocated for a curriculum which focused more on vocational subjects and to that extent the new curriculum is an improvement, and the splitting of subjects as you have mentioned is justified. However — and this is key to the entire debate — if the new curriculum is not accompanied by a major increase in the actual amount of government funding for education, it may be doomed to fail. When I was minister I complained about the disparity between the theoretical education budget (the one announced by the Minister of Finance on budget day) and the actual budget (being the actual amount of money disbursed by Treasury to the Ministry). There was always a massive gulf, even in the days of the Government of National Unity (GNU); and from all the reports I receive from former colleagues within the Ministry, nothing has changed. Indeed the situation is now far worse. A change to the curriculum like this demands a massive increase in spending. It is no use announcing that Chemistry will be taught separately if most schools don’t have adequately equipped and well supplied Chemistry laboratories, or have few teachers with the necessary qualifications to teach Chemistry.
NN: The Nziramasanga inquiry and its recommendations were formulated or concluded nearly 20 years ago, do you see its recommendations as still relevant nearly two decades later and more so in this day and age of advancements in ICT?
DC: There is no doubt that the Nziramazanga Report is just as relevant now as it was when it was first produced. We have a good education system, but it is now in some respects antiquated and ill-equipped to prepare our children for this new computerised age.
NN: The opposition and other critics of the ZANU-PF administration strongly feel that the education sector is being politicised. Some might say it is a question of soar grapes as former opposition minister. But what is your take on this perception or view?
DC: The danger of criticising a former subordinate, who has taken over one’s job is that it may be viewed as sour grapes. That is one of the principal reasons why I have withheld criticising either the Ministry or the Minister until now. I felt it was important to give my successor a chance to get the job done. However, I fear that in the three and half years since he has taken office the education system has begun to slide again. I have argued before that the most important government ministry is Education because it determines our future more than anything else. Our outstanding education system has been the bedrock of our nation for decades; as damaging as other ZANU-PF policies have been in other spheres, the fact remains that successive generations of educated Zimbabweans have ameliorated the destruction of our country. It is educated Zimbabweans who have made the difference between a country which still has hope and a failed state. If the education system is now undermined by what appears to be politically-motivated, as opposed to educationally-motivated, policies then it is our duty to speak out.
NN: Lastly but not least, what would you say you achieved as the then minister in charge of primary and secondary education in Zimbabwe during the ill-fated GNU?
DC: It is not for me to say what I achieved; I took over an education system which was near a total state of collapse. With the help of some outstanding educationalists throughout our nation, and with help from international agencies such as UNICEF, we managed to stop the rot and stabilise the sector. Many of my proposed policies, such as a new curriculum, academies of excellence and a rationalised legal structure, were never implemented much to my frustration. In that context I felt that much was left undone and that the transformation of our education system into one of the best in the world, was not achieved.