“Restoring excellence to Zimbabwe’s education sector” – Opening address by Senator David Coltart at CHIZ 2017 AGM

CHIZ AGM 2017 Pathway to Progress: People, Passion and Purpose

Victoria Falls – 5th June 2017

Opening address by Senator David Coltart


I can’t tell you how delighted I am that I’ve been given an opportunity to speak to you today. It is almost 4 years since my office as Minister of Education ended. While I appreciate that many of you must’ve been greatly relieved to see the back of me, I greatly appreciated the opportunity of serving as Minister of Education. My time left me with a new appreciation of the importance of education for all Nations. I was also left with profound respect for our teachers, especially those who toil in poor rural schools and faithfully teach our children, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

When I left office I decided that it would be right not to criticise my successor but to get him a chance and to give him the benefit of doubt. I confess though to experiencing a growing sense of anxiety especially in the last year or so and on occasions I have felt compelled to voice my concerns. That said I do not think that this is right forum to personally criticise and I would rather take a leaf out of your theme “Pathway to Progress: People, Passion and Purpose” and rather speak in what I hope is a more constructive tone on what I believe we need to do to restore “excellence to Zimbabwe’s education sector.”

I should stress that using the phrase “restoring excellence” I do not suggest that excellence was achieved during my tenure. In fact I believe that all that was achieved during my tenure was the stabilization of an education sector which was in danger of collapse when I started in 2009. In fact I left the Ministry with an overwhelming sense of work unfinished.

As good as Zimbabwe’s education system has been in the past and still, in many respects, still is, I think that all non partisan educationalists would agree that the sector remains in crisis and much work has still to be done to make our system world class, which should be our aim.

I cannot do justice to the many complex issues facing the education sector in Zimbabwe today and so all I can use this morning is a broad brush to outline four areas which, in my view, need critical attention.


There is a widely held belief in Zimbabwe, certainly in Government circles, that our spending on education is at the very least adequate and some would argue good. Last week (on the 28th May) Deputy Minister Paul Mavhima was quoted in the Chronicle stating that “government reserves 25 % of its annual budget for Primary and Secondary Education”. There is no doubt that a large portion of what I term our theoretical Budget is allocated to education. By theoretical budget I refer to the Budget announced in parliament by the Minister of Finance. Even during the government of national unity Minister Biti announced in his Budget speeches very generous allocations to the Ministry of Education. However when I was Minister the amount which was actually transferred to the Ministry was a fraction of the amount in the theoretical budget. In fact in my last month in office less than $50,000 was transferred from treasury to run over 8,000 schools. I have no doubt that the situation is even worse now.

The reality is that for at least the last 25 years we have as a Nation merely paid lip service to the notion that education is a budgetary priority. The same applies to all of us, even in the private sector. We all simply do not appreciate what is needed to develop a world class education system – in short it requires a sustained national effort over decades to invest heavily in education. Even if we had actually paid the Ministry of Education the theoretical budgetary amount it would remain grossly insufficient to develop a world class education system.

In this regard it is instructive to consider what other Nations have done in the last 50 years. During this period 3 nations in particular have totally transformed their education systems namely, Finland, Singapore and South Korea. The leading education assessment think tank PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) consistently put these three countries in the top 10 education countries in the world. They have the following similarities:

for over 40 years all have consistently invested heavily in education irrespective of which party has been in power; in other words there has been a broad national consensus
all have relatively low defence spending and relatively small governments
all have dramatically increased the stature and prestige of the teaching profession.

The last factor is critical. In Singapore teaching is now one of the sought after professions. Education faculties attract the best graduates . The best paid teachers in the world are in Singapore where a 2013 study revealed they earned an average of US$45,755 per year. South Korea was close behind in 3rd place. Finland is no different – in fact in Finland the law requires that teachers have a Master degree. In all these countries the teaching profession has great prestige.

Of course what we also know about these countries is that their economies have boomed during the same period they have invested in education. There are of course other countries such as Switzerland which also spend heavily in education, but I have deliberately focussed on these three because 50 years ago their economies were a similar size or even smaller than Zimbabwe’s.

If we contrast this with Zimbabwe it is clear that although government states that education is a priority in reality it isn’t. In government’s own financial statements issued last November it was shown that last year government spent some $44 million on Presidential and Cabinet travel against less than $400,000 on educational materials – in other words we actually spent on educational materials just 1% of the actual amount spent on Presidential and Cabinet travel. That alone displays a seriously warped sense of priorities. The attitude towards teachers is also given in the fact that soldiers and policemen were paid their bonuses earlier than teachers. All of this demonstrates a mind set which does not prioritize education in reality.

In essence what we need is major shift in policy that goes much deeper than simply improving teacher salaries and when we pay them. We need to build a national consensus that we will start to invest heavily in education. This must of course include progressively increasing the amount we pay teachers but must also include a progressive increase in the qualifications we require teachers to have. It must also include a steep increase in the amount of money allocated to building new schools and, critically, the amount we allocate to maintain schools, provide teaching materials and textbooks. The fabric of most government and local council schools is in a shocking state of disrepair.

The question most people will inevitably raise is where will this money come from? In the long term all depends on a future government’s ability to revive the Zimbabwean economy, which can be the only long term source of increased spending on the education sector. However in the short term, the most important policy change needs to be how we allocate existing finances. I have spoken about Presidential travel – whilst a huge reduction in that regard, and in general spending on the Cabinet, would be helpful, the shift in budgetary allocations needs to go much deeper than that. The major change in my view needs to come in defence and general security spending and in the size of government generally. We have a bloated military and simply do not need an army or airforce the size it is. Indeed many of the military barracks spread around Zimbabwe would make excellent schools and technical colleges.

Of course military spending cannot be reduced overnight because if we retrench thousands of soldiers without enabling them to have an alternative source of income that could result in major security concerns. Accordingly this must be seen as a process which will take at least a decade to effect. Part and parcel national commitment to increase education expenditure must be a commitment to systematically reduce the size of the military but at the same time soldiers due to be retrenched should be trained in other skills and financial assistance should be sourced to enable them to start their own businesses or enjoy a comfortable retirement.

The commitment to spend more on education should not be confined solely to the government of Zimbabwe. Parents must themselves be encouraged to make education more of a priority in both government schools and private schools. Whilst researching education in Singapore I noted that fees for private schools are between $10 k and $15 K per semester, in other words far more than private school fees in Zimbabwe. No doubt salaries are much better in Singapore than they are in Zimbabwe and so the average professional person working in Singapore can more easily afford fees like this, whereas in Zimbabwe the economy is struggling and most people are battling to pay the current level of fees. So I am not advocating a massive increase in private school fees; the point is simply that teachers are respected in Singapore as top professionals entitled to good salaries. Until we all understand that and change our mindset for the future we will never understand what we need to do if we aspire to have a world class education system in Zimbabwe. In essence until we start regarding teachers in Zimbabwe as top professionals in the same way we do Doctors, Engineers and Architects, and dare I say it -Lawyers – we will never reach the high standards achieved in countries like Singapore. This cannot happen overnight; it needs to be a generational project, but it requires a fundamental paradigm shift.

Let me say this as well – this also needs to be a global paradigm shift as well. Until the world starts spending less on defense and more on education, not only will many counties be left with sub standard education systems, but also the world will continue to become more unsafe for all. I have recently been appointed to a new body called the Atlantis Group which comprises some 20 former Ministers of Education, including both Barack Obama and David Cameron’s former Secretaries for Education Arne Duncan and Michael Gove. At our inaugural meeting in Dubai in March I spoke about this topic and pointed out the huge disparity between international spending on defense and education. The international community’s main organization to promote education the world over is the Global Partnership for Education. It is tasked with channelling resources provided by the leading democracies in the world and institutions like the World Bank to developing countries such as Zimbabwe. Its current annual budget is in the region of US$ 3 billion, which perhaps sounds a lot of money, but which pales into into significance when one understands the funding needs across the world, and how much money is spend on defense. Two examples illustrate my point: firstly President Trump recently announced that we proposed to increase the USA’s defense budget by 10% this year – the increase alone is $ 56 billion. Then just last week President Trump announced when he visited Saudi Arabia that the USA was going to sell $110 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis. Just 5 % of that money would almost treble the international spending on education, and would dramatically change educational outcomes for literally millions of children.

I need to emphasise that generally I am skeptical about the benefits of aid – I prefer the mantra “Trade not aid”. But having said that I recognize that most developing countries they simply do not have the resources necessary to invest heavily in the infrastructure needed to develop a world class education, and they need this assistance. And for those who are fixated by security concerns it is a well known facts that the rise in terrorism is rooted in poverty and hopelessness. Even the American military accept that unless coming generations are given a good education and through it hope of a better life, terrorism will continue to fester, no matter how many new nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers are produced. And to bring this debate full circle – the same applies in Zimbabwe. The reality is that we do not have any external threats to our national security; the greatest threat lies within our borders. If we do not give coming generations the best education possible we will breed battalions of young people who will be more tempted into crime and violence. But this will only happen if we have a national change of heart regarding how much we are going to invest in education – and this must involve all parties and all citizens, in all sectors.

2. Autonomy

I am often asked what I did to stabilize the education sector which was in such chaos when I took office and my answer usually is – “well actually not very much”. In truth whatever turn around we managed to achieve was due in large measure to the actions of headmasters and teachers countrywide who simply got on with the job. I am a great believer in delegating authority especially to professionals who have a passion for the calling, and education I found no different. I told my HQ staff that I wanted them to facilitate rather than obstruct and as you all know gave enormous autonomy to all schools, both private and government. My policy to allow incentives to be paid to teachers were rooted in the belief that it is good to involve parents in their children’s education. As I have studied education systems across the world it seems to me that the most effective systems are those where parents are heavily invested in their children’s education.

It is this area which has given me the greatest concern since leaving office because it appears my successor is determined to reverse whatever autonomy I had granted to teachers and parents. This is seen in the termination of incentives and the recent statements about the centralization of funds generated at schools by parents. I believe this is retrogressive step and that future education policy should allow increased autonomy to all schools, both government and private. In broad terms Government’s role should be confined to the construction and maintenance of schools and teacher training colleges, to ensuring that economies of scale are achieved in the production and supply of education materials, and that minimum standards are respected through a national system of evaluation. Beyond that schools should be allowed to function as autonomous units.

In this regard I need to comment on what appears to be a recent trend in some schools where Government appears to be trying to control private schools through the enforcement of SI 78 of 1992 – namely the establishment of SDCs which include a government representative on it. This has gained favor with some parents who are keen to have more say in the running of private schools. There are indeed some who state that parents should have the right to elect the Board of Governors of schools, and I suppose some may interpret my comments regarding autonomy to support their view.

In that regard I would not want my comments regarding autonomy to be misconstrued. When I speak of autonomy, I mean specifically autonomy from government control. This flows from the constitutional rights contained in sections 60(3) and (4) and 75(2) of the Constitution which gives parents and citizens the rights to determine the the moral upbringing of their children, including their education and to establish and run schools, and the rights of religious communities to establish institutions, including schools. In other words parents, citizens in general and religious communities have the right to establish educational institutions which should be unfettered by government controls. In schools established by religious communities this means that the religious communities which started and run schools have the right to run those schools in accordance with their beliefs and parents of children attending those schools have the right to choose whether to submit themselves to that ethos or to move their children to another school. In other words autonomy does not extend to parents having the right to take over the running of schools established by religious communities.

The same applies to secular private schools established by particular language groups or ethnic communities. Whilst those schools cannot be discriminatory in their admission policies, their governing Boards have absolute authority to run those schools. Once again parents attending those schools have a choice either to submit to the ethos of those schools or move their children elsewhere.

As a general comment I think we need too understand the fine balance that can and should be achieved between Trust or Boards of Governors and the parent body. Most trusts are made up of people who are not necessarily parents but people who subscribe to the founding ethos or faith of particular schools and who have a long term vision for the school. Parents by their very nature have enormous energy for their children and for the schools their children attend during the period their children attend those schools. But experience shows that most parents lose interest in the schools their children attend once they leave those schools. In other words there is a delicate balance and mutual understanding which should be achieved between governing Trusts and the parental body. Parental bodies tend to have more short term financial goals in mind which will benefit their own children whereas Trusts tend to take a longer view. Governing Trusts need to tap into the short term energy of parents so that it is fully utilized. But likewise parents need to appreciate that long term goals may sometimes conflict with short term goals of parents. In the short term parents may think it good to put a cap on teachers’ salaries, for example, because of their current financial woes. In the long term that may lead to a loss of quality teachers which undermine schools.

The point I making is that if we seek to achieve excellence in education we need to encourage autonomy but once autonomy has been granted to schools there needs to be a balance. Parents must not view autonomy as license to achieve short terms benefits for themselves and their children which may not be in the long term best interests of particular schools and education in general. Likewise governing Trusts, having been granted the right of autonomy by the Constitution must also achieve a balance and harness the productive energy of each generation of parents, by involving them as much as possible in the running of schools. This balance is critical if we are to achieve excellence in future.

3. Curriculum

There has been much publicity in the last year regarding the new curriculum and there is no doubt that if we are to achieve excellence in education we must get our curriculum right. As good as our curriculum has been in the past the Nzaramazanga Commission identified its major flaw in 1999, namely that it was too academically orientated and weak regarding vocational education. I started the process of curriculum reform as Minister but was frustrated at every turn by ZANU PF operatives who were determined to ensure that the curriculum would not be changed during my tenure. There was a particular concern that I would change the history syllabus to make it less partisan. My successor continued the process but of course has enjoyed the full support of senior civil servants, resulting in the new curriculum. At first glance the new curriculum attempts to address some of the concerns raised by the Nzaramazanga Commission but I do not believe that in its current form it is going to ensure excellence in education.

Not being an educationalist I have asked educationalists who I trust to comment on it and what they have report back raises major concerns as to the usefulness of this plan as a guideline for education of Zimbabwean children.  Just to begin I it makes certain wrong assumptions about children and their conditions of learning.  All children seem to be offered the same programme, whether or not it is relevant to them and whether or not it is possible to provide qualified and capable teachers and the necessary equipment – here I would point specifically to agriculture for all, ICT for all – and of course swimming, and the teaching of foreign languages, like Swahili and Chinese, also fall into this category.

Another general comment, which really is another way of saying part of what I have said above, is that the curriculum is totally unrealistic.  There is no way that any time in the near future Zimbabwe can produce teachers that can teach such a syllabus.  When a syllabus is unrealistic it allows teachers to disregard everything and do more or less what they feel comfortable with.  It promotes a gap between ideas and what happens on the ground which is in the final analysis quite dangerous.  Once again, schooling and reality are divorced – with ironically was one of the major criticisms of colonial education.

The issue of “patriotism” is of course problematic, a thin disguise for ruling party propaganda and brainwashing.  You may be aware of the debate which the late Oxford historian Terrence Ranger initiated about “patriotic history”.  His argument was that one can’t have ‘critical thinking’ in the context of patriotism.  In the new curriculum virtually everything is focused on Zimbabwe and virtually nothing even on the region.  This is what was done with the secondary school history and geography syllabi immediately after independence, and then later they broadened it a little. 

The new focus on mass displays is also worrying. “Mass displays” are North Korean specialities.  The ideas of “harmony”, “collective”, “discipline” etc have the flavour (odour?) of totalitarianism, and I believe this is how they are intended here.  Whilst they are not harmful as an activity of co-operation, fitting into a larger group, even aesthetics, they can certainly be misused to try to produce conformity. It seems to clear to me that that is the intention here. Indeed mass displays are emblematic of a desire to prevent children from innovation and the ability to question their surroundings and the order they live in.

There are other aspects of the curriculum which make little sense. For example why are primary children going to be taught foreign languages? In my view our focus should be on ensuring that every child is able to read, write and spell their mother tongue  and English in primary school. Experts the world over are agreed that a good knowledge of one’s mother tongue is the most important educational building block one can give a child, followed by a good knowledge of English, the world’s business language.  A foreign language in my view would properly belong in secondary school. 

Likewise Music and art activities are certainly important in the pre-school years, but require well-trained teachers for them not to be simply repetitive and non-creative.  They require equipment, or at the very least an extremely imaginative teacher to make use of materials available in the environment.

My general impression of this is that this new curriculum is just for show. It attempts to make us look good and progressive when everyone knows that it can never be implemented.   We need to concentrate on the basic skills of literacy and numeracy with some knowledge of the social and physical environment, health, nutrition, and some simple productive experience. The arts should be for creative expression not for economic purposes at primary level. This is typical ZANU PF – showing off when there is no meaningful and realistic substance, copying bits and pieces from other jurisdictions without considering their transferability.

If anyone doubts what I am saying one need simply ask what provision has been made for training teachers to teach the new curriculum, for the production of new text books and equipment needed to teach the new subjects. The answer it clear – no provision has been made and there is little indication that the massive resources required to retrain teachers and produce millions of new text books are going to be made available in the near future.

In short the new curriculum, as presently structured and financed, is not the panacea we have been waiting for. If Zimbabwe is to achieve excellence in education we need to remove politicians from the process; we have thousands of highly competent educationalists both within the country and in the diaspora who need to be engaged to produce a curriculum which will prepare our children appropriately. And there cannot be one size which fits all; the curriculum must be tailored fun a way which recognizes the massive gulf between facilities available at schools in the short term and the current job market. In other words it must be tied to current realities and be linked to a broader economic plan which will see the transformation of Zimbabwe’s economy, and educational system in the medium and long term.

4. Education as business

Let me end on a constructive, positive note. For all my criticisms of current government policy my faith in Zimbabwe and her education sector remains firm. Zimbabwe in general and her education sector in particular has tremendous promise and great future if we implement sound policies now.

Key to this is the notion that education is business. There are a few facets to this phrase. Firstly the establishment of an excellent education system is the sine qua non of strong economic growth in future. Without our schools producing high quality engineers, doctors, technicians and architects our economy will never achieve its true potential. We are far too reliant on external skills, on people who do not have a passion for our nation because they aren’t citizens.

But secondly we, especially those of us involved in private education, must grasp that education in itself can become a growth industry and a generator of foreign exchange. Our private education sector has some unique comparative advantages which we are not exploiting. It is a fact that we have some of the finest teachers and education facilities in the world, we have a rich education legacy and despite the problems we face still enjoy some of the highest literacy rates anywhere. We are blessed with one of the best climates in the world, with delightful people, with relatively low crime rates. In addition nearly all our private schools offer real value for money. In other words Zimbabwean Trust schools already enjoy high levels of excellence.

Tragically because of the decline in the wider economy many Trust Schools are in financial difficulties and I am told that right across the nation there has been a decline in students. The Chinese use the same word to describe problem and opportunity – and we need to apply the same to our own outlook.

Now is the time to start marketing our tremendous product internationally. Virtually every school has wasted capacity. In my view we need a drive to attract foreign students and we should not restrict our vision to southern Africa. There are many parents in Asia, for example, who want their children to get an excellent understanding of English. Some pay tens of thousands of Pounds to educate their children in Britain, and yet we can provide them with an education which is just as good, if not even better, for half the price.

In short it time for the ATS to be more outward looking. It is time for ATS to start branding our schools internationally. A concerted drive in this regard would alleviate immediate short term financial woes but more importantly in the medium and long term would force all of us to compare our product with what is offered internationally. One key to excellence is being internationally competitive. The time for resting on our rather parochial national standard is over.

I wish you all the very best in your deliberations this week.

Senator David Coltart
Victoria Falls
Monday 5th June 2017