How Zimbabwe’s education system
continues to cultivate great
teachers and inspire its pupils
Much has been written about the differences between the Zimbabwean and South African education systems. The fact that Zimbabwe’s education system continues to outperform our own – with less financial investment, and more than a decade of political and economic instability – seems to suggest it has particularly strong foundations able to take some strain.
So what can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe?
Human Factor asked Zimbabwean teacher, Ruth Ncube, and Sandra Ngwena, who was schooled in Zimbabwe but attended university in South Africa, to reflect on their experiences of Zimbabwe’s education system. Their reflections showcase some of its impressive institutional foundations, and illustrate how foundations are strengthened by culture – attitudes and behaviours so entrenched that they become seen as “just the way things are”.
by SANDRA V. NGWENA
nyone of my generation in Zimbabwe will tell you the value of education is something that was ingrained in us, almost by default. You went to school, you graduated from high school and, at a minimum, you got some form of tertiary education – whether it was a degree at university or a diploma from a technikon. You just did.
My maternal grandfather was a teacher, so of course my mother and her siblings went to school. However, my paternal grandparents were rural subsistence farmers (to this day, I am not sure if my grandmother can read), but all seven of their children went to school. And in a place where everyone goes to school, the quality of education becomes tantamount.
Parents were not bystanders in their children’s education – they were active participants. Even in rural areas, if your school wasn’t good enough, your parents walked you miles to a better one.
The definition of better was simple: better educational outcomes. While there is no denying the prestige of private schools, the bottom line was the same everywhere: how many subjects you passed at O-level, and how many points you got for your A-levels? Those points meant everything because they determined what your next path would be. Did you get enough points to study at university, for example?
The question of where you go to high school was another big one in Zimbabwe. The school my father wanted me to attend, for example, was not the top private boarding school, but rather the top rural government boarding school in the country. Why? It was producing the best grades in the country at the time.
My father dragged me to the entrance exam and I passed. If it had been up to him, I would have gone to the school then and there. Luckily for me, my mother understood that a school’s social environment is just as an important as its educational curriculum for achieving results – and being so foreign to me, this particular school would have been detrimental to my grades.
I finished high school, just as the political winds were turning. I could have stayed in Zimbabwe, but I hadn’t made the grades to get into law school there. I didn’t do badly, but I didn’t do well enough to meet the high bar set for acceptance to the University of Zimbabwe. This is the part nobody in South Africa ever wants to hear when they ask why I came to study in South Africa. I came here because it is easier to get into universities here. I needed 13 points to get into law school at the University of Zimbabwe, and only 6 to get into Rhodes University.
So, back to the question of ‘here’ versus ‘there’? Fundamental to the sturdiness of Zimbabwe’s education system was the height of the bar – not just for parents and pupils, but for the teachers as well.
Teachers in Zimbabwe were leaders in the communities because they held themselves – and their work – to a higher standard.
Experience, pupil outcomes and their own further education were par for the course for Zimbabwean teachers. This was expected of them by their peers and by their employers. Teachers were subject matter experts. To this day, my love of English and History is because of the teachers who taught me these subjects in high school. Rigorous standards, rigorous results, plus a whole lot of passion – and you had what I truly believe was one of the best education systems in the world.
Does that mean these types of teachers don’t exist in South Africa? Absolutely not! Being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs in the world. In my opinion, the big difference for a teacher in Zimbabwe and a teacher in South Africa is a matter of ‘institution’. Teachers are part of an institution that includes government, parents and learners. Without adequate professional training as well as standards for teachers and the curriculum; without parents who place a premium on education and don’t just leave it up to the teacher, there is institutional failure.
Going back to Zimbabwe now always makes me sad. Seeing the battles that teachers, parents and pupils are having to fight to survive, let alone thrive, is heartbreaking. But, even in the midst of all this, expectations and attitudes towards education remain unshakeable; my cousin, whose mother is a widowed government teacher, just graduated from university… Of course she did.
IGCSE/O-Level/GCE are the 10th and 11th year of schooling in Zimbabwe and the equivalent of Grade 11 (NQF3). Advanced Subsidiary Level (AS-Levels) is the 12th year of schooling. In South Africa, AS Levels are the equivalent of National Senior Certificate subjects (NQF4) passed at the Higher Grade.
To get an equivalent of a matric certificate, you need to have passed at least 5 AS-Level subjects with a 50% or above. Advanced Level (A-Levels) are the 13th year of schooling. A-Levels are recognised locally by the South African Matriculation Board for entrance into South African universities. Most South African universities accept at least 2 A-Level passes in addition to 5 IGCSE or O-Level passes.
by RUTH NCUBE
lthough it has been more than 25 years since I met Mr Dube, I still remember him vividly. The year was 1992; I had just started classes at Tennyson Hlabangana Secondary School in Bulawayo. Mr Dube was my English language teacher – a kind, funny, interesting man.
In our second lesson with him, he handed out newspapers, made us read them, and then asked anyone who’d come across new words to write them up on the board. He proceeded to explain each word, able to cite even the page number where their definitions could be found in the Chambers Dictionary.
In other lessons, he would sing us Shakespeare quotations. He knew and could quote from a huge number of novels. It was inspiring – not just for me as a pupil, but on my journey towards becoming who I am today. By the time I finished my O-Levels, my destiny was clear. I was going to be a teacher.
It is not very easy to get into a teacher training college in Zimbabwe – the entry requirements for a secondary school teacher are five O-Level passes plus two A-Level subjects, and I struggled to find a vacancy. But luckily, after two years of studying, I qualified as a secondary school teacher in 2001.
Once I’d passed this first hurdle, a second one was waiting: I couldn’t find a job in a secondary school as all the posts across Zimbabwe’s various education districts were full. I finally secured a spot at a primary school in Tsholotsho. It was deeply rural, 90 kilometres away from the nearest town and incredibly difficult to reach. It had no electricity, no piped water and no telephone connections.
Despite our best efforts, children in this school didn’t perform very well. I think it was mostly because of how the classes were structured. The Grade 3 and Grade 4 classes, for instance, were combined, with just one teacher to oversee them both. That didn’t work very well, but it helped that there was good discipline – and not just at this school, but at all the other schools I have taught at since.
The Zimbabwean school curriculum embraces our African culture: elders should be respected; this is taught at home and at school. Corporal punishment was banned years ago, and that’s fine – a teacher should be able to maintain discipline without it. Sometimes we use role play, drama and talks in assembly to help reinforce important values.
Rather than make me want to give up on teaching, the challenges at Tsholotsho made me want to try harder. Nine years after I first became a teacher, I got a Bachelor of Education and I now also have a Master’s degree, which is needed if you want to become a school principal in Zimbabwe.
Having these qualifications doesn’t make me special though – it’s not unusual for teachers to get further degrees once they’ve been working for a few years; in fact, it’s what most of us do.
Today, I teach at one of the best boarding schools in Southern Africa. Although the school is also rural, it is a world away from my first job in Tsholotsho. It has good facilities, reliable transport and internet connectivity, but it’s not all plain sailing. As any teacher will know, there’s so much more to your work than what happens in the classroom – like monitoring pupils doing their evening studies. There used to be a duty allowance to pay teachers for this extra work, but that’s been scrapped.
Our salaries do remain a bone of contention in Zimbabwe. In 2007 and 2008, when things were at their worst politically, sometimes transport to the bank would cost more than a whole month’s salary! Many teachers still have to take on other work to supplement their income. Some operate small-scale farms; others keep poultry or work as flea market vendors. I do adjunct lecturing at my local university in my spare time.
Given Zimbabwe’s difficult situation over the past few decades, it’s easy to imagine that politics interferes with our work, but that’s not true. I think our teacher unions do a good job of representing us and fighting on our behalf.
Our schools also have School Development Committees made up of school administrators and representatives from the parent body. It’s important for parents to get involved, and they do in most schools. District inspectors regularly monitor the schools, I think the aim is mostly to make improvements to the system. That said, we are all a little nervous of our supervisors!
I think another strength of our system is that teachers are rewarded for their good work. For example, if you score top results – a 100% pass rate in your subject in the national exams – you’re recognised by the government. There are also district and provincial awards – the winning teachers are given some money and a certificate that reflects their pass rate.
Schools do the same at prize-giving ceremonies. I count being recognised for pass rate improvement among my favourite memories – it felt good to be acknowledged like that.
Teaching, at the end of the day, isn’t just a job – it has to do with who you are; it becomes a part of you. It pleases me to see that the number of teachers in training colleges in Zimbabwe is increasing. The profession has great dignity – worthy of the likes of above-and-beyond teachers like Mr Dube.
What is needed is a vision, not just of ‘education for all’, but of ‘all for education’.