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Staffing problems in the Zimbabwean education system

19 Jul 2011 at 14:54hrs | Views
Staffing problems in the Zimbabwean education system: A reflection of structural failures and contradictions

1.0 Structural failures and contradictions
In reference to a report by the Principal Director for Finance, Administration and Human Resources in the Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, Ms Sibonginkosi Mutasa, that there are 15,000 teaching vacancies countrywide that temporary or unqualified teachers are reluctant to take, I would like to respond to her official media comments that were confirmed by Dr Washington Mbizvo, the Permanent Secretary for Higher and Tertiary Education.  

Staffing problems in the two Education Ministries seem to be a reflection of structural failures and contradictions than anything else. I will explain below why I have come to such an assertion. Although there is no regional numerical data in regards to under-staffed schools, it has been traditional since independence that Matabeleland North and Midlands top the list.

2.0 Politics of exclusive education
I would not like to deliberately politicise the problem, but it is inevitable to discuss staffing issues without delving to a certain extent into political dynamics. 'Inclusive education' or education in general, as a policy or practice discourse is 'political'. The politics of inclusive education is even more sobering, depressing and frightening when viewed through critical theory lenses because it reveals those dominant political and bureaucratic forces that 'use education to transmit dominant cultures ...and challenging dominant ideology risks bringing punishment down our heads' (Brookfield, 2005, p. 8). On the other hand, a critical approach to understanding the internal and external political dynamics help us to 'perceive and challenge dominant ideology, unmask power, contest hegemony, overcome alienation, pursue liberation, reclaim reason, and practice democracy' (p. 3). It is also equally important to remind those who claim to be the sole custodians of the institution of Liberation that 'we did not fight only for emancipation or liberation, but the practice of emancipation or liberation as well'. Thirty-one years after independence our education system lacks democratic values of fairness, justice and compassion.

3.0 Laxity in solving the problem
Qualified teachers graduate from colleges at the end of each academic year, and the staffing of schools takes place in January. By end of January or mid-February at the latest, the two Education Ministries precisely know which schools still have vacancies that would have not been filled. Regrettably, education officials do not seem to be serious in solving this perennial problem that only affects schools in regions that are lagging behind in terms of infrastructural development. I sometimes wonder if the same approach would be used if the staffing problems were in schools in the affluent suburbs of Borrowdale, Avondale, Hillside or Matshamhlophe.

4.0 Quarterly contracts of unqualified teachers
Unqualified teachers are offered quarterly contracts that are untenable and are proving to be a disincentive to join the teaching service. Do Education Ministries expect unqualified teachers to transport their bedding and catering belongings from Kwekwe and Bulawayo, for instance, and relocate to do work in Hurungwe and Binga respectively, for two to three months without an assurance that their contracts will be renewed the following school term? Logic dictates that very few people can do that. Zimbabweans start families in their early twenties and most temporary/unqualified teachers have families (wives and children) to look after. Therefore, before considering taking up temporary teaching jobs the prospective job seekers weigh economic benefits of doing so against social benefits.

5.0 Additional incentives for qualified & temporary teachers serving in remote areas
Moreover, temporary teachers are likely to bring to the equation that most of the understaffed remote areas are prone to diseases such as malaria and there are high chances of contracting them. Hence, it is surprising that a temporary teacher who relieves a teacher on sick or maternity leave in urban areas is treated the same way as her/his counterpart who sacrifices to go to a school that barely has facilities "in the sticks", for example, of Gokwe. Paying an additional allowance to teachers who choose to work in less developed remote areas could act as bait for both qualified and unqualified teachers. Education officials may draw a list of schools that are classified as disadvantaged and jobs can be advertised accordingly.

6.0 Proposals to solving the problem
I would like to propose a two-fold approach to solving the staffing problem. I am most likely not to be the first person to make the proposals that I am about to make. Other key stakeholders in the education system have obviously done so in the past. Unfortunately, successive Education Ministers and officials never took heed and have displayed apathy year after year since independence in dealing with underlying problems of staffing in schools located in disadvantaged regions.

6.1 First proposed solution to the problem 

6.1.1 Reviewing the contracts of unqualified teachers upwards from quarterly fixed-term to annually fixed-term
I strongly believe it would be a good idea for the two Education Ministries to consider a short-term solution by reviewing contracts of unqualified teachers upwards from 'quarterly fixed-term' to 'one-year fixed-term'. At present, the Treasury may be saving money by not paying teachers in between the school terms, but are those financial benefits better than the social benefits that children in Siabuwa, Siachalaba and Hurungwe may accrue if their learning went uninterrupted? The achievement of national policy goals and cost-effectiveness in service delivery in Borrowdale and Matshe'amhlophe cannot be treated the same as that in Binga or Hurungwe.

6.1.2 Macro-economic outcomes versus micro-economic outcomes
Policy makers in the practice of education should consider coming up with positive interventions to cushion the long-term 'macro-economic' outcomes against the short-term 'micro-economic' outcomes. Education has both social and economic benefits, but there is a problem of policy makers concentrating a lot on the latter. Even if the majority of students from disadvantaged communities fail to attain stipulated grades as a requirement to enrol in colleges and universities, there are positive social outcomes in terms of 'active citizenship'. FIFA brought the World Cup to South Africa because prioritising on social benefits over economic benefits.

6.1.3 The intrigues of the education system versus situation on the ground
Surprisingly, the education system ignores all the above complexities in its day to day activities and when setting national examinations and assumes that 'learning takes place at predictable times each week, in the same location, and follows the rationale of a curriculum divided into discrete and manageable units' (Brookfield, 2005, p. 6). The concept of inequalities in the education system in contemporary Zimbabwe, like during the colonial times, 'is embedded in the trinity of social class, gender, and race' (Armstrong et al, 2010, p. 5).

Firstly, by social class I am referring to the socially advantaged (elite) as opposed to the socially disadvantaged. Secondly, in terms of gender, in disadvantaged groups, the operations of the system further alienate girls more than boys. Thirdly, in the current education system, flashing of the "race card" has been replaced by the "tribal card". Although when compared to racism, there is no internationally recognised clear and concise definition of tribalism, the two concepts are darlings and share the same bed, and such, boundaries between them are blurred.

6.2 Second proposed solution to the problem

6.2.1 Moving towards a localised curriculum
Another likely solution to the problem is to encourage a broad participation in education by locals by moving a step further from a 'national curriculum' to formulating a 'localised one'. I have no space here to repeat the details of how the local curriculum concept might work, but I have already done so in my earlier submissions. However, I would like to make it explicitly clear that tapping the local talent has long-term benefits. We can end up with teaching practitioners who are better prepared to serve their own people and there is likely to be few teachers asking for transfers from less developed areas as may be the case now.

6.2.2 The localised curriculum in Nordic countries
I would not like to overemphasise that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) could act as a guide to our 'localised curriculum'. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2003) points out:

In Denmark in the mid-19th century adult learning was introduced on a much larger scale. Based on developments by N.F.S Grundtvig and K. Kold, Folk High Schools were set up in local communities based on demand. The service was launched in response to the needs of sections of the population such as small farmers who were becoming increasing important to the economy. Folk High schools aimed to develop people's political and social awareness. The Folk High School movement gradually spread through northern Europe and Grundtvig's founding principles are still alive in many European countries – both Norway and Sweden have Folk High schools, although the role of the institution often varies. (Cited in Powell et al. (2003, p. 2).

Although the Folk High School movement initiative was primarily premised in adult education, it can be modified to suite our mainstream education needs in disadvantaged areas. In addition, at present we have the scenario of resettled farmers that I believe might benefit from the approach. Powell et al. (2003, p.4) asserts that 'currently, the Grundtvig programme provides support for initiatives to do with adult education and lifelong learning. 'It encompasses all levels and sectors of adult learning' including formal, non-formal and informal learning.'

6.2.3 Advantages of a localised curriculum in our settings
What is the use of offering 'abstract' mathematical and scientific knowledge to children in a remote village before first considering their local needs? They would rather start by doing Commercial Mathematics, less abstract General Science or do Human and Social Biology, because it helps them to reflect better on how their bodies work. Human and Social Biology offers more 'concrete' knowledge to students who study with the aid of poorly equipped laboratories or none at all. Additionally, education officials may consider the feasibility of studying English in disadvantaged schools at L2 level.

The non-formal or informal education sector in the form of Study Groups offer Human and Social Biology although they have no laboratories. Students who do Human and Social Biology cover topics in Physiology and Anatomy in more detail, and are likely to perform better in those topics in comparison to their counterparts who would have graduated from the formal education sector and would have done Biology or General Science. Why do educational officials fail to see all this, when it is vividly written on the wall? Failure by the government to offer Human Social Biology in government schools is denying children who study in disadvantaged schools a chance to become nurses or to train in other allied health professions. The irony of the matter is that ZIMSEC has the capacity to set examinations in that area. Our priorities as a country in distributing resources seem to be misplaced.

6.2.4 Perceived attitude of education officials towards the non-formal or informal education sector
Most professionals who are promoted to become education officials are predominantly products of a formal education sector. They seem not to know or likely to be making a little effort to understand how the informal or non-formal education sector works. They are stuck in the past. In the past, it was illegal for mentors (the title given to those who supervise study group classes) to teach. It might not be a surprise that the same regulation is still there in the policy documents. There is a need to synchronize or harmonise the operations of the informal/non-formal and formal sectors of education.

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Disclaimer: The articles that I write express my personal opinions based on my interest in education, lived experiences, observations and literature reviews, and cannot be necessarily taken as expert opinion. They are also not meant to be personal attacks or to prejudice individuals, groups and organisations.

Source - Akim Zwelibanzi
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