Education: 3 out of 10

If our health services made a success story after independence, our successes in education were somewhat over-rated. We did right the racist imbalance by opening education for all up to form 4. That meant that primary school enrolment more than doubled in the first years of independence and secondary school enrolment increased nearly tenfold. But we could ask whether we were giving the right kind of education.

Under settler rule, academic education was severely restricted and there were attempts to set up F2 schools, which were designed to train their pupils for lower level industrial jobs and self-employed trades like building and carpentry. This was designed to keep the positions of power for the settlers.

At independence everyone, including the policy makers, rejected this, but we do need builders, carpenters and mechanics. We need skilled farmers. Even in “developed” countries these jobs are needed. There are not enough white-collar jobs for everyone.

People have different abilities, so giving everybody the same academic education produces a lot who fail exams, though many could have been very good mechanics or farmers.

Labelling people “failures” because they were forced to write the wrong exams is not good for them or for the country. ZIMSEC seems to be trying now to make the exams easier, which only gives a second-rate academic education even to first rate academic pupils. That may make jobs for teachers, but it doesn’t satisfy anybody else.

After experience with this system, Botswana settled for giving all pupils a basic nine-year course, up to our old JC level. What they do after that depends on their ability. The academically gifted go to academic upper secondary schools, the mechanically gifted go to technical schools and some may need to seek manual jobs. Why don’t we try that?

More people would be trained for the jobs that suit them – and there would be less frustrated unemployable school-leavers and dropouts. I don’t despise anyone: if you are forced into the wrong kind of training, the best thing you can do is to drop out and look for a different kind of training and work.

A system designed to produce a better fit between education and work was tried in Botswana and taken up by some people in our liberation movements. “Education with production” aimed to help everybody to find the job and the training that suited them.

Originally, the Botswana Foundation for Education with Production was built on the traditional age-group (mephato) system, which they dubbed “brigades”.

One intake of students was meant to be trained to become a production unit: if the main business was carpentry, that was the main subject, along with the necessary accounting, marketing and management skills and the general education necessary to be able to absorb all this.

As early as possible the brigade operated as a productive enterprise; making useful goods, selling them, keeping accounts, etc. A team was to be trained to run a business. When enough people have been trained for a particular trade in one community, the training team should retrain themselves to teach something else that the community still needed, or move on to a place where their present skills are needed.

As far as I know, nobody ever ran a programme so radically different from conventional schools. ZIMFEP, who took up the idea here, set up several highly regarded technical schools and their graduates have a good record, but they were not big enough to do more than nibble at the edges of the problem. Most teachers in the mainstream school system did not understand “Education for production” or, if they did, they did not like what they understood.

School timetables remained too rigid to fit serious farming into the school timetable. Agriculture imposes a different workload at different seasons. Pupils might need to work all day in the fields at weeding and harvest times, while in winter they would not need to spend more than half an hour daily in the fields.

All this would disturb the established social order; it might force people to realise that we can’t live without manual workers and should treat them as well as everyone else. That threatens the comfortable classes. Only one Minister of Education tried that, and she didn’t last long.

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Post published in: Analysis