HOT SEAT: Interview Minister David Coltart on the crisis in the education sector.

coltart_davidVIOLET GONDA: On the Hot Seat programme we bring you the last segment of the interview with education minister David Coltart. Last week the minister gave us his thoughts on the in-fighting in his party, the issue of sanctions and the progress of the inclusive government. In this final part we take an in-depth look into the crisis in the education s

DAVID COLTART: Violet theres no doubt that things have improved since February. When I took office on the 17th of February, most of the 7,000 government schools were closed, most of the 80,000 teachers were on strike, and examinations from last year hadnt been marked. We have now got most of the schools open, teachers are back at work, and the exams have been marked. But thats a very superficial assessment because the education sector is still very fragile and could still unravel. As you know teachers are justly dissatisfied with the amount they are paid and the general conditions. The pupil-textbook ratio is still horrendous in most schools, the infrastructure of schools is in a shocking state and so weve got a lot of work to do still to achieve better substance regarding our education, in other words to move away from just the mere form of education to a qualitative substance.

GONDA: You say that the education sector is still very fragile, so on the issue of teachers, what improvements have you made to improve the lifestyle of teachers?

COLTART: There are a couple of improvements; obviously firstly the improvement that the transitional government has made in terms of paying teachers with money they can use, with money that doesnt lose its value. Thats nothing to do with me, thats part of the minister of finance work and the transitional governments work in general. But secondly what Ive done is – Ive waived the requirement that teachers pay fees at government schools – that was a small perk for teachers. Thirdly Ive tried to streamline the procedures involved in getting teachers back to work. There was a very cumbersome process that teachers had to go through if they wanted to come back to work. As you know some thousands of teachers left the service, left the profession in 2007 and 2008 and we wanted them back, it was a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare, so Ive tried to smooth that; and then finally we have the ongoing problem that teachers who have been brutalised over the last few years, fear going back to their stations where they were threatened and of course some were even tortured and what Ive done in that regard is issue a statement saying very clearly that schools are educational institutions, they should not be institutions used for political purposes and Ive banned the use of schools for all people other than genuine educators and I hope that will in time, have the effect of relieving some of those fears of teachers, of creating a conducive environment for teachers to teach in and for children to learn in.

GONDA: But Ive been talking to the teachers representatives like Raymond Majongwe and Takavafira Zhou from the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe and they complain that theres not much movement that is taking place in the education sector and that the decisions that you would have made as the minister of education, the decisions that you would have made with them as the unions are actually being reversed by the permanent secretary Dr Steven Mahere and the PTUZ says it appears there are too many centres of power in the ministry, so to what extent are you in control?

COLTART: Well Id say in response to that is that we need to recognise that this is a process of transition, that one doesnt achieve ones ultimate objectives overnight. I think that that is so regarding the Prime Minister and the transitional government in general and weve got to see whether there has been any meaningful improvement. Im not satisfied where we are at present, as I said in my opening remarks, the education sector is still very fragile and in that description I include these sentiments expressed, these legitimate sentiments expressed in some respects by the teachers union but I need to state very clearly regarding the allegation against Dr Mahere; for example there have been problems regarding the implementation of the policy to cut out the red tape involved in getting teachers back into work but those obstacles have not been placed in our paths by Dr Mahere, in fact it has been the Public Services Commission that has been responsible for reversing some of the, or trying to reverse rather some of the policies that I have implemented so theres a danger that one can blame Dr Mahere for all the problems when in fact he may not be to blame at all.

GONDA: You mentioned that its the Public Service Commission that has reversed some of the policies that you would have wanted to implement and you talked about the amnesty for teachers but why is that, shouldnt the Public Services Commission be taking instructions from you especially on a matter that you would have said this is the way to go?

COLTART: Part of the problem is that of course the ministry of education doesnt employ teachers, they are employed by the Public Services Commission and it is the Public Services Commission that sets out the conditions of service and to that extent my hands are tied. I can indicate my policy desires but ultimately it is the Public Services Commission that has to set the conditions. Now all that I wanted to achieve through the amnesty was to remove some of the requirements, for example we had regulations that stated that teachers who were in the service as recent as last year had to provide police clearance certificates and medical certificates and copies of all their examination results when we in the ministry knew that they were bone fide teachers and were people we would want back in the service. What the Public Services Commission has said is that weve got conditions that apply to all civil servants, not just teachers and there are regulations and laws in place that cant just be waived so to a certain extent, this has resulted not so much from bad faith but from people looking at the strict legal interpretation of conditions of service and not seeking to change those rules quickly so that we can accommodate the teachers. Now those people advocating for that strict interpretation may be obstructive, I dont know what is in their minds, but they may just be being legalistic and concerned that we comply with the law. But what I said to them is if we are in beach of policy or conditions of law, then we need to change that quickly in the national interest so that we can get these teachers back in. But in essence Violet what Im saying is that one cant automatically assume that the people who for example are saying that there must be medical certificates and there must be police clearance certificates are trying to frustrate the process. It may be that that is what they are doing, that that is their intention but we cant say that for certain.

GONDA: But how are you going to resolve this situation especially on the issue of amnesty because according to the teachers unions they fear that this vetting system that the PSC is introducing may actually result in or see teachers being victimised along political lines?

COLTART: Well let me make one thing very clear, Im not prepared to tolerate in any form the victimisation of teachers on partisan grounds. Teachers are professionals, they have rights like every other citizen, they have the right to associate with a trade union of their choice, they have the right to be a member of a political party of their choice so long as it complies with the laws of Zimbabwe and those rights must be respected. So Im definitely in their corner in that regard and I will fight as hard as I can and if I come across any instances where teachers are being discriminated against because of their political beliefs I will use all the powers at my disposal to ensure that that doesnt happen and they get back into the profession. We need teachers in the classroom and anyone who seeks to discriminate against teachers like that is actually acting in a treasonous and traitorous fashion. They are acting against the national interest, against the interests of Zimbabwean children and they should be exposed. What am I doing about it? Well Ive recently written a long letter to my counterpart, the minister of the public service, Professor Mukonoweshuro expressing concern about what is going on and hes replied to that and indicated in his reply that hes directed his permanent secretary to work with my permanent secretary to resolve these issues and so I hope that that is going to resolve these issues, that this red tape will be removed and that we can get teachers back into the service as soon as possible.

GONDA: And you said earlier on that youve banned the use of people who are not teachers in schools but again I go back to the PTUZ who claim that the notorious youth militia are still being allowed to terrorise teachers and this is also in spite of a letter that you wrote yourself as the minister calling for the removal of the youths from the schools. What can you say about this?

COLTART: Well I go back Violet to the comment I made earlier, Rome wasnt built in a day, this is a transitional government, and I think we must have realistic expectations for it not just in education but in other sectors as well. We are seeking to undo decades of Zanu-PF rule and Zanu-PFs manner of ruling and you dont change that manner of thinking overnight and I can issue as many statements as I like but it is inevitable that in certain areas there will be people who will want to disregard what I say but I think what we can say is that whilst this has happened in certain areas I believe in the vast majority of schools a peaceful environment, there is a peaceful environment today. Now as these reports come in and as they are substantiated I will deal with them and if needs be I will go to those schools myself and set out what the policy is and let me say this Violet, that my statement is simply a restatement of existing policy. There are existing policy documents going back to the early 1980s which make it quite clear that schools are not to be used for political purposes. So this isnt a new MDC policy ironically it actually goes back as I say to the early 1980s. But if that doesnt work then I will go to the extent of publishing statutory instruments to make it very clear that only authorised people are allowed on school grounds and if needs be, we’ll have penalties attached to those statutory instruments to ensure that theres some form of sanction. But what I want to say to the teachers and to the teachers unions and parents and public in general is that this is a journey. Ive got a very clear objective in mind, Im very determined in my pursuit of that objective and ultimately I have no doubt that we will reach our destination, a destination is as I say is creating a conducive environment in which children can learn and be nourished and understand what their country is about and through that develop a deep sense of patriotism.

GONDA: And you know its not just the teachers who are complaining, we also receive statements from the Tsvangirai led MDC giving examples of places like in Mutasa Central where they say soldiers based at Mvumbunu Primary School are harassing and torturing innocent villagers and that they are doing this with the help of the youth militia who are based in the schools and who are sharing accommodation with teachers in that school. Some of the teachers have been forced to flee, so thats why Im just giving that as an example to show that its not just the teachers who are saying this. But the question I want to ask you on the issue of the militia is – what is going to be your policy on the issue of the Border Gezi trained teachers and how do you intend to integrate teachers who were trained at indoctrination?

COLTART: I think that the fundamental policy is that we all as Zimbabweans desire our children to be taught by the best qualified people and the one very satisfying thing about the recent survey done by my advisory board is that we still have a very high percentage of teachers who are fully qualified and Id rather not get too bogged down on Border Gezi people, I would rather focus on this goal of ensuring that we aim towards achieving a goal of having 100% of our teachers fully qualified, 100% of our teachers having gone through tertiary institutions, our teacher training colleges so they are genuine teachers. So rather than conduct a witch hunt on the basis of Border Gezi militia I would rather conduct a survey to see what qualifications teachers have and to restate this goal that ultimately if teachers do not have qualifications, then they must get those qualifications in a certain period of time and if they arent bright enough or dont work hard enough to get those qualifications, then they should be removed from the service. But that shouldnt be based on whether they were Border Gezi people, there are also teachers out there who are not militia but who are not properly qualified and those people as well ultimately must be removed. But this has to be a progression. If I conduct a witch hunt overnight, Im going to stir up a lot of trouble much of which maybe unnecessary. There are certainly some people who Ive met, for example I have a person on our national education advisory board who was a militia who is now a trade union leader and he strikes me as being a reasonable person committed to education. Theres a real danger that we just paint everyone with the same brush and I dont think that we can afford to do that. We need to judge each person on their own merits but as I say in the long term we need to ensure that we have the best qualified teachers teaching our children irrespective of their backgrounds.

GONDA: Are you able to tell us who it was that was militia, whos now on your board?

COLTART: I dont want to draw attention to him, I dont think that that would be fair, but the other trade union leaders know who he is and hes making a very constructive contribution to the advisory board.

GONDA: How long do you think it will take to resuscitate the education sector then?

COLTART: Violet we need to understand that the education sector has suffered several body blows in the last ten to 15 years. We havent been putting sufficient money into education for at least a decade, arguably two decades and until we start as a government deciding what our budgetary priorities are its going to take a long time to restore education. Im not exaggerating when I say that just to stabilise the education sector will take over a billion US dollars and by stabilising, what I mean by that is just establishing a basic education for our children. We need 90 million US dollars alone just to get our textbook ratios back to reasonable levels. The infrastructure in most schools is in such a pitiful state that that is going to consume hundreds of millions of dollars and of course until we get that money in we cant even talk of improving education. But lets assume that I get that money in, there are then a variety of policies that I want to improve on and in some respects change. Our orientation has been very much towards academic education, theres been very little vocational training and one of my frustrations as a parent has been that my children havent come out with practical skills at the end of their education. Yes they can speak English well and count well, but for example, they cant speak an indigenous language fluently and that is a practical skill. For many children in rural areas they dont have the practical skill of being able to grow crops as a result of their education. Another practical skill is that our children dont have a deep rooted knowledge of the constitution, love and respect for human rights and democratic practices in our country and these are things that our education system needs to develop and that is going to take a long time even once we have stabilised the physical, what I term the physical infrastructure and environment of our education system. And I think its going to take arguably a generation to get the type of education system that I dream of, the education system that I have a vision for. But I think the short answer to your question is that with money, with adequate flows we can get our education system back to where it was say in 1999 within three to four years; I think we can get it back to that. But I want to go a lot further than that, Im not satisfied where our education system was in 1999 and I think that thats going to be a longer process.

GONDA: And what about the reintroduction of the Cambridge examinations?

COLTART: Violet ZIMSEC certainly ten years ago and up until a few years ago established an enviable reputation. It produced a qualification that was respected and accepted by universities throughout the world and I think as Zimbabweans we should be proud of what was achieved an. But of course only if it is cost effective and if the publics confidence in ZIMSEC is restored. So at this stage I dont want to talk about the reintroduction of Cambridge, what I will say about Cambridge is that we need to respect as a constitutional right the freedom of parents and children to choose which examination to write. That should be a fundamental right; the government shouldnt interfere with that. But having said that I think that we should do all in our power to try to resuscitate, restore ZIMSEC, to give it a chance. But once again Violet, to do that is going to take a lot of money. Cambridge has a huge infrastructure that has been built up over decades and it costs a lot of money to run a credible institution like that and unless we as a government commit ourselves to apportioning a much greater amount of money from the national budget were not going to achieve that goal. Weve got to cut back on defence spending, weve got to cut back on the size of government, of cabinet, weve got to cut back on some of the luxuries that the government enjoys, weve got to cut back on the size of the CIO and various other bodies and pour that money into education and of course into health as well.

GONDA: I was actually going to ask you a question about this issue of the money because you said sufficient money has not been put into the education system and I was going to ask that is it really about money or more about willpower and changing attitudes – because some would say you can put in as much money as you want into a system like this and if there are no checks and balances or if theres no transparency it will be just a waste of money and nothing will really change and as you said, youd really want to go back to a system that we had in the 80s. Now thats 30 years ago, so is it really about money or also to do with changing attitudes?

COLTART: I think its both. In the short term it is definitely money, there isnt money in Treasury at present to put education back on its feet. With the best will in the world, with all the transparency in the world at present there simply isnt the money and that will only come when we get the wheels of industry turning and the flows of revenues into the Treasury. But youre absolutely right, unless theres a deep rooted will, political will, to spend that money correctly then you can throw as much money as you like to education but youre not going to build a sustainable educational system that actually delivers. So I agree with you, we need to ensure for example the procurement of textbooks, in the development of the infrastructure of schools, that theres transparency. We need to ensure that our training institutions are not subject to nepotism and partisanship, we need to ensure that teachers who get, or rather children who get good A levels are allowed to go on to teaching irrespective of their political backgrounds, their ethnic background, their racial background, their gender and so all of these factors combined need to be addressed if we are to achieve that goal of an excellent education for all Zimbabweans in the future.

GONDA: And of course we have a wealth of resources in our country but it appears that the government is relying too much on outside help. What are your views on this because we have diamonds, we have gold and we used to have the second biggest platinum reserves in the world, so how much is coming from these minerals and why arent we using that to help rebuild our country?

COLTART: Well weve got all this wealth sitting underground and all this wealth that resides in our people. Our greatest asset is not our mineral resources, its our people but we havent exploited that so all this wealth is lying dormant at present. Its not as if our mines, our industries, our hotels are running at full capacity and thats the first thing weve got to do, weve got to create a business environment that allows for foreign investment, which allows for Zimbabweans in the Diaspora to feel comfortable about coming back so that they can contribute their skills and their capital to rebuilding the country. But once weve done that then of course we have to build a democratic and transparent society that will ensure that the wealth generated by our highly productive mines doesnt go into the hands of a corrupt elite and that is only going to happen when we have a strong democratic constitution, the fourth estate is vibrant and vigorous, when we have independent radio stations and television stations and independent daily newspapers exposing what politicians are getting up to. And as we know, corruption isnt confined to Zimbabwe, corruption is found in every country in the world and its really only a strong constitution backed by a strong judiciary, backed by an independent prosecuting authority, backed by a strong media that exposes corruption and ensures that those responsible for it are brought to book and that is the only guarantor that a nations wealth will be used for the benefit of all its people.

GONDA: In your sector some have said that part of the problem is that money was being paid to people who are no longer working or who have left teaching or who are actually dead. Now what is the extent of ghost teachers on the payroll, have you been able to find out?

COLTART: I have not been able to find out yet to my satisfaction. Im told by the permanent secretary that some 94,000 teachers were paid a salary or an allowance rather in February. The leaders of the trade unions believe that the numbers of teachers are far less than that. They believe that we dont have anything more than 60,000 teachers. Unfortunately we have no computerised data base within the ministry of education, that was one of the things that shocked me and Im trying to address that and Ive approached the World Bank and the South Koreans and the Indians and others to try and help me get a computerised data base because my view is that only when I have that then Im going to be able to have an accurate assessment of how many teachers weve got. But having said that, let me mention this to you, that the national education advisory board which I set up in March has conducted a sample survey in a 120 schools which only comprises 2% of schools in the country but that has yielded some surprising results. Its revealed that we have a very high percentage still of trained teachers in our schools and that we have a very high percentage of teachers still at school. Now because its such a small sample I cant rely on that too heavily but it is an interesting result which would appear to back that figure of 80,000 teachers rather than the trade union figure; but the short answer Violet is that none of us know at this stage, none of us can have confidence about how many ghost teachers there are out there. That will only happen I think when weve computerised the system and when weve conducted a more comprehensive survey regarding the situation on the ground.

GONDA: Before we go lets discuss a bit about sporting matters since you are also the minister of sport. In February you were criticised in some quarters for saying that the New Zealand cricket team had an obligation to tour Zimbabwe and that you were prepared to travel to New Zealand to lobby the government there to allow the tour to take place. Some and I quote the ZWNEWS service actually said this is putting the cart before the horse and that first there has yet to be any change in the economic and human rights conditions which lie behind the New Zealanders concerns over their tour. Your thoughts on this?

COLTART: Well going back to the New Zealand issue, if you look at my original statement, in that same statement I recognised that New Zealand had legitimate concerns, concerns that I share, concerns about allegations of corruption and allegations of racism in sport and I said in that statement that those legitimate concerns would have to be addressed. All I said to the New Zealanders was give us a chance to address those concerns. The New Zealanders were not going to tour Zimbabwe immediately, I think they were due to come in July and my hope was that between February and July I would have been able to address some of those concerns; and in fact I believe that that has turned out to be correct. I now have engaged Zimbabwe Cricket; I am in possession of the ICC mandated audit report which I have studied. I have had a series of meetings with Zimbabwe Cricket and they have agreed with me that corruption should not be tolerated and racism and regionalism and those type of things should not be tolerated and I think that weve seen even recently in the Bangladesh tour, the appointment of Alistair Campbell and the clearly stated policy that those are going to be selected on merit, that these issues are starting to be addressed. And I come back to the point I made regarding education Violet, this is a transition. We are nave if we think everything is going to change overnight, that all the problems are going to be addressed overnight, it is a process and that process applies to sport and I think that if one focuses on cricket there has been a material improvement since February. There was terrible discord between Zimbabwe Cricket and for example, former members of the board, people like David Ellman-Brown but last week he was given a lifetime award by Zimbabwe Cricket. Thats a progression and the same applies to other sports.

GONDA: You mentioned the ICC audit, is that ever going to be released to the public?

COLTART: Well Im still involved in discussions with Zimbabwe Cricket regarding that report, Ive read it, the condition set down by both the ICC I need to stress and Zimbabwe Cricket is that it should remain confidential. My own view is that the suspicions that the public have will linger until we are more transparent, until we make that report public and that is the line that I have taken with both the ICC and Zimbabwe Cricket. But once again Violet, this is a process. Im involved in discussions with Zimbabwe Cricket in this regard and I hope that in due course there can be better transparency and that I can get the consent of both the ICC and Zimbabwe Cricket to release that report in the national interest.

GONDA: Education minister David Coltart speaking on the programme Hot Seat.

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