US$70 million to help resuscitate education

unicef_logoHARARE - Donors have given Zimbabwe's ailing education system a US$70 million boost in an attempt to reverse the rapid decline of a sector once regarded as the finest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF), in partnership with the Zimbabwe unity government, will be distributing funds from donor countries that include Australia, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission on behalf of the European Union.

Text books have become a rare commodity in schools – UNICEF estimates the ratio of text books to pupils at about one book to every 10 children – and teachers in the capital, Harare, said there were cases of 40 pupils sharing one text book at some schools.

The objective is to reach every child in Zimbabwe with a text book within 12 months”The objective … is to reach every child in Zimbabwe with a text book within 12 months. An assessment by the education advisory board has revealed that in about 20 percent of all primary schools there is not single text book for English, Mathematics or an African Language,” Peter Salama, the UNICEF representative in Zimbabwe, told IRIN.

“It is no surprise therefore that grade seven pass rates have declined from 53 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2007; almost 50 percent of primary school pupils are not going on to secondary schools.”

Widespread food shortages, cholera outbreaks, an almost year-long strike by teachers in 2008, the country’s economic meltdown and political violence have all contributed to the near total disruption of education.

The formation of the unity government in February 2009 returned some stability to the sector, with public servants, including teachers, being paid in foreign currency as a hedge against hyperinflation, but the path back to Zimbabwe’s golden age of education will be steep.

“Although enrolment has risen in 2009, there are many signs that quality education is eluding most children,” Salama said. “In addition, one in four children in Zimbabwe is an orphan, struggling to survive with little or no public social safety net or systematic access to social services.”

Health services also fell victim to the economic implosion, and in 2007 UNAIDS put national HIV prevalence at 15.3 percent, but shortages of antiretroviral drugs and medicines to treat opportunistic illnesses led to many AIDS-related deaths.

Two-pronged approach

The attempt to resuscitate the education system will take a two-pronged approach: the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), and the Educational Transition Fund (ETF), which will provide technical capacity to the ministry of education to disseminate text books.

“BEAM will help address the demand side, ensuring that over 700,000 of Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable children, including disabled children, are able to get to school,” said Salama.

Education minister David Coltart said this was a major step forward, but industrial action by teachers could mar progress. “My most important task in restoring a basic education is to ensure … a body of motivated, committed and professional teachers … it does not matter how many educational materials we purchase, because [without teachers] children will continue to stagnate.”

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