David Coltart on Question Time: Part 1

coltartEducation Minister, Senator David Coltart (Pictured), joins SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma on Question Time once again, to answer questions sent in by listeners using facebook, twitter, skype, e-mail and text messages.

What will he do about children being sent home from school over non-payment of fees, war vets intimidating teachers in the rural areas and the Cold Comfort school saga where a private college has taken over the farm school?

Interview broadcast 25 May 2011

Lance Guma: Due to many requests, Education minister, Senator David Coltart joins us again on Question Time. Listeners sent in their questions in advance of the interview using FaceBook, Twitter, Skype, email and text messages. Senator Coltart, a pleasure to have you once again.

David Coltart: Well thank you for having me Lance. Always a pleasure to be interviewed by you.

Guma: Now last week the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association slammed the chasing away from school of children who have failed to pay their fees. They said since Tuesday, numerous schools in the city, I take it that Tuesday last week, have been sending children home contrary to the announced government policy. They also reported that headmasters are claiming they have not received this instruction in writing. Your reaction to that Senator?

Coltart: Well I find that hard to accept because for a start, headmasters know what the law is. There is a statutory instrument, a law which was published way back in 1998 which makes it very clear that children cannot be turned away for non-payment of levy. Let me stress levies not fees. The law says that in the event of levies not being paid, school development committees, headmasters must sue parents or guardians for payment of the amount due.

So this is a long-standing law that has been in place and no-ones got any excuse for breaching that law. They tend to hide behind this issue of fees but of course the way our financial system is structured, the fees are nominal. For example in rural primary schools there are no fees payable at all and even in the high density primary schools theres a nominal fee payable per term of no more than ten US dollars per term which even the poorest people generally can pay. So I think its disingenuous to say that they dont know about this.

Guma: From Roderick Fayayo who is with the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, theyre saying theres a clear disconnect between your statements and the reality on the ground. Is it possible that some headmasters are just flouting this government policy?

Coltart: I would agree with that. Theres a lot of lawlessness which has crept into the education sector in the last decade. A lot of it has been caused by the financial, by the economic collapse in the country and let me stress that Im very sympathetic towards teachers. Teachers are not paid a viable wage but what has happened is that its got out of control.

But there is this disconnect, there is the law thats there, its not being complied with and the trouble is that we have not been able to adequately police the system. Many of the district education officers who are the people responsible within the ministry dont have transport and have not managed to get out and see what is happening in these schools and that has contributed to this lawless situation.

Guma: So what can parents do who have had their children sent back home because of non-payment? What sort of recourse do they have?

Coltart: Well let me stress that parents must pay the fees. This might sound a very technical issue for you Lance but theres a distinction between fees and levies. As I explained just now, the fees are nominal amounts, they are equivalent to admission fees and parents must ensure, guardians must ensure that these nominal fees are paid.

Once they are paid, and let me stress that government, these fees apply to government and local council schools, they dont apply to private schools, but once those fees have been paid, no child can be turned away for non-payment of levies and if that is happening then what I ask parents to do is to go to their local provincial education director if they are able.

The story you got came in from Bulawayo so its relatively easy for them to go in to see the provincial education director in Bulawayo and report the case to them so that we can then try and follow up and deal with it. But Lance let me tackle this from another perspective as well. At the root of this problem is our inability to adequately finance the education sector and this is the real dilemma that I find myself in.

Im very sympathetic towards poor parents who cannot afford to pay these levies but the other side of the coin is that because of the lack of money that we have in the education system at present we are not putting sufficient money into schools to adequately pay teachers, to adequately provide for text books, pens and chalk and all the rest of the paraphernalia that we need to run a school properly and unless parents and guardians dig deep, their children are going to get a second-rate education and its the other side of the coin.

As hard as it is to pay these levies, I urge parents to make education an absolute priority and to do whatever they can to pay those levies. But if they simply cant afford to, if they are destitute then what they need to do is report this issue to the provincial education director, but also to go and speak to the SDC and the headmaster to explain their plight. Because Ive said we must be compassionate towards those people who simply cannot find the money to pay these levies.

Guma: You talk about lack of finance affecting education, those who have heard reports of billions of dollars worth of diamonds in Chiadzwa will find it very difficult to sympathise with your statement.

Coltart: Well I agree that is an issue that faces all Zimbabweans; we want to make sure that our natural resources are being exploited for the benefit of Zimbabweans, not a small clique, but the problem is and Minister Biti has said this time and time again that we need to get the proceeds of the diamond sales into government but the reality is there has been relatively limited inflows.

Minister Biti has said even in the last couple of weeks that the projected inflows for 2011 have not been according to what he had hoped and the amount that we are paying for salaries for example, is a huge proportion of our monthly expenditure. And Im seeing it within the education ministry; we had this relatively good budget announcement that four hundred and sixty nine million dollars to be allocated to education but the harsh reality Lance is that weve got hardly any of that money.

Teachers are being paid and that is good but in terms of the balance of money that we need to paint schools and pay electricity bills and buy text books, were getting minimal receipt and this is the dilemma that we face in this transitional government. Our countrys rich, should be rich, should have sufficient money to pay for education but at present the money simply isnt there.

Guma: Now Nqabutho Nicholas Dube says what is the government position on temporary teachers and why are we not going back to ZJC? Its difficult for students to write Grade Seven finals and then O levels without them having written ZJC.

Coltart: OK, there are two issues there; the one is the issue of temporary teachers – we have allowed temporary teachers. During 2007 and 2008 we lost 20000 teachers out of the teaching profession and were doing what we can to attract the qualified teachers back; our goal is to have as many qualified teachers but in the interim, we have to have temporary teachers. So the policy is that where there is no teacher at all, temporary teachers should be allowed back, should be allowed in the system.

Regarding the second issue the ZJC – my focus has been to stabilise ZIMSEC. When I took over in February 2008, ZIMSEC was in an awful state, they hadnt even marked the public exams that had been written in November 2008, the computer systems were antiquated. We have pretty much stabilised ZIMSEC; weve got the exams marked on time now and I think that public confidence is growing in ZIMSEC.

I didnt want to move towards expanding the examination system in any way until we had stabilised and so thats why our focus has been on ensuring that at the very least Grade Seven, O level and A level exams are being properly set, then properly marked. And I think within the next year or so we can conduct a review but its too early to think of reintroducing another examination while the ZIMSEC is still relatively fragile.

But if theres a need, if theres an educational need to reintroduce that were very open to that. Let me stress that Lance, that were in the process of starting a comprehensive system of reviewing the curriculum which includes a review of the examinations and thats going to be started fairly soon, the next year or so and I think at the conclusion of that process, well have a much clearer idea of what examinations we need to set to meet that new curriculum.

Guma: Newsday is reporting that a headmaster at Mapo Primary School in the Odzi area has reportedly fled from the school after allegedly receiving death threats from suspected war veterans and ZANU PF supporters because he had accepted a school donation from the areas MDC-T senator. Now I know in the past weve discussed this issue, in fact in the first Question Time where you came, we discussed this issue of threats directed towards teachers and headmasters by war veterans. Im sure youve seen this report, is there anything your ministry can do about things like this?

Coltart: Its very hard to adequately deal with situations like this. These reports come to me and in the past what Ive done is Ive responded by moving teachers out of danger to try and protect them. Ive made statements in Cabinet, Ive spoken in parliament about this issue and Ill keep on making those statements. What Ive said to all parliamentarians is that ultimately children suffer; its not the political parties, its not the parents or guardians but weve shown very clearly that when theres intimidation like this, qualified teachers want to move away from those areas, they are replaced by temporary teachers and we can see that the education standard drops immediately.

So ultimately its the children who suffer and were trying to get that message through to all political parties. Im also working very closely with trade unions, all three trade unions so that they know Ive got an open-door policy, that I can get reports of this nature and try and react to it but I think the main thing that Im doing at present to try and combat this is by re-looking at our education legislation.

Im in the process of conducting a comprehensive review of all the statutory instruments relating to education; Ive consolidated the statutory instruments which have been produced over the last 30 years, were going to be producing a single viable and in the course of that process Ive also looked at measures to reinforce this policy that we have that schools should be politically neutral zones, they should be peaceful sanctuaries where teachers and school children can focus on education and for the first time were going to introduce some sanctions to combat this.

At present all Ive been able to do is issue policy statements but if those policy statements are disregarded, I cant go to the police to report those responsible because theres no crime attached but I hope that if we can pass these new regulations and make partisan political activity in schools illegal then we might give some teeth to these policy statements.

Guma: Chief Ruzani Adrian Tafadzwa wants to know what you are doing to help solve the Cold Comfort School saga? Parents say they were not notified that Cold Comfort School Junior, formerly a farm school had been taken over by Herentals College and the new fees are too exorbitant for most parents who are low-income earners.

Coltart: I met with the chair, secretary and a member of the school development committee regarding this matter last night and received a full briefing from them. They confirm the story that this company has seemingly purchased the buildings where the school premises are. The school fees at present are 50 US dollars per term and this new company has announced that the school fees will be 40 US dollars per month and the equivalent of about I think 160 US dollars per term.

This is the only school in this whole area and its a poor area so parents simply cant afford to pay these exorbitant fees which are a lot more expensive than equivalent schools, in fact are almost as expensive as some private schools so its a very unsatisfactory situation. The problem that I face at present is that the high court issued an order last week in favour of this company.

The headmaster of the school has filed a notice of appeal to the supreme court; the matter is now sub judice, I called for the judgement so that I can see what the judgement says, but what Ive said to the school development committee and if I could say to your listeners and to the particular listener who sent in this query, that ultimately I will do all in my power to protect the interests of children.

That is my primary mandate. We do not want any childs education to be disrupted and we certainly dont want it disrupted by some companies who may be seeking to speculate over buildings but the short term problem that I face as I say, the matter is sub judice; I need to see the judgement and understand it because clearly I cant go against any order of the high court but I just want to reinforce that I will do all in my power to protect the interests of these children.

Guma: Well Senator Coltart the reaction or the response we got from our listeners to this interview is so immense. Theres absolutely no way well be able to finish all the questions this week so Ill have to end the interview here but hopefully we can get you again next Wednesday so that we can finish off some of the questions that have been coming from people. Some want to know whether youll introduce entrepreneurship as a subject in schools, there are questions over IT and economic development in the curricula, there are questions on extra lessons, teachers incentives and really we hope we can get you again next week.

Coltart: Well Id certainly welcome that Lance. One of the strange quirks of this transitional arrangement is that Im very rarely asked for interviews by ZBC so I have very limited opportunity to speak to the public, to speak to the parents, to convey my thoughts and so I really welcome this interaction that you provide through SW Radio Africa. Youre doing a great job, thank you.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe thats Education minister Senator David Coltart joining us on Question Time. Senator thank you for your time.

Coltart: OK Lance, keep well.

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