Despite moves to salvage Zimbabwe's ailing education sector, exorbitant fees are keeping many poor students from writing the examinations that will allow them to gain a school-leaving certificate at the end of 2009.
A recent survey by the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) revealed that up to 75 percent of the 300,000 children who could sit their Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations in November had failed to register before the deadline.
PTUZ president Raymond Majongwe said exams had to be written in eight O-Level subjects at a fee of US$10 per subject, and in six A-Level subjects at a fee of US$15 each, which was simply beyond the means of most parents or guardians.
"The situation is terrible. Students learning in rural areas and on farm schools are the worst affected, with those coming from poor suburbs in urban areas accounting for a substantial amount of the victims," Majongwe told IRIN.
The number of students who could not afford to write their examinations this year was "the highest in the history of the country" said a PTUZ statement.
Hyperinflation, widespread food shortages, cholera outbreaks and an almost year-long strike by teachers in 2008 led to the near total collapse of an education system already undermined by the economic and political crises besetting the country. The standard of learning has declined dramatically.
"We seem to be going back to the pre-colonial era, when education was a privilege of the rich elite - the poor are slowly being edged out, even though the goal should be to provide universal education," Majongwe said.
The poor are slowly being edged out, even though the goal should be to provide universal education
The minister of education and sport, David Coltart, said there would be no extension of the 25 September deadline for registering to write the exams because it would delay the existing timetable and affect the printing of question papers.
"I am deeply concerned because children have been denied the chance to sit for their final examinations after working hard for probably four or five years," Coltart was quoted as saying by The Herald, an official newspaper.
Majongwe urged the government to allow all students to sit the examinations, "and then give them time to pay up, failure of which [would mean] their results should be withheld".
A sign of deeper trouble
Public servants, including teachers, have been paid in foreign currency as a hedge against hyperinflation since the formation of the unity government in February 2009, which has brought back some stability to schooling, but there are still mountainous problems to be overcome.
"Zimbabwe's education sector, once a model in Africa, continues to be riddled with challenges. Public financing of the sector declined significantly over the last decade, leaving most schools with no funds to purchase even the most basic teaching materials such as text books and stationery," said a recent statement by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
It is not uncommon for 10 pupils to share a text book, and despite the government's move to drastically slash school fees in February 2009, deepening poverty has meant that even the reduced cost of attending government schools in some areas had put education beyond the reach of thousands of children.
More and more have been dropping out: "Almost 50 percent of Zimbabwe's children graduating from primary school were not proceeding to secondary school," the UNICEF statement noted.
A school principal in Chitungwiza, a town about 30km south of Harare, the capital, told IRIN that 80 percent of the more than 1,000 students at his school had not paid fees since January.
"Of the hundred or so students who have paid to write their O-Level examinations, only 16 have registered for five subjects and above. Worse still, I don't have any reason to believe that things will change for the better next year if the economy does not improve dramatically."
Majongwe said although it was unlikely, he still hoped that part of the US$70 million Education Transition Fund unveiled by the government, UNICEF and the international donor community in mid-September would be used to rescue the stranded students.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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