Monica Cheru Creative Editor
A couple of years ago, parents turned up to drop off their children at the gates of a “primary school” in Chitungwiza. They thought it was just another ordinary week day, only to get a first-hand literal lesson on what the phrase “fly-by-night” means. The school had vanished.
Everything was locked up and security personnel manning the gates told stunned parents that the school administrators, after receiving an eviction notice over rental arrears, had packed their movable property and made off in the dead of the night, leaving no forwarding address.
This was mid-term and parents had paid a full term’s fees.
Now they would have to scramble around to find alternative schools for their children and fork out more money on uniforms.
In another case, parents who had sent their kids to such an institution for six years were only told in the seventh year that they would have to find Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec)-registered centres for their children as this school was not registered.
I could give a whole lot more different examples of how unregistered education institutions are giving unsuspecting clients a raw deal.
The illegal institutions are found across the country and span the whole spectrum, from early child learning centres to tertiary institutions.
Gap for black market education
The Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees every person the right to education.
Unfortunately, the gap between talk and walk remains wide.
I will reserve discussion on discrimination that is action-based on academic performance, economic ability, disability and location, among other things.
For this article, I want to zero in on the glaring fact that there are just not enough public institutions to cater for the growing young population in the country.
Almost every public school in urban areas and growth points has classes of plus 50 from Grade 1 to Form 4 and still has to turn away learners who live within its catchment area because there are just no vacancies for them.
Those who cannot secure places at public schools end up with tough choices.
They can remain out of the education system as indicated by 1,9 percent of people under the age of 24 who had never been to school and 25 percent who dropped out of basic education as of 2017.
The other alternative, funds permitting, is to go to registered private institutions.
But these are often pricey and most people who would have wanted a public institution in the first place really cannot afford to pay the fees.
This leaves the grey area of unregistered institutions.
These often pitch their fees at affordable levels and at relaxed terms. For example, some such institutions charge daily fees of around US$1.
Children attend when they can and hard pressed parents find that a viable option. Naturally, the learning that takes place under such circumstances is not even worth that label.
Mushikashika modus operandi
We all know that most private institutions’ owners are in it for the money.
There is no problem with that. A good number of private schools have come up and are giving sterling service at great value. These are schools that most parents desire to send their children to as they are often far much better at all levels than public institutions.
So even though they are most probably turning good profits for the owners and the brands are growing and spreading their footprints, they are an important part of the country’s education system.
The challenge comes when people get into it simply to siphon money from desperate people without attempting to give any service in return.
In fact, the reckless disregard of the law shown by some of these scammers pretending to be educators is the same as that displayed by pirate transport service operators called “mushikashika” in street lingo.
Fees are arbitrarily declared with no justification as to how the figures are set.
There are no School Development Committees to ensure stakeholder involvement and widen the pool of brains solving problems and coming up with ideas for improvements.
Everything is in the hands of one person or a small group whose only objective is to make a profit.
The institutions are often situated in some hole in the corner set up without adequate facilities for the learners.
Poorly remunerated and under qualified staff are typical.
Qualified and capable staff soon leave because of poor working conditions and terrible remuneration.
The owner is usually the director and principal, with school accounts treated as personal ATMs.
Sometimes staff goes unpaid because the owner has looted school funds. Priority is given to personal consumption, with education needs playing second fiddle.
With no regulatory oversight, these schools do not conform to any Government standards.
The learners are poorly prepared to tackle public examinations and find the going tough if they ever transfer to proper schools.
There is no attempt to found a name or create a legacy, two key pillars of sound educational institutions.
There is a world apart between the operations of a registered private institution and a “mushikashika”.
English is not a measure of learning standards
“English-speaking environment” is a favourite term for private schools to use when advertising their services to attract clients, especially at early child development stage.
Effective communication is an important life skill and career wise, the value of a good command of spoken and written English is undeniable.
Many parents assume that English-speaking is the only thing that matters.
But in reality, there are many learning skills that need to be cultivated in learners. Speaking impeccable English in some pseudo fancy accent on its own is not good enough. There are a number of learners with cut glass accents, proper diction and perfect elocution who still fail Ordinary Level and in some cases even fail English Language as a subject.
So, parents must assess a school in full, instead of acting as if English-speaking is the only requisite learner skill.
There are other things to check for such as registration with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
Parents are entitled to ask about the qualifications of the teachers in addition to demanding that curriculum requirements be followed to the letter.
It is common knowledge that a purely academic education is no longer enough to produce a market viable skills set. So co-curricular activities like clubs and sports are also very crucial.
Effective policy enforcement
We all know that the lawlessness on the roads resulted from ineffective policing due to corruption. The same ill would appear to have affected our education system.
For surely it defies logic how one can just decide to open a school and proceed to do in the same manner in which they might hold a garage sell to offload unwanted goods. And the authorities are content to turn a blind eye.
With the commuter omnibuses, once police officers became operators, kombi crews became a law unto themselves as there was no one to guard the guard.
One has to wonder if perhaps MOPSE high ranking officials are somehow benefiting from the illegal operations of unregistered institutions.
No alternative to adequate public facilities
As long as there is an unfilled need, someone is going to supply the missing service or goods. Illegal and unregistered schools can only be abolished once there are adequate public services to ensure that every child has access to a school.
There will always be room for private schools for those who can afford their services and that is all good. But private schools should be an option, not forced on the citizens because Government has not provided for the key human right of access to education.
Government needs to act now. Previously I have advocated the return of hot seating in order to maximise utilisation of existing resources until more facilities can be built.
There are also many qualified teachers out there who would rather work for the government than the unregistered private operators.
Another way is to empower communities to find their own solutions if there is need and Government is not able to provide facilities in the short term.
For example, communities can utilise public halls and church buildings as temporary learning centres while more permanent solutions are being actioned.