The decision by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, after discussion with medical experts, to go ahead with the planned reopening of schools for exam classes next Monday and everyone else a week after, makes good sense and will be welcomed by parents and children alike.
Far too much teaching time was lost over the last two years, and while strenuous efforts were made to minimise the damage to the children’s education, it is also clear that most children cannot miss much more without serious problems later in their school life or in the outer world.
The Education Ministry, and its school heads and staff, now have a lot of experience in managing Covid-19 to minimise the risks of infection and coping with an outbreak when one is reported. So the risks and occasional outbreak are manageable.
It no doubt helps that all teachers and almost all pupils in the upper three forms are now fully vaccinated, and the major effort made by both the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education and the Ministry of Health and Child Care to get the vaccination teams into high schools very quickly after Sinovac vaccine was cleared for 16-year-olds and above shows what can be done.
The upgrade in school cleanliness, sanitation, water supplies and general hygiene as a result of the measures introduced to combat Covid-19 obviously have far wider benefits when it comes to the health of our children, and must be kept at these high levels long after Covid-19 has been beaten back.
The Education Ministry should, when finalising school term dates this year, be packing as much as possible into the early part of the year when the going is good, so that if something weird happens later on there is a bit of leeway to adjust terms without ill effects.
This year sees another major advance in ensuring all children can benefit from education. The budget for BEAM, the assistance programme that finds tuition fees and uniforms for children from families where these are problematical has been dramatically increased and this year around a third of all schoolchildren can benefit.
This is important. Schools need the fee money, but we cannot continue creating cycles of poverty, where children from poorer families miss out on the one escape route they have from poverty, a reasonable education. BEAM at the sort of levels now available means that no one should miss schooling with those families able to pay raising the needed money and those who cannot getting the support they require.
The new BEAM levels, in fact, bring forward the day to making schooling compulsory, and not just compulsory but compulsory to form four with no drop outs. This is needed to complete the major revolution introduced just after independence to give every child the right to 11 years of schooling, to making that something that all children must do.
Keeping children at school has other social benefits. We have now picked up the evil of child marriages and child labour. If someone is picking up that a child is missing, then they can investigate and that alone will make a major contribution to ending these evils. In any case a child assured of four years of high school will be learning more self-confidence and building up a group of adult advisors, the teachers, who can be told when something wrong is happening or planned and they in turn can call in the appropriate authorities.
One problem, of schools too far away from the families it serves, does exist although at a relatively low level. The advent of practical devolution, that is ensuring that councils get funds for infrastructure, has seen gaps in the school networks being filled. Generally communities when drawing up their priority lists are listing the need for clinics where the nearest is too far away and schools when their children have to walk too far.
Besides these, the Government is now planning a new boarding school in every district, and more importantly getting that into the budget so it is converted from a good idea to something actually going to happen.
This, along with the jump in BEAM budgets, the devolution building programme and other measures are an example of the Second Republic moving away from rhetoric to facts on the ground, and which can be funded because other reforms, particularly the fiscal discipline and leaning on errant tax payers, means that the cash is available.
Talk without action is cheap; it is the action that costs the money and this is what we are now seeing in most sectors, not least the education sector where we are investing in Zimbabwe’s future by investing in Zimbabwe’s children with no one left behind.
That investment is being made more productive and meaningful by syllabus development, with a proper regard now being paid to practical subjects. There are a lot of academic basics that must be learned in school, of course, but children also need to know how that academic education can be applied to earning a living, especially now that other programmes are being developed and expanded to make farming a business and figuring out ways to get other businesses started.
Even formal sector employers want trainees who have a balanced education, academic so they understand and are able to do what they are being taught, but with enough of a practical focus so that training can be done more rapidly and that the trainees know how to move from text book to the machinery in a factory or mine, without seeing any wall between the two sides.
We are far from the perfection we all desire in the education world, but the advances in the last two or three years, as we turn decades of talk into action by proper professionals, mean that we now solidly on the road to what we want and need. The decision by the Education Ministry to push ahead hard this year means that this journey is not derailed.