In-Depth: Covid-19 intervention rescues Zimbabwe’s education sector; pilot project raises primary pupils’ pass-rate

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By Leopold Munhende, Chief Correspondent

FEARLESS Chisipochinye, a primary school headmaster, whose centre recently recorded an 89% pass-rate last year, 48% above the national average, gives credit to a new platform they recently installed courtesy of UNICEF and Microsoft.

The electronic Learning Passport (LP), a Covid-19 stopgap measure has put her school back on Zimbabwe’s educational map, with its use giving them a foot-long advantage over neighbouring schools in their district.

A two decade long financial crisis destroyed the little that had been invested in education by late President Robert Mugabe’s government since independence.

Low salaries, poor administration and better offers beyond borders encouraged shipping of teachers in droves, with the aftermath being an undisputed knock on schools’ pass-rates.

The LP being piloted at Westlea Council primary school, about 10km from the central business district (CBD) is being touted as a possible saviour to deteriorating pass-rates.

Launched in 2021 by the education ministry, it is software which provides learners access to interactive, online lessons in audio, video and text format.

The LP closed gaps between well-funded private schools and poorly funded ones.

Private institutions continued with their calendars at the height of Covid-19, using various online platforms to execute lessons, and in the process left the poorly funded ones at the mercy of nature and uncertainty during intermittent lockdown periods.

Westlea primary is one of the schools where content that would have only been available on the internet can now be accessed offline after investment in a separate server for its 2,085 learners.

“It raised our pass rate from 88.05% in 2021 to 89.07%. This is an effective learning platform and could be more effective if it could be placed on a zero-rated facility so that our learners can access even without data,” said Chisipochinye.

A visit to Westlea indicated a school eager to step into the 21st century, with students exhibiting knowledge, not just of how to operate the software but various subjects on offer.

Director of Education for Primary and Secondary Olicah Kaira said developments at Westlea were enough to indicate the LP suited Zimbabwe in its current state.

“We appreciate the partnership that developed the LP for use by our teachers and children, remember our ministry was mandated to provide a relevant, quality education to our our school going children,” said Kaira.

“The results have improved at Westlea so the LP is fit for purpose for our own circumstances and call upon parents and guardians to complement what has been done and be able to study at their own pace.”

A Parliamentary report on effects of Covid-19 on schooling conceded that its facilities were already reeling from inadequate financing, poor infrastructure and connectivity issues.

The report blamed Zimbabwe’s 90s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP).

“Zimbabwe’s education sector was already being strained by legacy issues that have been lingering for many years. These include inadequate infrastructure, particularly, schools, internet facilities, radio and television connectivity, water and sanitation, among others,” reads the report.

“In the early 1980s and 1990s, Zimbabwe used to pride herself as one of the best African countries with a good education system. However, with the introduction of policy measures such as Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) around 1990s, the education sector went on a downward trend as Government followed the dictates of the Bretton Woods Institutions which called for reduction in spending in social sectors such as education and health.”

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), over 800 million learners from around the world were affected by Covid-19 lockdowns.

One in five students could not attend schools at a time some 102 countries ordered school closures.

UNICEF Director of Education and Adolescent Development Robert Jenkins gave credit to the LP but maintained the challenge of getting it at all schools remained.

“It is impressive to see the quality of education, it is clear that the LP is proving to be a powerful tool. It is important that it be accessible to all and affordable, we are hoping to reach all schools as quickly as possible.

“The challenge is to ensure an offline package; it is being rolled out and showing great promise.”

With Covid-19 lockdowns now a thing of the past, hopefully, the passport could just be a panacea to Zimbabwe’s challenges in the education sector.