ZIMSEC Grade Inflation Controversy: Mutambara’s prognosis will hurt the poor

By Munya Gwisai

Renowned and leading African scientist and scholar, Professor AGO Mutambara, ignited a storm with his recent piece alleging shameless and scandalous grade inflation by ZIMSEC citing a school where 79 out of 140 students got three A’s or 15 points at A Level or a 56% pass rate.

He said this was inconsistent with normal graphs and a national cancer caused by a corrupt and incompetent state-run institution. This prejudiced the brightest of students, who could not be distinguished from the rest thus undermining their chances of scholarships and admissions into top universities like Oxford and Harvard.

Never mind about Oxford, Cambridge … after all these are bastions of global elites allowing only a few commoners. As a long serving teacher at UZ at the country’s longest established Faculty of Law which is the desired destiny of most students, I will give a local context of this matter. From about five years ago we have been rejecting even some students with 15 – 14 points because they cannot be accommodated within the 150 places on offer. We end up applying artificial criterion like an A grade at English O Level to distinguish them.

Grossly unjust. When l entered Law School in 1988, a student with 5 points could be admitted. Today children from the rich private schools with much lower points are being admitted into top South African law schools. The Zimbabwean rich and middle classes have abandoned UZ and other local universities.

So there is a real problem. But Prof Mutambara’s diagnosis of the problem is not sufficiently contextualized and the principal remedy he proposes, more creative and stricter examinations, while perhaps well meant in view of the real problems at ZIMSEC, will hit the poor badly, leaving the elites unaffected. It is thus class biased and distracts from the real problems of sky-rocketing school fees, grossly under-paid teachers, inequality and failure to produce students with critical thinking, vocational and life-skills.

Former Faculty of Law Dean, Kempton Makamure warned that in any class society there cannot be neutral scholarship. Italian revolutionary, A Gramsci, also argued that whilst every major class has its own organic intellectuals, the most dangerous are those from the ruling classes, who are the most prominent and celebrated and claim to stand for universal truth and knowledge but in fact behind this façade of neutrality and objectivity, is defence and advancement of the interests of the dominant economic and political classes of society.

Exam trends do not show grade inflation but mass failure of the poor

Whilst Prof Mutambara’s analysis largely relied on conjecture based on a few schools he has received more empirical support from a major teachers’ union, PTUZ. In a statement, it agreed “grade inflation is a reality,” and from “2000, a deliberate political decision was taken by government to loosen the marking of subjects like English (and History) by removing the strict marking system which obliged students to know English like Englishmen. Henceforth, students could get a pass mark for indicating that the idea had been communicated.” The result being that “poor students now pass, average students get excellent marks” and the gifted get straight A’s without having to work that much. Further that elite mission schools employ ZIMSEC examiners including senior ones, item writers and Principal Marking Supervisors, who set and mark exams. These in turn drill students on possible exam questions and answers, if not worse.

Regular media reports of ZIMSEC exam leaks give further credence to this credibility gap. Thus the issues raised by Mutambara and PTUZ cannot therefore be dismissed – there clearly is need to address some of the credibility issues of ZIMSEC. But more evidence and comparative analysis is needed to sustain the claim of rampant large-scale grade inflation and marking manipulation to justify the draconian generalized remedies proposed.

If true that marking standards have been so loosened that even “poor students pass” this must reflect in general pass rate trends and comparisons with other boards. But this does not seem to be so. The average ZIMSEC A Level pass rate for 2019, for two subjects with at least an E, was 83.1% in 2019 and 81.9% in 2018. A major fall from the 93.3% and 93.7% for 2015 and 2016 respectively. Whereas it was 97.6% for Cambridge Examinations UK in 2017. Or compared with the 25 or so rich private Zimbabwean schools that do Cambridge Examinations, PeterHouse College had a pass rate of 96.7% for 2019, Watershed 98% in 2015 and 93% for St Georges in 2018. The ZIMSEC pass rate in Sciences was even lower, around 33%.

The declining or stagnant pass rates at ZIMSEC reflect the worsening economic crisis which has debilitated working class and rural schools and teachers. But as in everything else, this crisis affects the poor the most. Like the rich private schools, the privileged mission schools are doing well. For such top schools in Manicaland, Masvingo and Midlands, the epi-centre of these super results, pass rates ranged from 95% to 100%. The same at O Level. Whilst pass rates at top mission schools like Knostics, Nyanga, Kristie Mambo, Monte Casino and St Dominics Chishawsha were 92.8% to 100%, it was disastrous for working class schools. Pass rates stagnated at 31.2% in 2018 and 31.6% in 2019. Some rural schools especially in marginalised provinces of Matebeleland and Mashonaland Central have less than 10%.

Making exam marking stiffer will result in even lower pass rates amongst ordinary pupils, more costly for parents having to pay for even more extra lessons and many likely dropping out, in particular the girl child, because of the mad increases of school and exam fees under the ED junta’s IMF endorsed austerity policies.

As argued by one analyst the real scandal is not grade inflation but the huge numbers of working class and rural children who are failing. Clearly the “poor students” are not passing but failing in huge numbers. Likely a result of poorly paid and demoralised teachers, huge teacher teacher-pupil ratios, lack of text-books and resources and sky-rocketing school fees and uniforms. These are the areas that need urgent address, otherwise we are reverting to the colonial bottle-neck system with Goromonzi and Fletcher as the only high schools for millions of blacks and scores of well-funded schools for less than 200 000 whites. In South Africa state intervention lowered the Matric pass mark to 30% to accommodate working class and rural children.

Mission academic concentration camps and abnormal A Level results

It is true that abnormal results are emerging from some individual schools in the Zimsec system although the overall average is not disproportionate compared say to Cambridge UK. The super schools are concentrated in three provinces which each produced over 200 students with 3 A’s or more, namely Masvingo, Manicaland and Midlands. But these are drawn from a tiny core of schools, which are largely boarding, mission-church run and with fees out of reach for most workers and the poor. In Manicaland in 2019 such 259 students with 15 points were mainly drawn from six schools out of the 353 in the province including Knostics Academy and St Faiths with 37 each, St Augustine’s 35, Kristie Mambo 28 and Bonda, 19. In Masvingo the 251 students were drawn from 11 schools led by Pamushana with 77 and others like Nyamandi, Dewure, St Anthony, Chibi, Ndarama, Hippo Valley and Gokomere.

These results must be contextualized. Overall the total number of students with 3 straight A’s must be less than 1 500 of the 40 000 or so who wrote, that is less than 5%. Comparatively in the UK Cambridge 2018 A level results, 12.9% students got at least 3 A’s.

The unusual concentration of the 15 pointers in a small core of elite mission schools arises largely from historical and economic reasons and certain specific factors. The PTUZ statement pointed out the specific factors of drilling and coaching of students by teachers who are also senior ZimSec examiners. But there are more factors.

One commentator aptly stated that “Zimbabwean mission boarding schools are still concentration camps where scholars come to school for one thing alone, to study and pass exams.” The elite mission schools cherry pick the very best of pupils coming out of primary school, taking only those with 5 or 6 points. This is probably less than 3 000 of the 25 000 Form 1 pupils privileged to go to boarding school of their 350 000 plus peers coming out of primary school.

There is further screening at A Level, where only those with 5A’s are being taken by the top mission schools. Regrettably a trend now being followed by some government schools in places like Seke, Mufakose and Glen View. And some privileged mission schools like St Ignatius now turning into private trust schools. These pupils are then put in a pressure cook or “academic concentration camp” of extreme competition, in schools that are relatively well resourced, with experienced and better remunerated teachers, many of whom are senior Zimsec examiners. And unlike preceding generations these children were much better prepared from child-hood, having attended creche, ECD, had extra-lessons from primary school, had better food and access to TV and the internet from an early age and likely have better educated parents.

It should then not surprise one that from this privileged and concentrated layer is emerging the super results. If these pupils were to write the same Cambridge exams as their peers from the rich private schools, they are likely to perform the same. Two other contexts must be considered, namely the hugely distorted dynamics of supply and demand of places for “top” degrees and the extra-ordinary super-charged education culture in Zimbabwe compared to most other African countries.

Whilst the number of A Level schools has exploded exponentially in the last two decades, most offering Arts and Commercials, the number of universities offering traditional “top” degrees like law has remained pitifully small. Whilst access to general university education has been more democratized with now nearly 20 universities, the same has not happened for such programmes. There are still only four law schools and medical schools. Whereas top South African law schools take up to 600 students, UZ takes only 150, and the other three newer universities not more than 100 combined.

This has created a hugely distorted landscape, where now the points required to enter into Law have shot to 15 at UZ. This is what is driving the insane competition in the privileged schools. The only way to secure places is getting 15 or more points. It is the ultimate elitist bottle-neck education system that was pioneered by racist colonialism. And a system that relies on the traditional examination system to assess students rather than continuous assessment, is particularly vulnerable to the rot-learning, spotting and drilling methods being used in the privileged schools. The above material conditions are a key driving factor in the explosion of 15 pointers. Which is why a similar phenomena is being observed in the rich private schools doing the Cambridge Examinations, but at a lower scale. PeterHouse College reported that for 2019, 65.6% of students had grades B to A, their best for several years. In the 2013 Cambridge O Level examinations, Zimbabwe attained a historic feat with seven students scoring the highest marks in the world in their subjects. Even with Cambridge UK, exceptional results are possible. For instance, in the 2019 A Level examinations, 85.3% of students who sat for Chinese had an A or plus grade, Further Mathematics had 54. 2% whereas it was only 3.8% for English Language and 4.8% for Law.

That the intensity of competition and performance in Zimbabwe is higher than in most of Africa is not surprising. Until the advent of ESAP in the early 1990s Zimbabwe had the second highest industrialised economy in sub-Saharan Africa, second only to South Africa. That industrial base was built from the 1940s and required a relatively large layer of skilled and educated workers than elsewhere in Africa.

Unlike South Africa where a large white working class supplied such skilled labour and therefore the colonial regime never bothered about large scale education of the black population, Rhodesia’s white population was too small. The skills gap had to be filled in by blacks hence the need for education facilities beyond what was the norm in most colonies. These were provided in mission schools largely concentrated in Masvingo, Manicaland Midlands. A tradition of high pursuit of education thus emerged under colonial capitalism in Rhodesia.

This further grew with the massive expansion of education facilities in the first ten years of independence under Mugabe. Even as the economy de-industrialised with ESAP and jobs became scarce, the education culture remained and actually grew even under the economic crisis. Education becoming the main get-out-of-poverty card in opportunities in Africa and the Diaspora. Thus, many working class and rural families, will go to incredible lengths to get an education for their children.

Education is the get-out of poverty card for these families, the same way perhaps basketball, athletics, soccer and music is for many poor black and working class Americans, Jamaicans, Kenyans or Ethiopians or kids from the inner cities of Europe and Latin America. Thus, Zimbabweans are the highest educated recent immigrant group in Australia, or are in huge and disproportionate numbers in workplaces and professions in England, South Africa, Botswana and across Africa.

Not deepening elitism but democratization of education

But two decades of worsening economic crisis has taken a severe toll on the education system. Teachers are earning all time low poverty wages and are demoralized; pupil-teacher ratios have exploded, schools lack basic resources, children come to school hungry and now school fees have sky-rocketed. The net effect is the declining O and A Level results for the masses.

This is particularly magnified in historically marginalized areas like Matebeleland South which was denied the education dividend of the early 1980s because of the Gukurahundi genocide or provinces like Mashonaland Central and large swathes of urban township schools. Every year l do an ad hoc survey of my first year Law School students and am dismayed by the growing under-representation of these provinces, groups and minorities like the Ndebele, Tonga, Ndau, Kore Kore.

In future this will be reflected in their continued under-representation in the highest organs of the judiciary, government, parties and corporate boards. A fairer system would not only place emphasis on academic results but affirmative action to accommodate such marginalized provinces and groups, as was done with women, who now are the majority of Law students.

This skewed system means over-focus on academics, rot learning, exams rather than acquiring real knowledge and skills, including vocational, cultural and sporting ones, as happens in the rich private schools and as previous education Minister Dokora tried but was crushed. One survey found that whilst Zimbabwe has one of Africa’s highest literacy rates at 96%, the critical skills rate was a low 38%.

The over-reliance on mission schools worsens this. In his 1883 Letter to Catholic Missionaries, King Leopold, the Butcher of the Congo, laid out the template for mission education in Africa: “teach students to read and not to reason… The children have to learn to obey what the missionary recommends, who is the father of their soul…Teach the niggers to forget their heroes and to adore only ours.”

Or apartheid South Africa where only 362 blacks passed matric in 1962, because, according to Vorster, a proper education must ensure that “Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them.”

Or the racist founder of today’s UZ Law School, Richard Christie, whose normal passing graph ensured that 56% of blacks were screened out of first year Law School, much more than whites and Indians. His rationale? – “ lack of flexibility and originality of mind” of Africans, which made it “more difficult (for Africans) than non-Africans as a class to make the transition from school work to a university law course.” Such elitist attitudes persist even today with Christie’s ghost hovering and 1st classes a rarity even if the law schools are receiving 15 pointers.

Today therefore the pre-occupation of our sharpest dons is worship and access to Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge for a tiny core of African elites rather than fix the structural problems of our education system which affect the majority. Under the guise of addressing the weaknesses in the ZIMSEC system which affect less than 1% of students, their solutions will massively negatively affect millions of working class and rural children, ensuring education is a privilege and not a right for the masses. A return to the colonial bottle-neck system just as we have seen our judges, MPs and politicians ensure a return to chibharo and cheap labour for workers, all in the service of international capital and big business. This is what “Zimbabwe is open for business” means per Zanu Pf, or “Ease of doing business – eat what we kill” per MDC. All in sync with IMF and World Bank precepts of austerity and neoliberalism.

Yet what we require is a de-colonised, free, quality, mass public education system for all from creche to university. Where the driving force is not competition, elitism or examinations but human development and societal needs. This means one quality national examination board for all pupils and abolishing the special Cambridge one for the elites; pupil assessment based more on continuous assessment than exams; ensuring equal access to all schools for all children instead of elite schools for the few; well resourced public schools with well-paid professional teachers and other staff.

This must be the real focus for unions, workers and the poor not the red herring of grades inflation. That this is possible is shown by Cuba’s mass education system which produces per capita the largest number of doctors in the world. Or the democratized education system of the early 1980s in Zimbabwe which saw huge numbers of working class and rural children accessing education breaking the colonial bottle-neck. Effectively what Prof Mutambara argues for is a different society -neoliberal capitalism, but that society is not for the masses and must therefore be overthrown and replaced by a more humane one – socialism.

Munya Gwisai is general coordinator with the International Socialist Organization in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on email:

This article first appeared in Socialist Worker, 7 February 2020