Rhodesia vs Zim: The genesis of education sector crisis

Before independence most white teachers were civil servants, whereas African teachers were employed by missionaries or by city councils.


There is a popular opinion that education in the colonial days was better than after independence.

This article is divided into three parts:  education in the colonial days; education 1980s – 1990s and education in the new millennium.

Education in the colonial days

Before independence there were two ministries of Education:  the Ministry of African Education and the Ministry of European Education.

The Ministry of African Education was based on the Bantustan education system of South Africa.

It provided a low quality primary education for 35% of African children mainly run by missionaries. Parents had to pay fees.

In 1965 the government forbade missionaries from opening new schools, because they thought there were too many educated Africans.

Mainly boys went to school, and most of them only reached Grade 5.

Very few girls went to school as the fees were too high for the family.

There were only six secondary schools for Africans in the 1960s, and only 4% of the Grade 7s were allowed to enrol.

Usually these were boys with first class passes.

The Grade 7 level of English and Mathematics was very poor as the curriculum was very low.

Teacher training was also poor, at first confined to Africans with Grade 7, but later expanded to those with Form 2 in the 1960s.

African education syllabuses, textbooks and exams were written by their ministry.

The Ministry of European Education followed the British curriculum, and utilised British and American text books.

The level of primary education was very high, with parents able to monitor the teachers and to get lazy teachers dismissed.

At secondary level, students were selected either for technical vocational training , TVET, or for “O” levels after Form 3.

Those chosen for TVET followed two years of specialised training in polytechnics and became highly qualified technicians.

Those doing “O” levels did not get as good results as African students.

This was because African students, their parents and teachers, were highly motivated and worked hard, whereas European students expected to do well without too much strain.

Which ministry was better?  Definitely the European ministry was superior.

It provided high quality education for 4% of the population.

A European student cost 20 times more than an African student.

However, one problem of copying the British and American curriculum was most students left the country after school, college and university.

They were educated to go overseas, so that by the 1970s during the liberation war, there was a severe shortage of young whites in the country.

That was when Africans had to be employed in greater numbers in the military and in industry.

It was also the time when the government decided to expand African education.

The government realised that they had to expand African education.

They even began to recruit African university graduates into the army, leading to most African  university students and graduates leaving the country to join the Liberation armies.

Education in the 1980s and 1990s

There were enormous changes in education after Independence in 1980. First of all the two ministries were united.

Secondly, for the first time Africans were appointed to senior levels of the ministry.

The first officials came from those employed as school heads, those who had worked in neighbouring African countries especially Zambia, those who had worked overseas particularly in Britain and the United States, and a small number of those who had worked for the education departments of the two liberation movements, Zanu and Zapu.

The new minister of Education was Dzingai Mutumbuka, head of the Zanu and Zanla education department.

Before independence most white teachers were civil servants, whereas African teachers were employed by missionaries or by city councils.

They had their own salary scale which was much lower than those of whites.

Not surprisingly there was a unanimous clamour for all teachers to become civil servants. This populist demand was agreed to.

As a result, whereas there were less than 20 000 civil service teachers in the 1980s there are now  140 000 today, a 700% increase in numbers.

It was also agreed that internationally qualified teachers, then almost entirely whites, would continue to be paid their previous salaries, then about US$500 per month.

This has continued to be the salary demanded by teachers, but in an economy which has remained stagnant for 20 years.

The education planning system was installed more or less for the first time:  previously the ministry increased one school a year, but it was decided to provide free primary education for all, and fee paying secondary education for larger numbers at affordable levels.

Fay Chung was the first head of Educational Planning after independence, 1980 – 1983, and she was able to utilise her extensive  experience  in education to establish an affordable education system.

At the time there was generous donor aid, especially for education and health, both of which had been denied to most Africans.

This was an additional 10% of the state budget, and averaged about US$250 million a year for the next 20 years.

In order to make the schools not only affordable but also with strong parental and local government control,  the best way to organise schooling was to ensure parental and local government control of  schools.

As a result 88% of the new schools were registered as “private schools” owned by parents and district councils:  previously these “private schools” had been owned by missionaries.

Government schools remained:  these had been mainly for whites, with a few urban schools for Africans.

The new government  opened a few new government schools in districts which had not had a secondary government school before.

The African teacher pupil ratio of one teacher for 40 pupils, TP 1:40, was installed for all schools, replacing the TP ratio of 1:9 that had been common in white schools.

The TP ratio was the main factor controlling the cost of education.

Parents in the former white schools which were immediately de-racialised were allowed to charge themselves fees if 51% at a parents meeting agreed to the fee.

This was established and accepted by all, and very low fees were charged to enable these schools to have a TP ratio of 1:25.

This is still the system today.

Parents and district councils were also provided with construction grants by the ministry, combined with plans, regular supervision every few months, over the next twenty years.

These grants covered a third of the cost, then about US$3 500 per classroom, whilst the local communities were expected to build their own bricks, provide their own labour, and construct their own schools.

Each registered school was allowed to build four classrooms and a storeroom to start off with.

The successful ones were able to qualify to proceed to phase 2 of construction. 90% of school authorities were successful.

In this way hundreds of new primary and secondary schools were constructed, making education available to nearly every child.

School development committees which had to register a bank account and have a bursar were established and were also given an Administration grant with which to buy exercise and textbooks.

This was based on a grant of between US$4 – 6 per annum per child based on the school enrolment as measured in the previous November.

In 1980 Fay Chung initiated   the Zimbabwe  National Teacher Education Course, Zintec, which established a high quality four year training course to provide the nine thousand teachers needed for the expanded primary school system.

She had been the head of teacher education, research and development under Zanu during the 1970s liberation struggle, and was able to replicate the best part of their teacher education programme in the newly independent country.

This divided the four year course into short periods of residential training combined with longer periods of in-school teaching and training.

A sophisticated modern form of training was established, which covered the whole country, with residential facilities in every province, and district tutors to look after 50 student teachers in the district.

A 30  chapter training programme was published and sent to every school.

These were utilised for upgrading all teachers.

Provincial and district education officers were trained. So were school  heads.

Together with the district tutor they supervised the students who were placed in groups of three in designated schools.

These trainees were paid throughout their training and teaching.

Another improvement was that all teacher education was now supervised by the University of Zimbabwe, which could ensure a high quality of academic and practical work for all trainees.

Previously there were varied courses run mainly by missionaries.

The curriculum was also unified, removing the racial divisions of the past.

The Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) first headed by  Isiah Sibanda in 1980, and later by Fay Chung  1983 – 1987, worked out new syllabuses from Grade 1 up to “O” levels, but “A” levels remained as it had been under the British system.

Grade 7 and “O” levels examinations were radically transformed: in order to allow more than 300 000 children to write the Grade 7 examination it was computerized into mainly multiple choice questions: the necessary computers and specializations were successfully installed and worked for twenty years.

The “O” levels syllabuses and examinations were also Africanised and localised, and syllabus development, textbook writers and examination specialists (still under the Cambridge Examination Board, were trained within a few years.

The main changes was to introduce syllabuses, which were relevant to the 90% of secondary students who would not go to university, whilst retaining some aspects of  the Cambridge syllabuses.

It was decided not to change the “A” levels as it affected only the small minority  heading to university.

The quality of primary education as judged by the syllabuses, textbooks, teacher training and Grade 7 examination results, was judged to be good, with a 72% Grade 7 pass rate over the two decades.

At secondary school level, the “O” level examinations showed only 30% of about 250 000 candidates gaining five passes.

This level has been maintained up till today.

This means a 70% failure rate, a very serious problem showing that the “O” levels do not provide sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to create jobs in a developing country such as Zimbabwe.

However it must be remembered that education and training are only a part of what is needed for economic growth and job creation:  Zimbabwe has failed to grow its economy or create jobs.

Education in the New Millenium

The education system changed in the new millennium.

All donor and investment funds were cut through sanctions.

Although donor funds  had only comprised 10% of the state budget, the government instead began a system of printing sufficient Zimbabwe dollars to cover the deficit.

It could have cut costs by 10% at the time, but it did not do so due to pressure from racist South Africa and from Britain, which threatened to send its army to attack Zimbabwe because of the taking of white owned farms and the killing of more than a dozen white farmers.

South African mercenaries frequented the country and killed South African freedom fighters living in the country.

Britain’s Tony Blair tried to get its own army and neighbouring countries to support him in a war against Zimbabwe, but failed.

Fearing such an attack Zimbabwe increased its Zanu PF youth numbers as well as its security forces.

These remain in force.  This enlarged State employees.

Meanwhile, the government had accepted the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1992.

This meant State budget should  cut down on the number of employees: but because of the threatened security attacks instead the number increased exponentially.

At the same time urban employees were sacked, as ESAP advised that importation should be favoured instead of  more expensive national agricultural and manufacturing goods.

Zimbabwean food and manufactures were more expensive than those of China and South Africa, larger economies which had recently modernized their equipment and staff.

Commercial farms and manufacturing companies sacked workers, either replacing them with machinery or closing down.

Tens of thousands especially urban workers became unemployed.

Food costs rose. People rioted.

The economy, especially exports shrank.

Political instability followed, with the formation of the first large scale opposition, the Movement for Development Change, MDC, in 1999.

Meanwhile, desperate villagers blamed teachers, accusing them of  supporting the MDC, and some teachers’ housing was burnt.

Most male teachers fled to South Africa, as the underdeveloped South African education system now desperately needed qualified teachers.

As a result the qualified teachers who remained were mainly women, who remained with their families.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, whose budget was drastically cut, removed all grants to schools, including construction and administration grants, which had comprised about 4% of their budget.

Without any grants schools could  not build or repair buildings.

They could not  purchase textbooks and school materials.

The closure of schools during the political unrest meant that school materials, especially textbooks, were stolen or lost.

In the meantime, whereas in the first two decades educational specialists had been employed as ministers of Education, the next two decades meant that ministers were instead chosen from Zanu  PF political stalwarts.

One immediate result was the change of the TP ratio from 1:40 to 1:22, doubling the number of teachers at a time when half the teachers had already fled to South Africa.

Instead unqualified teachers were employed.

There were insufficient funds to train and supervise them.

This resulted in hundreds of schools being staffed entirely by unqualified teachers, who also did not have textbooks.

Without qualified teachers or textbooks the quality of education dropped.

Grade 7 results reached 37% passes in four subject, half of what it used to be.

Secondary school enrolments dropped from 62% to 49% of the age group, and school fees increased as schools tried to make up for lack of  qualified teachers and textbooks.

Hundreds of illegal schools sprang up as desperate parents who could not afford the high school fees sent their children to these schools.


Educational quality has certainly deteriorated for most schools over the last twenty years.  Yet many schools have managed to retain their high quality. This has meant that wealthier Zimbabweans have managed to maintain the quality of education for their children.  However more than 70% of Zimbabweans are poor, and these include the teachers. They are not managing very well.  A larger economic development solution is essential than just demanding payment in US$s. With failing production and failing exports Zimbabwe does not have enough US$s to pay the large civil service, including the teachers. The Colonial Education system was good for 4% of the population:  how can we cater for the whole population?

  • Fay Chung was Education minister in the Robert Mugabe era

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