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Private schools kick in Zim

HARARE, Feb 7 – "No disruption to learning" touts a newspaper ad for a new private Zimbabwean school, one of many springing up in living rooms, backyards and plots across Harare.

It\’s a big selling point in a country where government schools lost an estimated 20,000 teachers in 2008, a year when students attended class only 50 days. Teachers launched a new strike on Friday, raising worries about the new school year that began just last month.

Zimbabwe\’s crisis in education eased last year with the creation of a unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

That ended Zimbabwe\’s economic freefall and halted the political unrest that saw nationwide attacks mainly against the premier\’s supporters.

But government schools still struggle with up to 50 students in a class and 20 children sharing a book.

Cashing in on the situation, new private schools run by individuals, families and organisations are sprouting across the country, often inside homes, in yards and in plots designated by the municipalities, offering an alternative to parents.

On pamphlets and flyers, in newspapers and on radio and television, advertisements promising anything from one-on-one tuition, free textbooks and transport, to a Christian environment, have become a familiar feature.

Education Minister David Coltart said the government realises that it does not have the resources to provide the schooling that was once the envy of Africa and made Zimbabwe the most literate country on the continent.

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"Our policy is, we recognise that we cannot hope to cater for the entire education of all Zimbabwean children as the government," he told AFP.

"There is no doubt that the government has not been able to allocate sufficient money to education to be able to provide the educational service it has in the past."

"What\’s of concern is that there is the establishment of schools that have not obtained the authority to operate and the danger of that development is standards will not be met."

Government inspectors tasked with monitoring schools don\’t have access to transportation to visit all the new facilities, which in some cases are simply homes converted to schools, but without extra toilets or other amenities.

"It has its good and bad sides," said Lovemore Kadenge, a parent whose child attends one of the new schools in an upmarket suburb.

"The mushrooming of private schools is a good idea. If we have many of them, there is competition, standards are improved and children have good education," he told AFP.

"But there is a downside to it. It depends whether the government is monitoring the activities of these private schools. There should be a system in place to ensure the safety of the children."

At the height of Zimbabwe\’s hyperinflation in 2008, when prices rose several times a day and the local currency became worthless, qualified and experienced teachers left to seek better-paid jobs in neighbouring South Africa or Botswana, or as far away as Britain and Australia.

Often they found work doing manual labour better paid than teaching.

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Those who remained practised what they termed "remote control teaching", where they left their class under the charge of a pupil or student teacher while selling sweets on the roadside to supplement their pay.

Even government schools charge fees, frustrating many parents who say they see little result for their money.

"There is an admission that in the public school system there are problems, hence they are registering more players in the education sector, some of them charging slightly above government rates," Wellington Koke, who runs a private school in central Harare, told AFP.

With a total enrollment of 50, Koke say his school will insist on small classes unlike government schools where a teacher can have a class of 50 pupils. His school is a refurbished home.

"We have always had this idea of having well-paying pupils who are well-serviced," Koke said.

After government abandoned the local currency one year ago, teachers and other civil servants began receiving a flat salary of 150 US dollars a month — which was a significant improvement but still too little to make ends meet.

Teachers and civil servants are clamouring for raises, sparking fears among parents that their children could lose another year in the classroom to strike action.

But Coltart worries that the new schools are springing up so quickly that parents have no way of knowing that basic standards are being met.

"In principle I am not against the proliferation of private schools," he said.

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"So long as they are within the laws of Zimbabwe and certain standards are met in terms of the state of the buildings and that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that we don\’t have paedophiles teaching at these schools."

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