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Children are given hope with quality education

April 2013 - Eleven-year-old Moses has come to school without a packed lunch. “I sometimes bring popcorn and a cool drink,” he says.
He appears unbothered about having to go for eight hours without eating properly or even at all, rather he is more concerned about being absent. “I only came 18th (in a class of 27) because I have to miss school when I’m sick,” he says.

Moses, whose name has been changed, is HIV positive and is talking in the privacy of the head teacher’s office. He sits upright in a threadbare uniform which is torn and far too big for his skinny frame.

“My parents died when I was five,” he continues, almost in a whisper. “They died of TB.” It is one of the most common causes of death in AIDS-related illnesses. “I have been taking TB tablets now for two years,” he says. Perhaps Moses fears discrimination, or that is what he has been told; his head teacher later confirms that he is taking antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, not TB tablets.

Since their parents died, Moses and his 13-year-old brother have lived with their aunt and uncle who are subsistence farmers and already have two children of their own to support. They are so poor that they cannot afford to pay the school fees for Moses, which cost 10 US dollars per term.

Moses is still in school thanks to the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) which was set up by the Government in 2000 with support from the World Bank, UNICEF and other development partners to prevent poor households withdrawing their children from school.  During the first half of 2010, over 550,000 primary school children benefitted from BEAM.

As in most schools, Shirichena Primary School, where Moses attends, has a BEAM selection committee. It consists of four parents and three teachers who must choose which pupils are eligible for assistance.  Mercy Chigwaza, the school head, who is on the committee says, “We choose orphans who are worse off than the other orphans and those who are in school already, because they have demonstrated enthusiasm.”

Shirichena, situated in Mhondoro, a rural area about 150 kilometres from Harare, has as many as 90 pupils out of a total 217 who have lost at least one parent, mostly from AIDS-related illnesses. It is typical in a country where a quarter of the children have lost at least one parent. However, Chigwaza adds, “We don’t send pupils home if they can’t afford to pay. We try to arrange some work for the children’s caretakers, such as cleaning or digging the latrine pits in the school.”

New latrines are just one of the important renovations that have taken place at Shirichena School. “When I came here in 2007, the school was falling apart; it was pathetic,” says Chigwaza. “The buildings were old, there was not enough school furniture so some pupils had to sit on the floor and some of the pupils could not even afford pens. There were only 90 children; the pupils were just leaving the school.”

Shirichena is one of the 250 Zimbabwean primary schools to have adopted the UNICEF supported Child Friendly School model. The programme aims to improve quality of education through an integrated package of school interventions, and currently reaches some 124,000 students. The community has participated, with UNICEF support, to construct new classrooms and teachers have benefitted from refresher courses in child-centred teaching methods.

“Parents brought in sand for the bricks and some made bricks at home,” says Chigwaza. “It was easy to get them involved.” UNICEF also supported the community construction of new latrines, separate ones for boys and girls, and provided safe water.  Hygiene clubs have been set up at the school, and all pupils learn about basic sanitation and know the key times to wash their hands. Sports are also being encouraged, for which UNICEF has provided balls and other equipments.

Early childhood development (ECD) centres are being assisted so that they become an integral part of the school. Shirichena has an ECD centre on the premises with some 30 pupils aged three to five years. UNICEF has provided games, including Lego, and the school is able to offer a meal of porridge. Merit Monogpoweri, the ECD teacher, benefitted from two weeks in-service training by UNICEF. “I was taught how to play with the children. It is important as they learn social skills and learn to interact with each other,” she says.

The head, Chigwaza, explains that these changes have made a huge difference. “When I see this development it has motivated me.” She adds that they are also beginning a vegetable garden and they hope to sell the produce to support running costs of the school.

Indeed, teachers like Chigwaza need that motivation. Zimbabwe’s education system was a major success story in the early years following independence in 1980: it met its target of universal primary education by 1990 and reported the highest adult literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa well into this decade. However, the past decade has seen the system crumble.

Despite enrolment figures remaining stable, the quality of education deteriorated dramatically as a result of the political and economic crisis in the country. The curriculum was outdated and teachers’ morale was so low that many left the country. In 2008, the teachers that remained went on a year-long strike. Their salaries had dropped to the equivalent of less than two US dollars a month.

In 2009, development partners set up an Education Transition fund worth $50 million USD, which is managed by UNICEF according to the Ministry’s priorities, to help the government put education back on track. The main aim is to improve the quality of education. In just one year, 13 million text books were distributed which means that there is at least one text book for every two pupils.

There is still much to be done countrywide and in Shirichena school. The ECD school is struggling to make ends meet and to pay the teacher, as parents cannot always pay the one US dollar a month fee.  Effet Chihoro, a parent and school committee member, adds that there is no electricity at the school. “This is particularly difficult for teachers living on the premises.”

The head adds that she is concerned because they cannot provide meals for the primary school, and “many of the children are learning on an empty stomach.”

Yet the improvements have given hope to children in Zimbabwe, including the most deprived, like Moses. He will be supported through BEAM to continue his studies at one of the model child friendly schools. “I love learning,” he says. “One day I want to be a pilot.”



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