BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Even from 50 feet away, students can hear Thandi Dube’s voice.
“Sit down!” she shouts. “Take out your coloring books.”
It’s the beginning of the school day, and Dube is trying to control her classroom of about 30 rowdy preschoolers at Tshaka Centre, in Bulawayo’s suburb of Makokoba. “We teach children communication skills and emotional development skills, which help them transition into the next grade,” she says.
In Zimbabwe, early childhood development preschools like Tshaka Centre have grown since 2012, when the government rolled out a nationwide effort. But repeated classroom shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic threaten to derail the program, which was intended to prepare children from the country’s low-income households for school.
The idea of sending children to school before they are 6 years old is fairly new in Zimbabwe. For decades after 1980, the year of Zimbabwe’s independence, most children were introduced to the group-learning environment when they began first grade. Children from poor families spent the first three years of primary school learning skills their peers from well-to-do households knew already because they had access to nursery schools.
By the turn of the century, it had become clear that Zimbabwe’s schools were failing millions of children. Government experts examining the education system concluded that it wasn’t designed for all students to benefit. The system was a carryover from the colonial era, when white rulers believed that Africans needed only enough education to serve as low-level civil servants. While white children went to nursery schools to learn social skills and even reading and writing in preparation for primary school, most black children spent their early years at home playing.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
In 2004, the government introduced early childhood development centers, known in Zimbabwe as ECDs, which require two years of pre-primary education. Children at these centers spend 5.5 hours every day developing language skills, playing with peers and learning social skills like respect, sharing and self-control.
“The expectation is that once a child gets to grade three, they have covered the basics and they can read and write,” says Obert Masaraure, the national president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.
Now Masaraure and other advocates worry that sporadic school closures to avert the spread of the coronavirus could irreversibly harm the program — which is still in its infancy because a lack of funds to hire and train teachers delayed its launch until 2012.
When schools closed in March 2020, Zimbabwe switched to online learning. That worked relatively well for grade-level children because they were old enough to sit down and follow the instructions of parents and guardians. But parents found it impossible to guide preschoolers through lessons.
Dube, the preschool teacher, says that even trained early childhood educators like her have difficulty getting preschoolers to sit still and follow instructions. She can’t imagine a parent at home being successful.
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“What they are learning here is practically impossible to teach outside the classroom setting,” she says. “It needs a lot of experience and patience.”
Saneliso Ndlovu, a tailor in Makokoba, says she had neither the experience, nor the patience when she unwillingly became her children’s home teacher during the 2020 lockdown.
“There was nothing I could do to teach my 4-year-old son,” she says. “I taught him to count from zero to 10, but that’s all.”
So, Ndlovu gave up on him and focused on her daughter, who was in seventh grade, because it was easier. Her son spent most of the year playing. Now she wonders if he’ll ever catch up, because when classes resumed in 2021 — after eight months without learning — her son and other children continued to the next stage.
Masaraure, the teachers’ union president, says primary school teachers will bear the burden of helping children who have fallen behind because of missed classes.
“The Zimbabwean curriculum is a spiral, so missing the basics leads to lack of comprehension going forward, which reduces literacy rates,” he says.
Early childhood education is important because it lays the foundation for children to succeed in school and beyond, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. But a 2019 report by the agency found that half of the children eligible for preschool worldwide — about 175 million — weren’t enrolled. In low-income countries, as many as 78% of children don’t have access to preschool education.
Kasirayi Hweta, vice chairperson of the Bulawayo chapter of the Zimbabwe Network of Early Childhood Development Actors, a coalition of organizations advocating for access to early childhood education, says inadequate funding makes the early childhood program more vulnerable.
“In Zimbabwe, more emphasis and funding is placed on higher and tertiary education than in early childhood development,” says Hweta. “That needs to change.”
Although the early childhood program has been in operation for years, the government doesn’t seem to explicitly consider it when creating annual budgets. In 2019, for example, the government allocated $28.6 million to “support further improvement in junior education.” There was no mention of early childhood development in the 2020 budget.
“We need a specific budget that clearly outlines how much is allocated to ECD,” Hweta says. “We do not want to be bundled with other stages.”
But Taungana Ndoro, the director of communications and advocacy in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says the government focused specifically on younger children when drafting the 2021 budget, which earmarked 194.2 million Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($1.7 million) for early childhood development. “This shows that we are making strides towards prioritizing ECD learning,” he says.
The 2022 budget released by the Ministry of Finance made no specific mention of early childhood development funding. The ministry didn’t respond to repeated questions about the inconsistency.
Ndoro says his ministry is working to help children recover what they have lost due to lockdowns. But the omicron variant, which forced the government to postpone reopening schools after the holiday season, has complicated that effort.