HARARE, ZIMBABWE — As the quality of this country’s public education system surges and recedes, one option has been a constant, largely unaffected by either political or civil strife: private schools.
Elite schools were expensive before Zimbabwe won independence, and they’re still expensive now.
But one thing has changed. While such schools were once enclaves nearly totally reserved for people of European descent, they’re now popular options for Zimbabwe’s moneyed black families.
“If you want quality, you should be prepared to pay for it,” says Tim Middleton, executive director of The Association of Trust Schools, an accrediting agency for private schools.
That notion is a dramatic departure from the government’s stance, established immediately after independence in 1980, that every student has the right to a free, high-quality education. Former President Robert Mugabe, the independence-movement hero who ruled Zimbabwe from 1980 until late 2017, made that position a top priority. But his government’s human-rights abuses, mismanagement of foreign aid and inability to stop widespread economic collapse ultimately sank the country’s education gains.
Teachers fled from the public school system, where they couldn’t count on receiving a salary, however meager. Huge numbers of them went abroad, but some found job security at private schools.
But even after private schools were largely populated with black students, suspicions about them remained. In 2004, the government shut down dozens of the schools on the charge that they were “racist” for charging a tuition that many black families could never afford. Most of those schools eventually reopened.
There is no central listing of private schools in Zimbabwe. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education collects details on schools operated by religious groups, private companies, farms, mines and other groups – more than 1,000 schools in those categories were counted in 2014 – but it’s not clear which of those are private schools. The Association of Trust Schools lists 66 schools among its members, but the association only accepts schools that have been in operation for at least seven years.
In a sense, those schools are a throwback to the pre-independence period. Fees, including room and board, are high – ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 per three-month term at the secondary level, according to GPJ’s review. And while Zimbabwe’s public schools now test via a local system managed by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council, private-school students take Cambridge Assessment International Education exams, administered by the British Council.
Still, many parents say they’d happily pay for private school, if they could afford it.
Memory Girisome, a hairdresser, laments that her son, who attends a rural public school, doesn’t have a chance to learn computer skills.
“If I could afford the tuition for private education, I would do it,” she says.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.