The government ordered that all primary schools offer two years of instruction before first grade, and parents in Harare are facing a tough dilemma. A majority of preschool teachers are unqualified, and formal government schools might also be far away or demand high fees, while unregistered, cheaper preschools have sprung up throughout the capital.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE – In the living room of a home in the Southlea Park suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, dozens of tiny hands play with toys and color in coloring books. On the little wooden chairs sprinkled among the other furniture, children ages 4 to 6 sit immersed in their activities in this residential preschool.

This school, known as Little Feet, offers early childhood development (ECD) classes. Veronica Nyakuni, the owner, uses her living room and her main bedroom as instruction spaces. These preschool learning programs teach educational basics such as colors and writing names, with an emphasis on play. Little Feet is just one of the abundant residential preschools in Harare.

Zimbabwe’s 2004 National Early Childhood Development policy mandated that all primary schools in the country offer two years of ECD pre-primary education.

But the ECD education sector has problems, including a lack of qualified teachers. Rather than send their children to more expensive and distant primary schools for ECD, some parents are choosing these residential preschools, even though many are unregistered. There, too, lie growing concerns about the quality of education being offered.

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Grace Njirisi leads a lesson for ECD students at the Deesney Junior Preschool, a residential preschool in Harare. Njirisi has been teaching for six years.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Patrick Makokoro, the founder and board president of Nhaka Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working to increase access to ECD in the country, says all primary schools are automatically registered to provide ECD A and B. Generally, ECD A is the class for children ages 3 to 4, and ECD B is the class for children ages 4 to 5. Some students enroll later and are a bit older, such as the 6-year-olds at Little Feet, but students are expected to progress to first grade by age 6.

The severe lack of trained teachers in the ECD sector was highlighted in a 2017-18 report by UNESCO.

The ECD level has the highest percentage of unqualified teachers, at 67.3 percent, the report states. The country’s education sector in general also suffers from a lack of age-appropriate equipment, learning materials and infrastructure, according to a 2016 UNICEF education brief.

Makokoro adds that some primary schools have made great inroads into ensuring that they have adequate facilities, while those in low-income areas often lack resources.

While primary schools are registered automatically for ECD, residential preschools have to register with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Makokoro says. Some, he adds, are operating illegally with unqualified teachers or might not be registered at all.

“The process of registration is also not very easy to go through, and hence many proprietors of these establishments then decide to operate illegally – and when caught either pay the fine or simply just shut down,” he says.

Nyakuni has had a certificate in ECD since 2015 and has been offering the service in her home for more than three years.

“l have 35 students in total, and I have hired one extra teacher to help me with the classes,” she says.

Nyakuni says she is registered as an accredited ECD center with the ministry, although she does not have any proof. She says she pays a $20 registration-renewal fee to the ministry each month.

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A bus waits outside the Deesney Junior Preschool. The school’s owner, Temba Chikada, says that he has been operating for more than five years and employs qualified ECD teachers, but his school is not registered with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

A ministry representative did not respond to requests for comment for this story, including multiple phone calls, emailed questions, WhatsApp messages and an in-person reporter visit.

According to the Harare District Education Office, the ministry awards certificates to operate residential preschools based on visits carried out by the Harare City Council, and a center must also be inspected by the City of Harare Health Services Department.

Temba Chikada, the owner of two residential preschools called the Deesney Junior Preschools, says he is not registered with the ministry because the process is “long, tedious, and you have to be connected to someone within the ministry to get the permission to operate.”

Chikada adds that he has been operating for more than five years and employs qualified ECD teachers. He says he follows ministry guidelines about how much physical space there is in his residence for children to play indoors and outdoors, for example.

“We are registered with the City Council as a business, and we have a certificate of health compliance from the Ministry of Health and Child Care,” he says.

The process of registration is also not very easy to go through, and hence many proprietors of these establishments then decide to operate illegally – and when caught either pay the fine or simply just shut down.

Local teachers and parents, meanwhile, look to residential preschools as solutions for employment and child care needs.

Muchaneta Sachikonye has been an ECD teacher for the past three years and has worked in residential preschools since she received her training.

“My salary isn’t much – I earn $250 a month, but it’s better than nothing. I have tried to get a job within the formal schools, but most of them are not employing at the moment, so the backyard [residential] schools are quick ways to get employed,” she says

Shupikai Mukaro, a parent who has been sending her 5-year-old daughter to Little Feet, says her choice is an issue of proximity and affordability.

The preschool in Southlea Park “is cheap; it costs $15 per month, and others like the ECD centers at the government schools are expensive, a joining fee of $150 is needed and a monthly school fee of $40,” she says. Fees in government schools are not standardized and depend on the location of the school, Makokoro says.

“At least she is getting educated [rather] than just being at home,” Mukaro says.

Makokoro says that if all residential preschools were registered with the ministry, this could improve the quality of education in Zimbabwe. An increase in accessible primary schools could do the same.

“The government should make more schools available, and they should make them more affordable,” Makokoro says.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.