Zimbabwean Students Pay Tutors, as Schools Leave Pupils Unprepared for Major Exams

A sign advertising extra lessons, in Warren Park, a neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Such lessons, often taught by tutors or retired teachers in their own homes, are popular among students who want to succeed on their exams even if their schools haven’t prepared the students well. Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

As Zimbabwe’s schools suffer from shortages of teachers and money, many students are left unprepared for the nationwide tests that decide placements in secondary schools and universities. To make up for the schools’ inadequacies, more and more students are paying outside tutors for extra lessons.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE In Mabvuku, a suburb east of Zimbabwe’s capital, children sit on the floor. Some are writing, while others have their eyes glued to their notebooks. The teacher moves around to assist them individually.

There are no desks or chairs. This isn’t a formal school. The teacher, who is retired from the school system, offers from her own home what Zimbabweans call “extra lessons.” This private tutoring is primarily designed to help students prepare for examinations, often by brushing up on subjects they haven’t sufficiently studied in the classroom. The need for the lessons isn’t considered a judgment on the student, but rather an acknowledgment of the dismal state of Zimbabwe’s public education system.

Test scores determine what kind of secondary school a student can get into, and older students must pass exams to progress into advanced classes or university. But, at every level, only low percentages of students pass these exams.

Children who aren’t at the top of their class have little chance of getting help in the classroom, says Millan Mudhube, a parent who sends her child to extra lessons.

“My child learns at a school where there are about 60 [students] in their class, and the teacher will not attend [to] slow learners,” she says.

Mudhube says she pays $15 per month for her child to study five subjects.

There’s no way to track how many people independently offer extra lessons or how many students take them outside school walls. But students, parents and teachers say that extra lessons have become commonplace in Zimbabwe as a way to succeed in an education system increasingly plagued by teacher shortages and budget crises.

Schools have long offered their own extra lessons, though not always with oversight. A study in 2012 noted that teachers often offered extra lessons to the same students whom they taught during school hours, prompting concerns that schools were spreading the curriculum across more hours while charging parents a fee to do so.

Such concerns are one reason it is illegal for teachers employed in the government’s school system to charge for extra lessons, though schools may still offer their own fee-based programs.

Still, even retired teachers and others who offer extra lessons worry that they’ll run afoul of the government’s restrictions on the practice.

One retired teacher, who asked not to be named because she feared being identified by the government, says teachers are under too much pressure to adequately teach their students. It’s not uncommon for one classroom to have 60 students, she says. Beyond that, she says, the government requires so many progress reports that teachers are left with little time to attend to actual teaching.

She now offers extra lessons, charging 50 cents for each two-hour session. She works with 10 to 15 students every day, she says.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.