Zimbabwean parents not only have to contend with fees they cannot afford, but also with expensive essentials like uniforms, which now cost 600 times more than they did in 2006. Inflation is now running at around 1,600 percent, nearly 80 percent of the workforce are unemployed, and the minimum wage is nowhere near the cost of a basket of basic household items, forcing many parents to withdraw their children from school.
Standards of learning and teaching in Zimbabwe, at one time the envy of the African continent, have plummeted in recent years. "When the country received an economic knock in 1997 after offering war veterans hefty gratuities ... the education sector became one of the major victims," said Raymond Majongwe, president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ).
The situation was exacerbated by the government's fast-track land reform programme, launched in 2000 with the aim of removing white commercial farmers from their land and redistributing it to landless blacks, which has resulted in a steady economic decline marked by severe shortages of foreign currency, fuel and energy, basic commodities, foodstuffs and medicines.
All schools, including those run by the government, have had to enforce the increases. Educationists and parents have been warning that the rocketing fees would force larger numbers of children to drop out and exclude others from education.
Widowed Goronga Kaliati, 60, looks after three school-going grandchildren, two of whom are AIDS orphans, in the capital, Harare. This year none of the three children resumed school because she could not afford the fees.
A former civil servant, Kaliati gets a monthly pension of about Z$3,000 (less than one US dollar at the parallel market exchange rate, on which most prices are based) - not enough to buy two bars of laundry soap. She has moved into a shack in her yard to accommodate tenants who pay her about US$30 a month, which helps her family eat.
"My son and his wife in Mozambique used to give me money now and then, but for the past 10 months they have been quiet and life is just too difficult for me and the children," Kaliati told IRIN. The three children can now only watch others on their way to school while they sell vegetables and cigarettes to support their grandmother's income in the populous suburb of Mbare.
Many parents have taken their children out of boarding schools with good pass rates to enrol them at less expensive government schools.
"I could not afford the full uniform, which is now costing around Z$1.8 million (about US $243), in addition to the Z$1.5 million (about US $202) for school fees at the boarding school, and I was left with no choice but to recall my two sons back to Harare," John Maruta, an accountant with a small company, told IRIN.
Maruta will need to brace himself for the high transport costs, because the children have to make two trips to reach their new school, for which he has to cough up about US$1 a day, and another US$1 for food. Transport operators, like retailers and wholesalers, raised their fares by more than 40 percent at the beginning of the year.
"What it means is less food at home. Children can only perform well on a full stomach and, having taken a tiresome trip to school, their performance is bound to be affected," said Maruta in the medium-density suburb of Hatfield, where the rent for their four-roomed cottage has doubled to $40 a month. Average salaries in Zimbabwe are less than US$100 a month.
Innocent Makwiramiti, an economist and former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), told IRIN he blamed the steep rise in costs on the poorly performing economy.
"One cannot help but sympathise with the parents, but the fact is that there is hardly anything that can be done to improve their situation if the economy is not mended." He suggested that school authorities allow parents to stagger payments.
"Employers [could also] raise the salaries of workers ... but since companies are operating under strenuous conditions, that might not be possible. In any case, it's a 'Catch 22' situation because, once salaries are raised, inflation goes up as well," Makwiramiti commented.
While those lucky enough to be employed might be able to raise the money for their children's education, schooling is moving beyond the reach of those who are unemployed or do not have a steady source of income.
"Students have been hit hard by the economic crisis. Girls in colleges and high school are engaging in prostitution in order to get an education, while child labour is on the increase, and many of those supposed to be in school are turning to the streets as beggars and common criminals," PTUZ's Majongwe told IRIN.
A report released in late 2006 by the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped indicated that 67 percent of disabled children were out of school, mainly because their parents or guardians could not afford the costs of education.
Schools have defended the new fees. Jameson Timba, chairman of the Association of Trust Schools (ATS), which represents private schools, said they had set the new fees according to the Education Act.
"The Act says we can increase fees after taking into consideration the rate of inflation, and that is what we have done. We considered the inflation figures for the months of September to December 2006, and we calculated the fees on that basis.
"In fact, the schools could find themselves operating at a loss, considering that the term covers close to four months and the fees might be stagnant during that time, while inflation is going up," Timba told IRIN, adding that parents had been consulted on the fee hike.
Majongwe said schools found it difficult to import laboratory equipment, so most teachers were confined to lecturing. "The poorly performing economy has severely undermined the quality of students that are being produced, and the infrastructure, such as schools and examining bodies, that supports the sector."
The lack of foreign currency has also forced the government to localise examinations, which used to be handled by British boards, but local examination boards had failed to attract competent markers because they offered paltry payments. The Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council failed to meet its December 2006 deadline because teachers hired to mark the papers opted out due to poor payment.
"The teachers would rather go to South Africa and Botswana as informal traders than waste their time in an unrewarding process of marking the papers, and risk disciplinary action if the higher authorities feel they have erred," Majongwe said.
He estimated that around 18,000 teachers had left the country in the past five years to seek better-paid jobs, especially in southern Africa, leaving schools with disgruntled staff.
Although the new school year is well underway, many schools are still advertising for teachers, particularly those who teach science subjects, mathematics and accounting.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more from 'Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century' at http://newsite.irinnews.org/InDepthMain.aspx?InDepthId=28&ReportId=70140
Report can be found online at:http://www.irnnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=70041
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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