Zimbabwe's education system was once considered among the best in Africa. But according to a report that will soon be released by UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, fewer children are able to enroll in school and many of those who do enroll are forced to drop out.
The UNICEF report is going to be released early next year. According to a draft of the study, almost 40 percent of children of primary school age who dropped out of school reported rising fees as the main reason for quitting. Zimbabwe introduced state school fees in the early 1990s, but as the economy has declined in recent years, schools have had to raise their fees and parents have been unable to keep up with rising costs.
The draft report also states that many children, especially girls, are dropping out of school to care for parents afflicted by HIV or to look after their siblings when their parents die. The report says poverty and HIV/AIDS caused completion rates in primary education to fall to 70 per cent in 1999.
Another reason for the decline in school attendance is Zimbabwe's land reform program, under which more than 320,000 of Zimbabwe's 350,000 commercial farm workers have lost their jobs. As a result, these unemployed workers cannot afford to send their children to school. UNICEF says this means more than 120,000 children in primary and secondary school no longer have access to education.
What makes Zimbabwe's educational decline so alarming is that the country's education system was once a source of great pride. The Zimbabwean government engaged in a massive school-building exercise after independence in 1980. This resulted in the attainment of gender parity and universal literacy for the population under 25, an achievement which ensured that Zimbabweans enjoyed a literacy rate of nearly 90 percent, the highest in Africa.
But educational experts warn that these achievements are now under severe threat, even though the government still ranks education highly and apportions education the largest slice in the national budget.
A substantial amount of the budget allocation goes toward payment of fees for those who cannot afford to do so. But because so many students need assistance the government cannot afford to pay fees for most of those in need.