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Private Zimbabwe Schools Face Closure - 2004-07-20

Some private schools in Zimbabwe could close if the government maintains its tough line on the increase of school fees.

The schools might not re-open for the third term in September if the fees issue remains unresolved.

Earlier this year, Zimbabwe's minister of education stopped more than 40 schools from starting the current term, saying they were charging exorbitant fees in a bid to exclude black pupils.

Schools opened after they agreed to lower fees set by the ministry, which does allow parents to make donations to the schools.

School officials say they were merely charging fees that would ensure the children get quality education in difficult economic times.

A spokesperson for the Association of Trust Schools, a body representing 60 schools, says the crisis point is the end of this term, in less than a month.

Speaking on condition of anonymity he said unless meaningful discussions are held most of the schools may be forced not to re-open for the third term. The ministry has set the fees until the end of the year and they can only be reviewed in 2005.

The Association official said the majority of parents are actually paying the fees asked for by the schools, but this is not enough. He added that fees are agreed with the parents who are involved in the drawing of the school budget.

He dismissed the allegation that schools are trying to exclude black pupils, saying the majority of the more than 20-thousand students are black. He said because of the Zimbabwe education ministry's fee cap most of the schools are heavily in debt.

One school not threatened with immediate closure is the Catholic St. Georges High School in Harare. Headmaster Brendan Tiernan says about 87 percent of the parents at the school have paid what the school is asking. He says because of inflation fees cannot remain at the same level.

"The board is trying to keep the fees static for the third term, but that will have to be looked at," said Mr. Tiernan. "Essentially we have two options; we either have to go to the parents and ask them if there is the need for a fee increase, to donate more alternatively there is the possibility of trying to seek legal redress through the courts, but that is a long and involved situation and in the Zimbabwe of 2004 getting an objective judgment urgently from the courts might be quite difficult."

Mr. Tiernan said there has not been an exodus of teachers, but the uncertainty over whether they are going to receive competitive salaries on time could drive some out of the country where he says there is a great demand for teachers.

An editorial in the government-controlled daily newspaper The Herald said myths, some accepted at official level about divisions among parents on racial lines, have now disappeared as the parents combine to preserve what they have chosen to give their children.

But the paper says schools should not demand the donations. This follows allegations that some children were being victimized at some schools because their parents had not paid the donations.

The majority of Zimbabwe's elite, including government ministers, send their children to the private schools.