. . . as most pre-schools in Zim do not meet requirements
From the street, the crèche looks like any of the other houses. What sets it apart are the bright cartoon characters on the
security wall and the cluster of outbuildings constructed from concrete panels behind the walls.
This scene is normal to many residents, with “pre-schools” nestled among residences in both high and low-density suburbs no longer attracting a second glance.
The artwork on the walls ranges from very good to scary and it now appears that inside the walls, life is imitating art.
Zimbabwe prides itself on its high literacy rate which, despite the decade of economic turbulence starting in 2000, is the highest in Africa.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) statistical digest of July 2010, the southern African country has a 92 per cent literacy rate overtaking Tunisia to take pole position.
Education is valued highly in Zimbabwe and the education of children takes precedence over other material requirements.
Every primary school now requires evidence that a child attended an Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC). Statutory Instrument 106/2005 advises parents to have their children to attend an ECDC before they start school.
In 2004, the Government directed all primary schools to integrate ECD into the mainstream primary education system.
According to the Commission of Inquiry into education and Training in 1999, there were 5 411 primary schools at the time.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture Dr Stephen Mahere says the majority of schools have successfully incorporated the first phase of ECD into their operations.
“About 97 percent of schools now have the first phase of ECD which ran from 2005 to 2010, which is called ‘Grade Zero’ in most schools, and the uptake Phase 2 of ECD is now just over 70 percent in schools.”
But there are not enough Government ECDCs.
The flight of teachers to “greener pastures” in other countries during the harsh economic times has worsened the situation.
Zimbabweans, resourceful as ever and ever alert to an opportunity — have stepped in to provide this service.
However, not all providers of the service are operating legally.
According to the Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, there are currently 4 908 unregistered private ECDCs and 3 190 registered ones.
In November 2011 the Government ordered unregistered ECD centres to register but a subsequent random survey by The Herald shows that many are still to comply.
Many of the centres have become big business, with some charging fees that are equivalent to those charged for boarding places in high schools such as Queen Elizabeth (US$580 per term) and Prince Edward (about US$800 per term).
While some of the centres such as Chitungwiza’s Early Learning Centre (Government) and Waterland ECD (private),are doing a great job preparing the children for Grade 1, there is an element of business first and learning later in many of the establishments.
“It is the ministry’s duty to protect the public from providers of education who are bent on profiteering.
“It is, therefore, incumbent upon provincial education directors to scrutinise and inspect every private early childhood development centre,” Acting Secretary for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture Reverend Paul Damasane said.
There are guidelines to the setting up of centres, many of them focusing on health and safety standards of the children.
SI 106/2005 sets guidelines for the requirements of ECDCs:
A total indoor playing space of 2,25 square metres for each child is required,
l Flush water closets should be provided in the ratio of 1:8 children
l Hot water and running water should be available in the centre building.
l Wash basins at the ratio of 1:6
l The ECD centre shall be maintained in safe, clean and sanitary condition,
l Adequate indoor storage space and cloak facilities shall be provided.
At 10 of the 15 centres visited, not one of these requirements was being met.
The other five only met the running water requirement and none of the others. None of the centres met the toilet requirements.
There is no clear plan in the event of a serious injury or health scare. Only a third of the centres had a first aid kit.
“We are operating safely here.
“The toilets are clean; the children are well taken care of and there is adequate security,” said Jane Mutamba, who runs the Merry Kids centre in Waterfalls.
Her centre, houses a three-bedroom house where she lives with her husband, two children and a maid, operates from the living room and the front yard.
She has set up two pre-fabricated structures with cement floors and a makeshift power supply from the main house.
“This centre is registered with the Ministry of Education.
“I have sought and obtained planning permission from the local authority to set up these structures and I pay a fee to the City Council for its operation.”
She produced documentation to back up her claims.
She has 40 children on her books.
She charges the parents US$190 a month and the children have to bring six rolls of two-ply toilet tissue, 6 litres of concentrated orange juice, 4kg of rice and two packets of soup powder per term.
In winter, the orange juice is replaced by 500 grams of a hot beverage powder and 1kg of powdered milk.
At three centres the owners admitted they were operating without official permission, but said they had not been visited by either the Ministry of Education or the local authority.
“I don’t know why you want to cause problems.
“This is a good operation, the parents are willing to pay, we have qualified staff and this works well for everyone.
“Is this the only centre you see operating illegally?
“We are not forcing anyone to come here, people come on their own free will,” said Michael Munyoro, whose Eastlea centre, Future Sweet, has 59 children and two teachers.
Some of the parents whose children are at this centre did not appear to have a problem with it being unregistered.
“Look, this place is convenient, it is giving our children good service and the alternative is too far and too much of a logistical nightmare,” said a parent who declined to be named.
Interviews with 10 primary school heads revealed that they did not check the registration status of the ECDC prospective Grade One pupils attended.
“We want to see proof that the child attended a centre, either in the form of a certificate or a letter from the centre.
“I suppose it is difficult for even the Government to regulate or monitor the activities of an institution that does not exist officially,” said Samuel Mudavanhu of Maranatha Primary School.
“If schools had a way of ensuring they only enrolled children from registered ECDCs then the unregistered centres would have to get registration as they would no longer serve a purpose if their children would not be accepted in school,” said Henry Mhaka, director of Pathway Primary School in Chitungwiza.
The only criteria for admission into Grade One are age (the child should turn 6 in the year of enrolment) and locality, in compliance with the zoning system.
However, the ministry acknowledges children from ECDCs are preferred for enrolment even though Grade One teachers are obliged to spend the first six weeks of the year providing pre-formal learning.
“This provides an opportunity for the unfortunate child who has not been exposed to ECD to get exposure.
“Parents have realised the importance of ECD and, even without a policy by Government, there is a shift by most schools to enroll children from ECDs,” said Lysias Crispen Bowora the Principal Director in charge of Early Learning.
“It is the Ministry’s duty to protect the public from providers of education bent on profiteering.
“It is, therefore, incumbent upon Provincial Education Directors (PED) to inspect and scrutinise every private ECD centre with a view to establishing whether or not satisfactory services are being rendered,” said Bowora.
Where an institution does not meet the requirements of opening an ECD centre, the PED must recommend its closure.
The Government has a model of what ECDCs should look like.
The Chitungwiza’s St Mary’s Early Learning Centre is spacious and child friendly. It has a state-of the art kitchen, playing area, and has a huge waiting list.
It was built as a pilot project with the assistance of the United Nations.
But it has remained just that; a pilot project.
The Ministry now has 10 model centres- one in each province- built to the specifications mentioned above.
It is not difficult to see that a centre such as the one in Chitungwiza would be expensive to build and maintain, which explains why the country does not have many of them.
Teachers’ colleges are now offering ECD courses and this should increase the number of qualified personnel.
In the meantime, many children are spending the greater part of a year or two in unregistered institutions, which do not meet the basic requirements of child care centres run by unqualified business people out to make a quick buck.