Stanely Mushava Features Correspondent
Rural schools are short-handed and poorly resourced compared to their urban counterparts, a gap often reflected in public examination results. Shortage of laboratories, sporting facilities, information and communication technology (ICT) and expressive art infrastructure extends this divide from core instruction to extra-curricular competency.While education is meant to dismantle inequality, these structural flaws risk replicating skewed opportunities over time.
Rural students are mostly drawn from low-income families where guardians are often self-employed as smallholder farmers or artisans.
Slanted opportunities favouring urban, mission and private schools often jeopardise the upwardly mobile function of education and confine rural students to the low income bracket.
Many rural students have defied the self-fulfilling prophecy but only a far-reaching transformation will prime more students for wider opportunities.
Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (RTUZ) president Obert Masaraure told Herald Review that the divide cannot be entirely redressed without improving conditions of service for rural teachers.
“The rural allowance is an admission that rural teachers endure hardships compared to their urban counterparts for which they must be compensated. The current allowance of $13 is non-compensatory therefore neither attracts nor retains teachers in rural schools,” Masaure said.
Ironically, Government has sunk $20 million of taxpayers’ money paying teachers at trust and private schools, institutions which normally meet their own staff costs.
The millions used to subsidise private institutions can improve the living conditions of teachers and develop infrastructure at rural schools.
While the teacher-to-pupil ratio is low because of poor enrolment in most rural schools, teacher-to-subject ratio is much higher.
One teacher takes up diverging disciplines such as business studies, divinity and geography although they are likely to be qualified in only one of these.
Detached from facilities such as electricity, potable water and health-care, rural posts are sometimes considered a vocation.
Rural schools are sub-divided into growth point schools, recently created satellite school in resettlements and traditional communal area school. Teachers face peculiar challenges in each context.
“In resettlements where disused barns serve as make-do classrooms, teachers are not provided with accommodation and lack access to proper sanitation and potable water. Teachers walk many kilometres to sign pay-sheets and invigilate public examinations at parent school,” Masaraure said.
Challenges faced by rural teachers not only concern their living conditions and motivation but also directly impact on the execution of their work.
In communal schools, parents have a challenge paying school fees in time. The Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), which accounts for a significant of funding for rural schools is occasionally misappropriated or delayed.
Late disbursement of the fund, which covers fees for orphaned, those living with disability, in foster care under poor parents, on the streets, with chronically ill guardians or in child-headed households, prejudices schools of stationery and other immediate necessities.
Masaraure said teachers in such environments often tap into their own resources for stationery and use make-do chalkboards which compromise the quality of instruction.
“Compromised instruction is a blow to both the teachers and the pupils. Where illustrations cannot be achieved on the teacher’s part, the student remains in a deficient condition,” he said.
There is emerging emphasis on the uptake of ICTs as a medium of instruction. The newly incepted primary and secondary education curriculum features ICT as a stand-alone subject and cross-cutting theme.
E-learning packages have also become a new area of emphasis with a view of broadening access to content.
The sluggish pace of the rural electrification programme means many rural schools will not be able to catch up as ICTs are normally powered by electricity and good connectivity.
Troubleshooting this divide requires a joint response, bringing together the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Telecommunications, Postal and Courier Services and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
Profit-driven ICT companies are known to shun rural areas where returns are relatively low. Government has acknowledged the problem and is administering a Universal Service Fund to extend digital infrastructure without bottlenecks.
The ICT ministry has piloted Community Information Centres (CIC) in Zvimba and Matabeleland North, beginning with Chogugudza Primary School and John Landa Nkomo Secondary School.
CICs are one-stop information hubs for businesses and education facilities connected to Internet and equipped with digital content for rural communities.
However, for the business of day-to-day learning, including compulsory uptake of ICT subjects and digitally enabled interaction with other disciplines, there is need to electrify and computerise every rural school.
“E -learning can become a reality through the partnership of Government and private entities to democratise technology infrastructure. Energy and mobile companies can also connect remote areas by giving them tax relief and other incentives,” Masaraure said.
Previously, rural schools have been partnered with urban Group A schools to expose them to best practices. However, redress can only come full circle when rural schools catch up on critical infrastructure.
The new curriculum framework, being implemented in stages over the next seven years, is tied to teacher capacitation. Teachers are going back to select universities to adapt their competencies to the new curriculum.
Masaraure said rural teachers are relatively disadvantaged as they shuttle between their schools and universities. He said restricted access to facilities for personal and professional development was a millstone for rural teachers.
“Teachers are in a permanent transfer mode, a casual visit at district offices will appraise you with hundreds of teachers on waiting list. In Mwenezi district alone in 2011, 145 teachers failed to assume duty after being deployed, noting deplorable working conditions.
“At Gozi secondary in 2013 one teacher would teach history, maths, science and english. No wonder why we have deplorable pass rates in such schools. Compensation must be significant enough to attract and retain quality teachers in rural schools so as to bridge the gap between urban and rural education.
“In Mexico teachers fall over each other to teach in rural schools because of the considerable allowance. In Mozambique a 100 percent bonus is offered for rural educators,” Masaure said.
He called out political violence as one challenge that has made rural schools unattractive for rural teachers. Teachers have been sometimes caught in the crossfire during troubled times.
“Political violence is another challenge as disgruntled poor villagers vent their anger of poverty against teachers during elections. Teachers in Mudzi and Hurungwe are examples,” Masaure said.
“Complaints mechanism must also be set up by Parliament as espoused in the Constitution. Our schools must also be depoliticised, no partisan rallies on school premises,” he added.
He also urged the decentralisation of health care services and more flexible leave days for rural to access services such as Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART). Like other villagers, teachers on such schemes often have to walk for kilometres to the nearest clinic.
Transport is not always guaranteed because roads are bad, sometimes non-existent.
Again, it will take a joint response to come around the problem in the interest of efficient and quality education delivery.
Relatively new in the alphabet soup of unions, Masaraure’s group was conceived when the incentive scheme, introduced by the education ministry in 2011, privileged urban and mission school teachers, furthering the divide with those at smaller communal schools.
The divide between rural and urban schools is vast and sustained, affecting teachers and, more critically, prejudicing students. Dismantling this structural problem will only take a coordinated effort, bringing together ministries and private entities.