Vocational education is the future UNICEF chief of social services Samson Muradzikwa
UNICEF chief of social services Samson Muradzikwa

UNICEF chief of social services Samson Muradzikwa

Leroy Dzenga and Stanely Mushava
Samuel, a perennial repeat candidate, may soon drop out of school as his father would rather fund his more promising siblings. But if he is an under-performer by formal education standards, the 20-year-old Chiwara student makes up with artisanal skills which belie his lack of exposure.

For years, Samuel was not his Harare-based father’s preferred holiday visitor due to his habit of breaking gadgets open to see how they work, blacking out the family’s entertainment diary on unlucky evenings.

Back in the village, the odd fascination is gainfully reflected in his ease with gadgetry, putting together a hoarse radio from disused implements which he cannot quite name or fixing a cellphone.

Away from scrap objects, he maintains a massive garden in full flower a safe remove from Mungezi River, occasionally cycling to Vumba Township with covo bundles on his carrier and passing through the school and police camp for an extra dollar on his way back to Chidyamakuni Village.

If he drops out, these gifts will be difficult to fall back on as 14 years in school have not given him any distinct advantages over fellow villagers who have been perfecting similar survival instincts for years.

He also faces an increasingly adverse climate and a routinely disruptive technological setting which does not favour static skills and lack of exposure.

But if he stays in the loop, he will benefit from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education’s new emphasis on practical subjects and vocational training.

The ministry is also opening up schools to offer vocational training to members of the community in line with the new curriculum in an effort to empower those who could not benefit from conventional education.

The immediate boon will be the recently incepted school-feeding programme which not only aims to avert hunger in schools but also to expand the space for the practical application of subjects like agriculture, home economics, food and nutrition, woodwork and metalwork.

Previously second-fiddle to “white-collar subjects”, practicals are set to be foregrounded as schools are expected to partner government, local businesses and communities in growing their own food and providing the requisite implements for the programme.

Students like Samuel who could not benefit from a hands-on, best practice enhancement of their natural skills are set to benefit in the upcoming dispensation and take into the world an operational toolkit to create their own space in an increasingly austere economy.

“The programme is informed by our expectations of our new curriculum which focuses on the acquisition of skills, competencies and values that equip learners to look after themselves,” Minister of Primary and Secondary Education pointed out during Bulawayo launch of the programme recently.

According to the ministry, there are 8 651 schools with a population of 4,2 million students. Feeding these in collaboration will local communities is bound to be a boon for local farmers and artisans.

The ministry has come up with a menu proposal, featuring beans, sorghum, millet, rapoko, potatoes, meat and amacimbi and peanut butter, informed by the need to provide students with a balanced diet.

It aims two birds with one stone by giving space to local initiatives and empowering schools to meet a part of their food requirements.

The new emphasis on vocational training does not only target students bottlenecked out of the conventional education route like Samuel but has been lauded as economically sound.

Proliferating degree programmes have not provided a solution to the challenge of unemployment, but has rather seen graduates spilling into the streets to hustle for the Benjamins.

Zimbabwe’s economy is largely agro-based with smallholder farmers in rural areas accounting for the largest segment of the job market. Universities have been largely staying wide of this sector with their largely white-collar push.

While vocational training is the less popular comparison, new research by UNICEF, Jimat and the Zimbabwe Youth Council shows that it may be the way to go as it guarantees a higher return on education investment.

Compared with other institutions of higher learning, vocational training centres are cheaper that universities and the newly added option of training at local schools will make it even more accessible.

On average students at vocational training centres pay $600 a year as compared to universities which cost between $1 000 and $2 500 depending on whether the institution is state owned or privately owned.

Rural youths are faced with a challenge of establishing environments they can operate from profitably. Villages lack enabling infrastructure, while rentals in growth points and capital is often prohibiting.

Opening up schools for vocational training and making them a major market for local produce will go a long way in redressing the problem.

“Limited access to infrastructure, equipment and suitable workspace in both rural and urban areas are one of the main challenges the skills face,” said principal director in the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises Violet Marabada.

Youths also face difficulties in securing start-up loans as they do not have collateral to give money lending institutions.

“Estimates from the youth we interviewed show that less than 20 percent of our local youths own properties. Our findings also revealed that some of the young property owners inherited them from their families,” Marabada said.

Community based projects like the feeding scheme present a platform for youths to be able to gain working experience before starting up on their own or joining major agro-focused corporates. Tertiary institutions have lately been rapped for producing graduates loaded who are book-smart but lacking in practical aptitude.

Dr Charlton Tsodzo and Munhamo Chisvo’s joint study on the state of youth education and skill development in the country highlights gaps in university curricula.

“Indeed it is unfortunate that the colonial legacy of looking down on vocational education and training still persists in post-independent Zimbabwe. Certainly in view of the growing importance of practical skills as a viable means to sustainable livelihoods,” the duo said.

They rap the system for creating professionals who do not have inventiveness and expect employment.

“Tertiary institutions still have curriculum structures that do not respond to realities, especially with respect to entrepreneurship training.”

The study also points out besides commercial subjects, most students do not have the entrepreneurship module as part of their curriculum.

Unicef chief of social services Samson Muradzikwa pointed out the need to support recalibrate primary and secondary education in order to reduce drop-out rates from the annual rate of 300 000 to 50 000, increase transition rates from primary to secondary education, and increase Ordinary Level pass rates from 30 percent to 60 percent by 2025

“There is need to strengthen vocational training centres’ capacity to provide technical, vocational and entrepreneurship skills to 20 000 youths per province by 2025 through conventional and outreach programs in all the 60 rural and 32 urban districts,” he said.

“In the short term, the highest return comes from vocational training centres with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 12,6, implying that every US$1 invested in the centres will yield a return of $12,60 in increased labour productivity and earnings of the youth.

“Vocational training has a very high return and shortest payback period of three years while university education has a payback period of five years given the high income gain contributed by degree-level education,” Muradzikwa said.

At the time of Tsodzo and Chisvo’s field work in February 2014, there was a total of 4 485 young people were enrolled in the 43 vocational training centres across the country, with 2 731 young men and 1 754 young women.

Midlands has the highest number of vocational centres, at eight, Harare has two and Matabeleland North has only one, a major disadvantage especially for rural youths in the province.

Current challenges include enrolment fees considered beyond the means of many young people from poor families. Infrastructure is poorly maintained and has not been upgraded for years in some centres.

According to the joint study, Chipinge Vocational Training Centre uses a farm house for office space, lecture rooms and workshops.

Adding 8 651 schools with to the 43 vocational training is a significant step towards sustainable development in a country where agriculture is the economic mainstay.

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