Education development in Zimbabwe

When Zimbabwe gained its independence from colonial rule in April 1980, the majority of her people lacked the opportunities and facilities for quality secondary schooling, most only finishing several years of primary schooling. Over the first 25 years of independence, Zimbabwe’s population of over 13 million has witnessed incredible strides in school expansion, teacher training, and resource improvement. As a result, Zimbabwe continues to boast the highest literacy rate in sub-saharan Africa and sends the fourth largest number of students from Africa to the United States. There remain, however, significant discrepancies between educational opportunities for Zimbabwe’s rural majority and for those who live in the main urban centers of Harare, Chitungwiza, Bulawayo Mutare and Gweru. The apartheid legacy has also left its mark on Zimbabwe’s education system with formerly-white, private “Group A” schools far superior in terms of resources and trained teachers when compared to their mission and government-sponsored counterparts. Zimbabwe’s education system consists of 7 years of primary and 6 years of secondary schooling before students can enter university in country or abroad. The academic year in Zimbabwe runs from January to December , with three month terms, broken up by one month holidays, with a total of 40 weeks of school per year. National examinations are written during the third term in November, with “O” level and “A” level subjects also offered in June. Teachers and nurses train for three years at nursing and teacher training colleges after their secondary schooling, with the more qualified having subsequently earning university degrees. Currently, there are seven public universities as well as four church-related universities in Zimbabwe that are fully internationally accredited. Zimbabwean culture places a high premium on education.

Primary School: Grades 1-7

Most Zimbabwean children begin Grade 1 during the year in which they turn six, with a smaller number beginning either during their fifth or seventh year. In urban areas the medium of instruction is purely English, with Shona or Ndebele taught as a subject; in rural schools students begin learning in their mother tongue, but transition to all reading and writing in English by Grade 3. Curriculum is nationalized with prescribed textbooks all in English. The seven years of primary schooling culminate in four nationally-set Grade 7 examinations in Mathematics, English, Shona or Ndebele and Content, which is a combination of sciences and social sciences.

Secondary School: Forms 1- 6

Students entering Form I, usually aged 12-13, compete for places in the private and mission day and boarding schools based on their Grade 7 examination results, as well as school-based interviews and placement tests. Government schools take students by zone and then allot the rest of the places to those with the best qualifications. Secondary School consists of three levels: ZJC (Zimbabwe Junior Certificate) which includes Forms I and II; “O” level which includes Forms III and IV; and “A” level which includes Forms V and VI. The ZJC Core Curriculum (equivalent to Grades 8-9) consists of 8 subjects: English, Shona or Ndebele, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Bible Knowledge, and a Practical Subject (ie Food and Nutrition, Fashion and Fabrics, Woodwork, Agriculture, Metalwork, Technical Drawing, etc.) Zimbabwe phased out the ZJC examinations in 2001, but has maintained the same curricular framework for general Form 1 and 2 education and plan to renew this set of examinations at the end of Form 2 education in 2008.

Based on their Form 1 and 2 reports, students are assigned to courses and tracked classes for their “O” level studies for Forms III and IV (equivalent to Grades 10-11). In government schools in the high-density urban townships and in the rural areas, students are restricted in their options and usually are only afforded the opportunity to take 8 or 9 subjects. Elite private schools often allow and encourage students to take up to 12 or 13 subjects for “O” level exams. Since the early 1990’s and until April 2002, GCE “O” level examinations were set and marked in Zimbabwe by the Zimbabwe Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) in conjunction with the University of Cambridge International Examination GCE system. Marks from highest to lowest are A, B, C, D, E, U with A, B, and C as passing marks. With the fast-tracked localization of examinations, many independent school students have been writing both local and British IGCSE exams. In 2002, Zimbabwe issued a directive to try to ban private schools from offering any foreign examinations, the most common of these being the British IGSCE, AS and A level. With staunch resistance to this government directive, Cambridge pulled out of its collaborative role in Zimbabwe’s examination system but does offer its own exams in the country to those schools whose pupils can afford to pay their examination fees in foreign currency. 2002 O and A level exams were thus the first to be issued purely under ZIMSEC administration without University of Cambridge collaboration However, a group of activist parents lobbied the Zimbabwean government to revoke the ban on foreign exams, and they have continued to be offered without incident since 2002.

Subjects currently on offer for “O” level examinations include:

Sciences Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Physics with Chemistry, Integrated Science, Mathematics;
Liberal Arts English Literature, Religious Education, Geography, History
Commercial Subjects Accounts, Commerce, Economics, Computer Studies
Languages English, Shona, Ndebele, French, German, Latin
Arts Art, Music
Practical Subjects Woodwork, Metalwork, Agriculture, Technical Drawing, Fashion & Fabrics, Food & Nutrition

To receive a passing ZIMSEC “O” level GCE certificate, a student needs to have passed at least five subjects including English language with a mark of “C” or better. The English and mathematics “O” level examinations serve as gatekeepers for many students who cannot proceed without them despite their other exam scores. Entrance into “A” level programs is quite competitive, with the majority of “O” level students either returning to small-scale farming, entering the work force or proceeding to a vocational course, a technical school or a nursing or teaching college. With Zimbabwe’s rate of unemployment currently surpassing 70%, many O level graduates face bleak employment prospects. Only those with the best scores manage to find a high school place in an “A” level program. Students typically write their “O” level exams when they are 15-17 years old.

At the Advanced “A” level, students choose among science, commercial and art subjects to study for Forms V and VI. The vast majority of students take three subjects at “A” level, with a few very gifted students at elite schools opting for four subjects. In addition, many A level students take “English for Communication”, which before 2004 was called “General Paper,” a very challenging exam that assesses both English writing skills and knowledge of current events both nationally and worldwide. English for Communication is marked on a 1-9 scale with 1 as the highest mark and a 1-6 as a pass. Through 2001, “A” level examinations written in Zimbabwe continued to be set and marked at the University of Cambridge in the UK; they have been considerably more challenging than “O” levels, yielding far less favorable pass rates. Starting June 2002 exams, A levels were localized and run by ZIMSEC. It is common for a capable student to have higher “O” level exam marks than her/his “A” level exam marks. Admission officers often consider grades of A, B or C on “A” level exams to be grounds for exemption from college and university courses, in the same manner as are scores of 5,4, and 3 on AP exams in the US. Again, from the few students who have simultaneously written both Cambridge and ZIMSEC A level exams, the Cambridge exam results have been more favorable.

“A” level subjects currently offered in Zimbabwe include:

Sciences Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics
Commercials Management of Business/Business Studies, Economics, Accounts, Computer Science
Arts English Literature, Geography, Shona/Ndebele Language and Literature, Divinity, History, French, Art, Music, Latin, German


Timothy Shava :
eLearning Zimbabwe:
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