ideologies, poor civil service pay for graduates, inadequate funds from Treasury to support even minimum school standards, inequalities within the education system, inequalities in parental incomes, and the geographical distribution of members of the teachers’ unions.
We do not envy the Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, Senator David Coltart, and his senior civil service professionals as they try to chart a course through all the conflicting advice they receive and the desires articulated by so many groups.
At the heart of the debate is a perception of unfairness: some parents can pay more than others, some teachers get far better pay than others, and some schools are seen to be far better than others.
This is balanced by some very harsh facts: the education system needs a lot more money than the Government can provide from taxes; teachers need better pay if the best are to be retained and desirable youngsters encouraged to enter the profession; and we have seen in many countries that total equality means equality at the lowest level, not the highest.
We cannot see any way to raise the quality of our schools unless parents are prepared to pay. We have said this several times before. Even developed countries struggle to pay for free education for all, and a developing country like Zimbabwe simply cannot afford this.
That fact has to be accepted. The debate then moves into how much parents should pay, and what should that extra money be spent on. The Education Act is quite clear on one point. Levies, in whatever form, are fixed with the agreement of a majority of the parents at each school. The very low fees charged by State schools are fixed by the minister, but anything above these needs parental support.
Obviously some parents are willing to pay more than others, so each school will set different rates. There is a growing trend for parents to choose schools that have levies within their range, eroding the old zoning.
All this means that some school development associations will have far more money than others. The Act allows inequalities as part of the drive for better quality.
Now comes the trickier decision on what the money raised can be spent on. Books, teaching equipment, school maintenance and the like are obvious. Extra teachers have always been allowed. The one change in recent years has been permission to top-up salaries, those inducements.
At some schools these are paid out of a general levy fund, with no teacher knowing which pupil in the class has paid what. At others the inducements are paid by each pupil directly to the teacher. And at many rural schools there are no inducements at all.
Right now we cannot see any alternative but to allow inducements to continue. It is better that some teachers are properly paid than all teachers are inadequately paid. But we think that these inducements should be paid by the SDA from a general levy fund so that at least there is an agreed system of fairness within each school and no teacher knows who has or has not paid.
That still leaves inequalities between schools and a divide between urban teachers, almost all of whom receive at least something extra, and rural schools, where most receive nothing beyond their basic salary.
Admittedly the divide is narrowed by the near universal provision of free or highly-subsidised housing at most rural schools. It can be narrowed further, if not this year then soon, by an agreement that anything extra the ministry can extract from the Treasury will go towards a rural allowance.
The teachers unions are unanimously against inducements. Part of that stand derives from the desire for equality of pay, with salaries dependent only on qualifications and seniority, which is common to teachers’ unions around the world.
That common union stand has led to disputes in many countries as more and more authorities switch to pay policies that reward effectiveness as well. In finding a balance between the advantages of quality and equality, it has been found that some degree of inequality does lead to a rise in quality. Fixing that balance is tricky.
The other reason in Zimbabwe for the teachers’ unions to oppose inducements is the geographical distribution of their members. It is well known that most urban teachers do not belong to a union and that most rural teachers do. Unions cannot be faulted for reflecting the views of most of their members, but the ministry has to look at the bigger picture.
We believe that the ministry needs a clearer comprehensive policy to continue its perpetual struggle to improve quality while ameliorating the worst effects of inequality. This can be done by staggering State support. The better off urban communities could get nothing except the minimum contingent of teachers and their basic salaries, paying for everything else themselves.
The poorest urban communities could get a little more help, but the ministry making it clear that just about everything it gets over and above its salary bill will be allocated to the most needy schools, almost all of which will be rural.
At the same time aid agencies, who are usually willing to buy things but not pay people, can be encouraged to help rural communities upgrade teachers’ housing and even help fund flats at some urban schools.
We need to remember that there is no obvious solution to the conflicting ideas, but at the same time let us remember that the education system has advanced significantly in quality in the last three years as parents take over more responsibilities.
The minister needs to keep that growing parental support, but can take care to remove any abuses, such as children suffering for the sins of their parents, and reallocate his own meagre resources and whatever external aid he can gather to the most needy.