The Deputy Minister of Education, Lazurus Dokora was quoted as saying, ““We cannot have a situation whereby the country is held at ransom by individuals who spent three years of their lives training to be teachers but later choose to sit at home while waiting to get a place to teach in Harare…” Minister Dokora was responding to a comment on an article which said that qualified secondary school teachers are shunning deployment in rural schools. What Minister Dokora is forgetting is that threats don’t work to solve problems, especially considering that the teachers’ concerns are mostly genuine. No reasonable person would accept being deployed in rural areas with appalling working conditions. Whilst strides have been made to improve the literacy level in Zimbabwe since independence, there has not been any significant investment in infrastructure in schools, and often, children sit under make-shift classrooms where lessons are conducted . Staff houses in some cases are non-existent. All these factors work against teachers and they are genuine excuses why one would refuse to be deployed in rural areas. With the 2012 ‘O’ level results showing that of the 172 698candidates who wrote exams, only 31 767attained passes in five subjects or better, translating to only 18.4 percent.
But poor conditions are not the only reason why teachers don’t want to work in rural areas.
Collaborative research between RAU and the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, on teachers’ experiences with elections since 2000, revealed that teachers were politically targeted for violence, especially in rural communities, because they are influential. They were also accused of masterminding the defeat of ZANU PF’s presidential candidate in the March 2008 election. As a result, many teachers had to flee to ‘safer’ places, which in most cases meant urban schools, and even leaving the country. It is reported that in 2008, about 94% of all rural schools in Zimbabwe closed shop owing to political violence which was also directed at teachers. Since then, it has become difficult to attract qualified personnel to take up posts in areas that are considered political hot-spots. These areas include (without prejudice) Uzumba, Maramba and Pfungwe.
Whilst government, on the one hand needs to seriously invest in infrastructure development in rural schools and address poor working conditions, at the political level, it should acknowledge that political violence has impacted negatively on education. Schools should be declared zones of peace, environments that allow children to learn and develop without being exposed to violence. RAU reports highlight that 25% of the violations reported by teachers taking place in schools happened in the presence of pupils, thereby exposing them directly to violence. In focus group discussions, some teachers reported that militias rounded up teachers from their classrooms and ordered pupils to beat them with sticks.
To expect a qualified teacher to take up a position in such unsafe areas then becomes unreasonable. Under no circumstances would any reasonable person, let alone a qualified teacher, take up a post in such an area, where their safety is in the hands of militias or political party activists. The structure of violence in communities needs to be dismantled to create peace zones. To fast track this, legislation to ban all political activities in schools is a clear option that government needs to pursue. This, and a combination of increasing the number of trained teachers produced in a year and improving the working conditions should see posts being taken up more easily. Perhaps this will be the way in which we might eradicate the effects of a “lost decade”.