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Lack of mother-tongue use blamed for declining performance in Zimbabwe's schools

February 26, 2021
topic:Child rights
tags:#Zimbabwe, #education, #child rights, #equality
by:Cyril Zenda
Onesimo Mutadzwa is a celebrated mathematics teacher in Zimbabwe. Nicknamed “The Maths Doctor”, Mutadzwa is a regular face on the country’s only television station, where he conducts high school mathematics lessons for hundreds of thousands of students unable to access face-to-face learning in the current Covid-19 lockdown and may also not be able to afford pricy online lessons.

Mutadzwa’s is a god-send to many, but there is one problem that affects a sizeable portion of his students: by alternating between English and Shona as he conducts his TV lessons, there are tens of thousands of other eager students who end up not picking up more than half of what he says because they come from the southern and western parts of the country where the Shona language - the many dialects of which are spoken by about 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s 16 million citizens - is not used.

Mutadzwa’s lessons constitute a microcosm of the country’s education system, which has always left tens of thousands of students behind through failure to use languages of instruction appropriate for various communities.

Zimbabwe has more than two dozen languages, but the Constitution classifies only 16 of them as official languages. Of these, English and Shona dominate as languages of instruction in schools, making learning difficult for the rest of learners.

Increasing zero pass rate

In early February, when results for Grade 7 examinations came out showing that nearly 90 schools posted a zero pass rate, while others scraped through with single-digit pass rates, it came as no surprise to many that most of the schools that fared badly were in regions of the country that have, for years, protested bitterly about the deployment of teachers that cannot speak the local languages.

“The use of ‘foreign’ languages for instruction is a serious impediment to learning,” Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers of Zimbabwe, told FairPlanet in an interview. “In Matabeleland (the south-western part of the country) we still have a big number of teachers who do not speak native languages being deployed to beginners,” he added. “Learners are left behind and some even drop out of school at an early age. [The] government claims that they do not have qualified teachers who speak the native language.”

The record 88 schools that recorded zero pass rates are a worrisome increase from 68 in 2018, and 80 in 2019. This trend has been growing over the years.

At ordinary level, this increased from 194 schools in 2018 to 250 schools in 2019. The 2020 statistics are still pending.

Mother language policy existing on paper

Although on paper government policy says learners should be taught in their mother languages for at least the first four years of their education, on the ground the situation is different, as this requirement is rarely adhered to

In 2016, the government had to recall some teachers who had been deployed to areas where isiNdebele is the local language when they could not speak the language.

This was not before some parents and activists had forced the closure of nine schools where most of the teachers could hardly speak the local language.

Affirmative action demanded

For years, the issue has been the subject of an intense debate in Parliament, where some opposition politicians accused the government of implementing a long-term strategy of marginalising some parts of the country by ensuring that children from these areas remain largely uneducated.

One of the most vocal lawmakers on the matter, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, is also the chairperson for Parliament’s committee of education. She is pushing for the introduction of a quota system in teacher training so that applicants from minority languages are accommodated.

“What is happening is that when you look at the state of institutions of higher learning in the Matabeleland region, very few of the students come from Matabeleland. And unless you address that particular issue, fair representation and distribution of resources will always be a problem,” Misihairabwi-Mushonga said in Parliament. 

“What is sad is that the school system starts from Grade 1 to 7, but why is it that we have a majority of Shona-speaking teachers being deployed in Matabeleland? It is because they are supposed to destroy the foundation of that child’s learning,” she further stated. 

Multilingual teacher strategy

Education secretary Tumisang Thabela says the ministry is working on a strategy to solve this problem and that, going forward, priority would be given to prospective student teachers that are conversant in at least three local languages so that there is no shortage of teachers who can instruct pupils in their mother tongues. 

“Since learners are supposed to learn in their mother’s language in the first four years of their education, the ministry requires a trained primary school teacher to know at least three indigenous languages because that will be the medium of instruction […] from the 16 official languages it is possible,” Thabela said.

Furthermore, parliamentarian Misihairabwi-Mushonga wants the children that failed in the most recent exams to be given another chance, arguing that failure to do so effectively condemns them to a doomed life of no education.

A Continent-wide problem

In Africa, with its more than 2000 languages and its tribal based politics, this is a continent-wide problem. 

In neighbouring South Africa, the language of instruction has always been an emotive issue, so much so that it sparked the bloody Soweto Uprising of 1976. After over 20,000 African students from African suburbs protested in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools, the International Day of the African Child was born.

Findings drawn from a set of studies conducted in the framework of the Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa (LOITASA) research project, have shown how well African students express themselves if they are allowed to use a familiar African language, and, conversely, the difficulties they face when forced to use a foreign language - a language they hardly hear and never use outside of school - as a language of instruction.

Image: grassrootsoccer2006.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Students are seen during a lesson at a classroom of the makeshift schools to access affordable school lessons as they contend with a comatose national economy in Harare, Zimbabwe on January 27, 2020. Scores of pupils have no choice but to drop government or council schools in the southern African country as school fees have been shooting up now and then amid galloping inflation.
© Anadolu Agency / Contributor
Embed from Getty Images
A pupil wipes her desk in the class room ahead of the first day of the resumption of classes at Queen Elizabeth School in Harare on September 28, 2020. Public schools in Zimbabwe have been reopened after authorities began relaxing a COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown imposed since March 30, 2020, initially only allowing examination classes to return to schools.
© Jekesai Njikizana / Contributor
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