The pressing of the fast forward button to get e-learning well underway this year shows the seriousness of the Second Republic to build on Zimbabwe’s past achievements and to turn the rhetoric into action.
This year will be seeing 1 500 schools wired into broadband, with the scale of the problem and the work that needs to be done to make e-learning a practical reality, being shown by the need to wire 434, around 29 percent, of these schools into the electricity grid first.
And then there is the commitment to use the new production facilities in Msasa to assemble 150 000 computers, which sounds a lot, but comes to around 100 for each school if all are to be allocated to the 1 500.
At the same time we need content. Just having computers sitting on a desk and a handful of standard applications is not e-learning. We have tried that and it did not really advance us much. So the content is being sorted out.
And the whole integrated approach is being backed by training 3 000 teachers to give skills resources in the schools, and even for more complicated work at least being able to take directions down a phone from a technician or engineer, something common in most work environments.
All this will be complemented by dedicated television and radio channels.
The programme to bring the full set of facilities to all schools has been set for the next five years, but the correct decision has been made to start somewhere and make a serious impact from the first year, ending the talk and swinging into action.
And that need to wire a decent fraction of the schools for electricity shows that a major effort is being made for equitable distribution of the first schools to be helped, rather than taking the simple approach of giving to the haves and telling the have-nots that “perhaps tomorrow”.
We saw the gaps that have been arising during the lockdowns imposed by the need to contain Covid-19. Some schools in the private sector were able to have their teachers giving e-lessons and the like because they had the equipment and the staff.
They still needed parents to have computers and connections at home, but those would have been useless if the schools themselves were not equipped.
At the same time Covid-19 has brought a second benefit to many schools, more teachers and smaller classes. For years education professionals have been calling for better ratios of teachers to pupils, without much success.
Now we are doing this, for public health reasons, but presumably once the teachers are hired they stay in post.
This, as a permanent change, might well require more classrooms and for rural primary schools that might mean more schools since the objective there is to keep each school at the minimum eight classrooms, but have them closer together by filling in gaps.
Larger urban schools, and most secondary schools, just need a modest extension, and these are already planned as changes in the national curriculum require more laboratories and more specialist rooms for technical subjects.
For we need to remember another major change under the Second Republic, the upgrade of the curriculum to make it relevant for those leaving school in the 21st century, rather than continuing to model it on what Victorian private education offered the sons of wealthy men, although not necessarily their sisters.
To a degree, the catch up in curriculum, teaching, facilities and the like reflects one major problem of the First Republic. The early 1980s saw the greatest expansion of education in Zimbabwe’s history, changing the country from an also-ran to one of the education leaders in Africa.
Along with the basic public health network it was one of the great achievements of the First Republic and opened many opportunities for Zimbabweans.
But then we rested on our laurels. We ticked the box and assumed that the system could run on auto-pilot. And it cannot if it is to remain relevant. It needs continuous work of making it better.
There were studies, largely unimplemented, on curriculum change, although in any case some of those studies would have taken Zimbabwean children down a side-track rather than preparing them for earning a living in a middle income economy.
We need to remember that everyone now at school will be spending almost all of their productive years, and for some in the lower grades all their productive years, in this middle-income economy we are building and so they had better be ready when they enter that economy to participate productively and make their own contribution to the next stage, an upper-income economy.
Even the authorities were side-tracked, by focussing on equality of schools rather than on how to bring all schools up to the highest standards.
The original 1980s innovators saw this, and allowed levies on the basis that those parents who could afford to upgrade their children’s schools should be allowed to do so while the limited Government budget, and when it comes to education the budget in every country and every time is limited, could be concentrated on schools where the parents could not contribute much.
This, incidentally, is why the education authorities have been urging all parents to attend levy and fee meetings. Government will enforce the rules strictly and not allow unauthorised rises, but the rules are built around parent participation. The quorums for these meetings were only set so that the “don’t cares” did not have a veto.
But the idea was that all parents would meet and agree, and in the State system there was a rule that parents in a school’s catchment zone could apply for a reduction in levies to a confidential committee.
The growth of the BEAM system was designed, in any case, to ensure that no child was left behind. Fairly obviously there are State schools that can contribute to their e-learning connection and equipping, and so can jump in without waiting for their place in queue.
But the focus is now on modernising and upgrading education and schools, with that focus backed by budget interventions, now possible since the fiscal reforms have created space for capital spending and education gets its share of that capital budget.
All the reforms fit together, which is why we have a national development strategy so that no one suddenly shouts in 2030 that we do not have enough engineers or entrepreneurs.
And considering the lead-time for developing human resources, which when you think about it starts in early learning development classes, accelerating the upgrade of the education system is one of the most crucial programmes of the nation.