Morris Mtisi Education Correspondent
THE worst enemy of mankind is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. How does that happen short of a miracle?
The wise say, ‘If you want a different harvest, change the seed.’ This is very simple philosophy. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand this. It simply means when the environment has changed … or the times have changed, change to suit the new demands.
A foolish farmer continues to do farming in the same way but expects a different harvest. He plants the same seed but expects another crop harvest. He uses the same seed and uses the same methods for a winter crop as he does for a rain-season crop and a drought-season crop and waits for the same harvest.
The Zimbabwean economy has drastically changed and things promise to continue to be as bad as they are now or even worse before an answer is found to bring back the days of plenty and prosperity. Of course optimists and pessimists always have opposite attitudes. They see different things at any one given time. The optimist sees a half-full glass of water and the pessimist sees a half-empty one. In politics the two dichotomies are determined by what political party one belongs to. The policies of one are the political poison of the other. In religion (Church) the side is determined by what church … anchored on what doctrine and spiritual conviction. One church’s God is another’s devil … and the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other and vice versa.
Reality is often found in-between and truth is neither with the optimist or the pessimist. Yet quite often in-between is where the answer and the truth often hide. While the pessimist continues to politick around why the situation is bad and pointing an angry and accusing finger at whomever he thinks and believes is the cause, the optimist continues to be hopeful and sees the end of trouble. The optimist calls it challenges … the pessimist calls it problems. Where the optimist sees light at the end of the tunnel, the pessimist thinks the light is from a speeding train coming to run him over.
What is the reality in boarding schools today?
The government of Zimbabwe has taken austerity measures to revive economic vibrancy. Take note: This is not the platform to argue right or wrong. The point is, austerity measures are here … in play and in force. What austerity measures have school heads put in place to make sure government economic measures are neutralised or balanced? That is the question. To be in austerity measures or not to be for the country…that is not the question … and indeed not the import of this discourse and article.
The point is about a school head who is mourning because he or she is roughly tucked between a rock and a hard place. Reality is a school head that now finds it impossible to run a school of 800 to 1000 finicky and loud students in an economic environment that is volatile … in an economic environment with the prices of food and services that wake up twice or three times higher the next morning. Reality is a school head that cannot operate on a budget because he has no idea what the cost of food and fuel is tomorrow and the day after. He does not know what the cost of text books and exercise books will be tomorrow and the day after. Even if he tries to factor in the erratic rises of prices, reality often grips him as common sense continues to be unreliable. Reality is a school head that finds a boarding school practically impossible to run … impossible, not difficult; for difficult is what it has always been like, and something was always done immediately about.
The school head has stopped blaming the parents and guardians of his students for paying fees late or not paying at all. He knows they have no money. He knows breaches of payment plans by parents are not deliberate. The time has come for the parent to understand and sympathise with the school head. They now know how it is difficult for him to fend for 900 to 1000 fussy students in such an unpredictable economy where budgets are foolish estimations of the costs of everything. The parents themselves are finding it a nightmare to fend for a small family of six or eight biological nucleus. They now know how horrendous … how outlandish and nerve-wrecking it is to fend for 900 plus ever-hungry and pernickety students.
The Government through its Ministry of Primary and Secondary education appears insensitive and dumb, doesn’t it, when it stops school heads from increasing the fees and levies to fit their budgets? But is it dumb? How can it encourage schools to become unaffordable from day to day? Not that simple. Government has an obligation to control the matrix of responsibility versus standards. It is the obligation of government to understand the cost of quality service provision, in this case education, at the same time to understand and protect the parent who is languishing far below the poverty datum line. Government is inevitably caught up in such a catch 22 situation … but doing its best. Under the circumstances, it is doing its best to offer the best of education.
In one word, time has come too, for Zimbabweans to stop blame shifting and genuinely face the problems that cripple progress and in some cases literally kill it.
The school head running a boarding school needs practical solutions to his problems. He does not want to hear people fighting or quarrelling … or even making speeches full of pompous verbose and top-class intellectual argument. He simply wants to know how he can run a boarding school on a fixed school fees regime in an environment where prices of food and service provision are going up every day. He wants to know how he can effectively and efficiently run a school using buses and trucks whose fuel takes half of the school fees paid per term … even after a series of top-ups called upon from the parents in the same period. He wants to know how Sporting and Extramural activities can cease to be luxury in a school languishing in financial dire straits. He wants to know how he can run a school operating on a shoe-string budget and be able to pay ancillary workers that are baying for his blood over unpaid salaries. He wants to know how he can deal with workers that call their remuneration a monkey-size salary equivalent to what could be paid to monkeys, not human beings.
As if all the above were not enough, the 800 to 1000 fastidious students want beef four times a week and bread which is now $9 to $10 per loaf, every day … up from less than one dollar hardly six months ago.
The students are particular. They are fussy … hard to please. They want their sports trips not-tampered-with…their subject area seminars away from school and in the process do not forget to sympathise with the ancillary staff on the issue of underpayment. Do students understand the times and the economic reality on the ground? Surely they must, if they are worth their places in boarding schools.
How on earth, does a human being called a school head, survive under such an administrative boulder? That is the million dollar question.
The obvious answer is “No one can live in or under such circumstances!” School heads are people too…human beings too. There is blood under their skin. Remember nearly every one of them has a smaller biological family to administer … at the same time they are struggling with the bigger metaphorical family called boarding school. But as long as they are at the helm of this institution, no matter how impossible it may be; school heads must fend for the boarding family and make sure their core business of effective teaching is not undermined or compromised. How practical is this?
Certainly next to impossible! But school heads must now learn to do difficult things immediately …. and take a little longer to do the impossible. The first thing is to change their seed, if they want a different harvest. Continuing to do what they have been doing for the past twenty … thirty years, is not going to work.
Schools in general, particularly boarding schools, need a new headmaster or headmistress who is a fundi… an academic and intellectual powerhouse in theory…on his or her papers, but more importantly an astute hands-on business man or woman in practice.
Schools must raise money … capital; not continue to be hubs of financial expenditure. The days of schools that depend on school fees and levies have come to an end. If the school head has no idea of supplementing and augmenting the school fees account, he or she must brace for an institutional Armageddon, come 2020 going forward. And no amount of talking, shouting and complaining will cook this rice.
Schools in Zimbabwe now demand on-the-ball headmasters and mistresses … leaders who are shrewd and perceptive … smart, insightful, sharp, innovative and intelligent. However, it is not possible that they can be all this by the grace of God. They need ideas and wisdom from wise advisors who will bolster them to continue to be worth their positions, not empty charismatic speeches and flippant politicking. They need to listen to a sound idea, follow it, do it and solve a problem.
I have a few of these ideas to make individual boarding schools their own liberators in the quagmire of economic reality Zimbabwe is going through. While government is doing what it can and what it must, for it is its constitutional and moral mandate to offer education to its citizens, parents and all of us ordinary you and I, also have a collective obligation to do what we can … namely to make sure our schools do not become academic pigsties on account of a very difficult economy. These children in these schools are our children, not government’s children. Lest we forget! We cannot entirely hand them over to Government to do everything for. We cannot and must not waste a minute of our precious time thinking in that direction.