The parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education is currently holding public hearings on the Education Amendment Bill, which was published earlier this year.

The main purpose of the Bill, according to its memorandum, is to bring the Education Act into line with the Constitution. Regrettably the Bill is carelessly drafted and suffers from defects and omissions apart from those already mentioned some of which will lessen its effectiveness unless they are corrected, says Veritas Zimbabwe, a constitutional watchdog.

According to the watchdog, the Bill has several worthwhile provisions but is marred by omissions and errors that show a surprising lack of attention to detail.  “Overall it is a flawed document, which is a pity as a sound educational system is so important for Zimbabwe,” comments Veritas.

Section 21 of the Act states that non-government schools must get approval from the National Incomes and Pricing Commission before charging or increasing their fees and levies.  That Commission was abolished in 2017, but the Bill makes no attempt to amend or repeal section 21.

When the Bill passes through Parliament one hopes Hon Members will ask the Minister who or what has been approving school fees and levies since 2017.

More importantly, there is nothing in the Bill, or in the Act, which tackles the problem of social and cultural norms that discourage girls, particularly in rural areas, from pursuing their education.  It is not enough merely to prohibit gender discrimination in school admissions: the Minister should be empowered to enact regulations positively encouraging girls to enter and stay in schools.

Veritas says there are inconsistencies between the Bill’s memorandum and the Bill itself.  For example, in regard to clause 4 the Bill says that where the State’s resources are insufficient, ‘parents or guardians should make sure that every child attains basic education.’  Clause 4 however saddles parents and guardians with no such responsibility. Again, in regard to clause 15a rather garbled paragraph in the memorandum suggests that non-government schools will have to contribute to the Basic Education Fund established by the new section 68C;  but there is nothing to that effect in the Bill itself.

Clause 2 of the Bill will insert definitions of ‘basic education’ and ‘basic state funded education’ which are mutually inconsistent: ‘basic education’ ends at form 4 while ‘basic state funded education’ ends at grade 7.

The definitions need to be the same because section 75 of the Constitution gives everyone the right to ‘basic State-funded education,’ and Veritas argues that if basic education is to end at form 4 then State funding must also extend to that level. 

A further point is that, as noted earlier, the definition of ‘basic state funded education’ makes no reference to State funding.  Clause 2 of the Bill will also insert definitions of ‘further education’ and ‘special needs education,’ terms that are not used in the Bill or the Act. The clause will also replace the definition of ‘pre-school’ with one of ‘early childhood development,’ though early childhood development centres will still be called ‘nursery schools’ in Part VII of the Act.

Section 27 of the Constitution provides for the State to take all practical measures to promote free and compulsory education for children, as well as higher and tertiary education.  The State must also ensure that girls are afforded the same educational opportunities as boys.

Section 75 states that every citizen and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has a right to a basic State-funded education, including adult basic education, as well as further education which the State must make progressively available and accessible. The section goes on to say that everyone has the right to establish and maintain ‘independent educational institutions of reasonable standards,’ but they must not discriminate on any ground prohibited by the Constitution.

A law can provide for their registration and for their closure if they do not meet ‘reasonable standards prescribed for registration’ [section 75(3) of the Constitution].

The Bill seeks to amend the Education Act, which deals with education in schools, correspondence colleges and what are called ‘independent colleges,’ namely institutions such as Speciss which provide educational programmes that supplement or substitute for school education.

“The Act does not cover tertiary educational institutions such as universities though the definition of ‘independent college’ in section 39 is so broad and vague that it might cover universities and polytechnics,” notes Veritas.

The Act sets out guiding principles for educational policy, the principal one being that children have a right to school education;  it provides for the registration of non-government schools and the establishment and maintenance of government schools; it sets up national and provincial education advisory boards; and generally tries to ensure, so far as legislation can, that children in Zimbabwe are provided with a reasonable education.

In terms of section 4 of the Act children must be admitted to schools without discrimination on the grounds of their race, tribe, origin, political opinions, colour, creed or gender. Clause 3 of the Bill will add other prohibited grounds:  nationality, class, custom, culture, marital status, yes, really, pregnancy, social status and legitimacy.

Clause 4 of the Bill will insert a new section 5 in the Act which will give every child the right to basic state funded education.  While the new clause follows the wording of section 75 of the Constitution, it is not very clear.

The term ‘basic state funded education’ suggests the State must pay for the education, but clause 2 of the Bill will insert a definition of the term into the Act which makes no mention at all of State funding.

Section 4(1) of the Act already gives every child a right to school education; is ‘school education’ the same as basic state funded education?  If not, what is the difference?

A new section 68D, to be inserted in the Act by clause 15, will prohibit schools, government and non-government alike, from excluding pupils on the grounds of either non-payment of fees or of pregnancy.

While pregnant girls should be allowed to complete their education no matter what school they attend, it seems extraordinary for the Bill to compel non-government schools, which rely on fees for their very existence, to continue providing education to pupils whose parents refuse to pay for their education.

Clause 10 of the Bill will insert a provision in the Act obliging schools to ‘endeavour to offer non-formal education including adult education’.  This provision, though extremely vague, is clearly intended to give effect to section 75(1) of the Constitution which gives all citizens and permanent residents a right to adult basic education and ‘further education’.

Section 15 of the Bill will insert a new section in the Act which will oblige school authorities to draw up disciplinary policies laying down punishments that are moderate, reasonable and proportionate, prohibit treatment that infringes pupils’ dignity, and prohibit teachers from ‘beating’ children.

“If the new section is intended to ban all corporal punishment in schools it doesn’t say so;  there are forms of physical abuse that do not amount ‘beating’ and these are not mentioned,” says Veritas.

Also, only teachers are prohibited from beating children, non-teaching staff apparently will be able to thrash children with impunity.

A new section 68B will oblige registered schools, funds permitting, to provide infrastructure suitable for pupils with disabilities. The section does not indicate what disabilities are intended to be covered, nor what sort of infrastructure will have to be provided.

Veritas says while the Act already complies with the Constitution in many respects for example, it declares that every child has a right to school education without discrimination, the Bill sets out to make it even more compliant.