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Mugabe's crimes against pupils

I WAS a young - perhaps naive - idealist then. Zimbabwe was newly liberated.

We flew there in 1983 to be part of the country that would break the mould of development in Africa: there would be racial harmony, economic development, redistribution of wealth, open government and no corruption.

I found myself working in the largest black township, Chitungwiza. It was a town of 300,000 people outside Harare but at independence in 1980 had not a single secondary school.

I taught history in Seke No.2 high school. The buildings weren't finished, there was a morning shift from 7am until 12 noon and an afternoon shift from 12.30 to 5.30pm. I preferred the morning shift. During the afternoon shift, especially in the rainy season, it was so hot that everyone, teachers included, wanted to sleep.

I had seven classes of 50 pupils each. They were all learning 19th century African and European history for O-level, in their second language - English.

I thought my first lesson (on the balance of power in 19th century Europe) was going pretty well until, just before the end, one of my pupils asked: what is a navy? On reflection, this seemed a fair question from a young man who, until three years earlier, had been running guns for the guerrillas in a landlocked country in the middle of Africa.

We had inherited textbooks from the old Rhodesian authorities whose historical content was questionable (Bismarck and Livingstone were the heroes who could do no wrong) and written style execrable (I once spent a whole lesson explaining to the pupils what was meant by the sentence: "Bismarck laid the blame for the outrage at the door of the socialists.").

But I never met more enthusiastic students. They were desperate to learn, get qualifications and succeed. They only misbehaved if they thought the teacher wasnt teaching them anything. This happened sometimes because of a desperate shortage of teachers: in a neighbouring school, a pupil who passed history O-level found himself head of history the following year.

In the evenings and sometimes at weekends, I taught adult war veterans. They too were determined to get on. An hour and a half into my first three-hour evening class I suggested a ten-minute break. "We don't have breaks," said one of them bravely and all the others nodded.

After a weekend spent teaching on a collective farm in the distant bush (which had been a white-owned commercial farm), I came back and talked to my pupils about it. The farm was desperate for people with high levels of literacy to do accounts, deal with banks and so on. I asked my pupils whether they would see such work as a career step. They laughed. The whole point of doing well at school was to leave the back-breaking work and grinding poverty of the rural areas behind them.

They really got fired up when I took them to visit a precision engineering factory in Harare: a craftsman's apprenticeship would really be worth something and each one attracted hundreds of applicants.

For Zimbabwe, the development plan was straightforward: allow the productive commercial farms (white- or black-run) to generate a surplus and plough it into the emerging industrial sectors, which could draw on the fruits of an education system which was succeeding against the odds.

To the crimes that the Mugabe regime has committed in recent months, we can add another: far from choosing the obvious path to prosperity for the hard-working pupils I taught, the government's policies are guaranteed to create only an equality of misery.

The author is head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit.

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