Private schools face cull over fees

4th June 2004 at 01:00
The Mugabe government is venting its anger now on the 'racist' independent sector, writes Karen MacGregor

ZIMBABWE

The future of independent schools in Zimbabwe is hanging in the balance following threats of a government takeover, the arrest of headteachers, accusations of racism and forced fee cuts that have already rendered several schools technically insolvent.

All 46 private schools were allowed to reopen after being ordered to close last month ahead of a new term.

They were accused of hiking fees steeply without the permission of the permanent secretary of education, allegedly breaching the country's education act. In order to reopen, schools first had to sign "acceptance agreements" to lower fees, after they had reportedly shot up by up to 1,000 per cent.

The Association of Trust Schools backed fee agreements so that schools could reopen, but warned of pending bankruptcies.

Financial restrictions, including a ban on donations, have left schools heading for a cash crisis as inflation is now running at 580 per cent.

Zimbabwe's gross national product has shrunk by one-third in five years.

The fees charged by the schools range from pound;1,000 to pound;3,500 a year.

The education minister, Aeneas Chigwedere, said that schools had raised fees to exclude black children, to generate huge profits for British owners, to create jobs for whites and to churn out "Rhodesians".

He warned that the government would do to "racist" private schools what it did to white farms - take them over. He accused black parents who send their children to the independent sector of being "mentally colonised".

Two-thirds of the 30,000 private pupils are black and include among them the children of a number of senior politicians, leading to suspicions that they are mainly concerned about how the rising cost of fees will affect their own pockets.

One board member of a private school, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was a wider political aim: "These schools keep many of the whites who are still here. They also harbour the children of many black upper and middle-class parents, who generally don't support Zanu-PF (the ruling party)."

Following the signing of acceptance agreements, the police, who had forcibly barred teachers and pupils from entering premises in early May, were stood down. About a dozen prominent headteachers and board members were released from police cells, where several had been badly treated.

Schools are now considering legal action, but many are reluctant to pursue the issue through the courts, given that the government is unlikely to abide by any rulings. "It seems our best route now might be negotiation," said the school board member.

But it seems unlikely that either option will work. The Crisis Coalition, an umbrella body of civil groups that sees the need for change in the sector, said: "By resorting to using the police force, the minister is indicating that there is little or no room for amicable negotiation and dialogue."

Independent schools will be lobbying government and making promises to cut costs, increase class sizes, keep down fees and increase the numbers of black teachers, pupils and parent representatives.

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