My biggest regret was my inability to change Zimbabwe’s curriculum during my term of office.
David Coltart is a senator and lawyer who served as Zimbabwe’s minister of education, sport, arts and culture from 2009 to 2013. In the first of our new Reflections series, the Atlantis Group member talks about his biggest successes in office and his greatest regrets.
What was your biggest success in office?
My biggest success was forging a new understanding with teachers and their unions. When I took office, over 90,000 teachers were on strike and nearly half of the country’s public schools were closed. Thousands of teachers were flooding out of the country to seek jobs elsewhere.
As my first act as minister, I engaged with the three teacher unions and also formalized a process where parents paid teachers incentives to boost their meagre salaries. I created a National Education Advisory Board and put teachers’ representatives on it, and also announced an amnesty that allowed teachers who had left to come back to government schools without punishment.
Within a month of my taking office all of the schools had re-opened and teachers had returned to work, even though government was only able to start paying them $100 each per month.
Do you have any regrets?
I have a number of regrets, but my biggest was my inability to change Zimbabwe’s curriculum during my term of office. Zimbabwe’s curriculum has produced one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, but it is badly in need of an overall – there’s an imbalance between academic and vocational subjects. Unfortunately due to political machinations I was not able to move ahead.
Another regret is the frustration of my efforts to create some 20 Academies of Excellence for talented disadvantaged children.
What are the key unsolved issues?
There are two main issues. The first is the effect that the underfunding of education has on the remuneration of teachers. My view is that education should be the principal budgetary priority of every government.
I know that funding alone does not result in excellence in education, but it is no coincidence that the teaching profession in top-performing countries in education such as Singapore and South Korea attracts the brightest college graduates, as teachers in both these countries are the some of the most highly paid in the world. Although I made the argument to invest in education continually during my terms of office, it largely fell on deaf ears and sadly since I left office in 2013 the status of teachers has plummeted.
The second issue is the curriculum: until Zimbabwe embraces a new, progressive curriculum our education system will continue to flounder.
Within a month of my taking office all of the schools had re-opened and teachers had returned to work
What are your key reflections on your time in office?
Zimbabwe is blessed with an amazingly dedicated body of teachers who are overworked, under-resourced and grossly underpaid.
Teachers are still deeply respected by parents and children because they have shown astonishing dedication to Zimbabwe’s children for decades. But the generation of teachers who have been the backbone of the profession since independence in 1980 are now retiring and I fear that the coming generation will be taught by people who perhaps are not our brightest and best.
The only way this situation can be improved if there is a change in mindset by government; with a massive increase in the funding of education for teachers’ salaries, teacher training institutions and for teachers’ living conditions – particularly in rural schools.
What was your greatest obstacle?
The greatest obstacle I faced was a group of ultra-conservative civil servants and politicians who did not want to reform education because it endangered their interests. Dictators the world over detest an innovative and intelligent younger generation because they are most likely to question the status quo.
I was continually obstructed and blocked by ruling party leaders and functionaries who feared that I would spark a revolution in the education sector which would raise a new generation of Zimbabweans who understood the benefits of democracy, tolerance, transparency and freedom.
This same crop of leaders were also determined to spend more money on the military and secret police, rather than pay a liveable wage to teachers and invest in education.
In this new series, former ministers of education reflect on their time in office and talk about the lessons they learned in government – and what they left undone. Contributors are members of the Atlantis Group, an elite body of former ministers of education and heads of government that works to provide counsel to current ministers.