Education in Zimbabwe

Education in Zimbabwe
Primary School: Grades 1-7
Secondary School: Forms I-VI
Special Notes for Admissions Officers

Education in Zimbabwe

When Zimbabwe gained its independence from colonial rule in April 1980, the majority of her people lacked the opportunities and facilities for quality secondary schooling, most only finishing several years of primary schooling. Over the first 25 years of independence, Zimbabwe's population of over 13 million has witnessed incredible strides in school expansion, teacher training, and resource improvement. As a result, Zimbabwe continues to boast the highest literacy rate in sub-saharan Africa and sends the fourth largest number of students from Africa to the United States. There remain, however, significant discrepancies between educational opportunities for Zimbabwe's rural majority and for those who live in the main urban centers of Harare, Chitungwiza, Bulawayo Mutare and Gweru. The apartheid legacy has also left its mark on Zimbabwe's education system with formerly-white, private "Group A" schools far superior in terms of resources and trained teachers when compared to their mission and government-sponsored counterparts. Zimbabwe's education system consists of 7 years of primary and 6 years of secondary schooling before students can enter university in country or abroad. The academic year in Zimbabwe runs from January to December , with three month terms, broken up by one month holidays, with a total of 40 weeks of school per year. National examinations are written during the third term in November, with "O" level and "A" level subjects also offered in June. Teachers and nurses train for three years at nursing and teacher training colleges after their secondary schooling, with the more qualified having subsequently earning university degrees. Currently, there are seven public universities as well as four church-related universities in Zimbabwe that are fully internationally accredited. Zimbabwean culture places a high premium on education.

Tichakunda Mangono (Brown University), 2nd from left, goes for the classic pose with friends at Dadaya High School in 2005. Check out the neat uniforms!

Primary School: Grades 1-7

Most Zimbabwean children begin Grade 1 during the year in which they turn six, with a smaller number beginning either during their fifth or seventh year. In urban areas the medium of instruction is purely English, with Shona or Ndebele taught as a subject; in rural schools students begin learning in their mother tongue, but transition to all reading and writing in English by Grade 3. Curriculum is nationalized with prescribed textbooks all in English. The seven years of primary schooling culminate in four nationally-set Grade 7 examinations in Mathematics, English, Shona or Ndebele and Content, which is a combination of sciences and social sciences.

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Secondary School: Forms I-VI

Students entering Form I, usually aged 12-13, compete for places in the private and mission day and boarding schools based on their Grade 7 examination results, as well as school-based interviews and placement tests. Government schools take students by zone and then allot the rest of the places to those with the best qualifications. Secondary School consists of three levels: ZJC (Zimbabwe Junior Certificate) which includes Forms I and II; "O" level which includes Forms III and IV; and "A" level which includes Forms V and VI. The ZJC Core Curriculum (equivalent to Grades 8-9) consists of 8 subjects: English, Shona or Ndebele, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Bible Knowledge, and a Practical Subject (ie Food and Nutrition, Fashion and Fabrics, Woodwork, Agriculture, Metalwork, Technical Drawing, etc.) Zimbabwe phased out the ZJC examinations in 2001, but has maintained the same curricular framework for general Form 1 and 2 education and plan to renew this set of examinations at the end of Form 2 education in 2008.

Based on their Form 1 and 2 reports, students are assigned to courses and tracked classes for their "O" level studies for Forms III and IV (equivalent to Grades 10-11). In government schools in the high-density urban townships and in the rural areas, students are restricted in their options and usually are only afforded the opportunity to take 8 or 9 subjects. Elite private schools often allow and encourage students to take up to 12 or 13 subjects for "O" level exams. Since the early 1990's and until April 2002, GCE "O" level examinations were set and marked in Zimbabwe by the Zimbabwe Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) in conjunction with the University of Cambridge International Examination GCE system. Marks from highest to lowest are A, B, C, D, E, U with A, B, and C as passing marks. With the fast-tracked localization of examinations, many independent school students have been writing both local and British IGCSE exams. In 2002, Zimbabwe issued a directive to try to ban private schools from offering any foreign examinations, the most common of these being the British IGSCE, AS and A level. With staunch resistance to this government directive, Cambridge pulled out of its collaborative role in Zimbabwe's examination system but does offer its own exams in the country to those schools whose pupils can afford to pay their examination fees in foreign currency. 2002 O and A level exams were thus the first to be issued purely under ZIMSEC administration without University of Cambridge collaboration However, a group of activist parents lobbied the Zimbabwean government to revoke the ban on foreign exams, and they have continued to be offered without incident since 2002.

Subjects currently on offer for "O" level examinations include:

Sciences Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Physics with Chemistry, Integrated Science, Mathematics;
Liberal Arts English Literature, Religious Education, Geography, History
Commercial Subjects Accounts, Commerce, Economics, Computer Studies
Languages English, Shona, Ndebele, French, German, Latin
Arts Art, Music
Practical Subjects Woodwork, Metalwork, Agriculture, Technical Drawing, Fashion & Fabrics, Food & Nutrition

To receive a passing ZIMSEC "O" level GCE certificate, a student needs to have passed at least five subjects including English language with a mark of "C" or better. The English and mathematics "O" level examinations serve as gatekeepers for many students who cannot proceed without them despite their other exam scores. Entrance into "A" level programs is quite competitive, with the majority of "O" level students either returning to small-scale farming, entering the work force or proceeding to a vocational course, a technical school or a nursing or teaching college. With Zimbabwe’s rate of unemployment currently surpassing 70%, many O level graduates face bleak employment prospects. Only those with the best scores manage to find a high school place in an "A" level program. Students typically write their "O" level exams when they are 15-17 years old.

At the Advanced "A" level, students choose among science, commercial and art subjects to study for Forms V and VI. The vast majority of students take three subjects at "A" level, with a few very gifted students at elite schools opting for four subjects. In addition, many A level students take "English for Communication”, which before 2004 was called “General Paper," a very challenging exam that assesses both English writing skills and knowledge of current events both nationally and worldwide. English for Communication is marked on a 1-9 scale with 1 as the highest mark and a 1-6 as a pass. Through 2001, "A" level examinations written in Zimbabwe continued to be set and marked at the University of Cambridge in the UK; they have been considerably more challenging than "O" levels, yielding far less favorable pass rates. Starting June 2002 exams, A levels were localized and run by ZIMSEC. It is common for a capable student to have higher "O" level exam marks than her/his "A" level exam marks. Admission officers often consider grades of A, B or C on "A" level exams to be grounds for exemption from college and university courses, in the same manner as are scores of 5,4, and 3 on AP exams in the US. Again, from the few students who have simultaneously written both Cambridge and ZIMSEC A level exams, the Cambridge exam results have been more favorable.

"A" level subjects currently offered in Zimbabwe include:

Sciences Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics
Commercials Management of Business/Business Studies, Economics, Accounts, Computer Science
Arts English Literature, Geography, Shona/Ndebele Language and Literature, Divinity, History, French, Art, Music, Latin, German

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Cato and the Danho Boys at Harare High School in 1999. Students relax after a long day of classes.

Special Notes for Admissions Officers:

  • Zimbabwean students have strong skills in conversational and written academic English. For this reason, we advise undergraduate applicants who have achieved at least a "B" on either their English "O" level or a 1-4 pass on their English Communication "A" level examination to have a teacher or headmaster write them a waiver letter in lieu of taking the TOEFL exam or to use their SAT I Verbal score as proof of their English proficiency. The IELTS is a much more affordable and accessible option than TOEFL;if you do require an English exam, it is preferred if the student has the choice.

  • The SAT I and II exams are offered in Harare six times a year, with the SAT also offered in Bulawayo four times annually. The TOEFL is offered as a computer-based exam daily in Harare. The Educational Advising Center offers SAT registration in cash in local currency. Although the Educational Advising Center offers preparation materials for loan and sale, there are no test prep courses available here, putting Zimbabweans at a comparative disadvantage in terms of standardized testing. Most A level students have to take the SAT at the same time that they are writing their A level exams, leaving them little time to prepare. Many students travel long distances from boarding schools in order to write the exams.

  • Because students who write their "A" level subjects in November do not receive their ZIMSEC results until the end of February or Cambridge results at the end of January, they often need to submit college and university applications before their results are out, faxing and sending you the results to complete their applications as soon as they receive them. ZIMSEC first issues a "Statement of Results" and may not issue an official exam certificate for several years. Right now, students who wrote exams in November 2005 still do not have their certificates. Only ZIMSEC and the US Embassy or the school where the exams were written can verify results, and students only receive one copy of their certificate.

  • Secondary school teachers and administrators are not used to writing recommendations for students often requested by US colleges and universities as Zimbabwean universities do not require them. Given an academic culture devoid of grade inflation and platitudes, Zimbabwean recommendation letters often seem very average in comparison to their American counterparts, even when the teacher writing has utmost respect and hope for the student.

  • Given the examination-driven national curriculum in Zimbabwe, secondary schools do not routinely produce transcripts for their students. Students receive informal, hand-written school reports twice a year, but there is no g.p.a., class rank or other official marks given for continual assessment throughout secondary school. Also, teachers often downgrade all students the term before exams to motivate them to work harder. "O" and "A" level certificates are considered the official academic qualifications as opposed to a school-generated report. As students are only given one copy of their exam results, they will submit copies of the originals certified and stamped. We advise that you only accept stamps from three sources: the Headmaster of their school, ZIMSEC or the US Embassy Educational Advisor. Students can also send a copy of their school reports or ask the school to compile this information into a one page transcript/report. They will not be able to calculate a g.p.a and rarely will have a class rank.

  • With a lack of computer availability, many college and university applications and recommendation letters will arrive to you handwitten. Increasing numbers, but not all students will have Internet/email accessibility so written materials remain the essential recruiting and informational medium of choice in Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabwean students do not have a phone in their homes. International mail between the US and Zimbabwe is currently unreliable, with letters and small parcels taking between three and six weeks. Whenever possible, we urge US admissions officers to send vital documents, such as acceptance and financial aid award letters and SEVIS I-20 forms by courier; Zimbabwe is serviced by DHL, FedEx and UPS. We also encourage you to email decision and financial aid award letters to Zimbabwean candidates who do have email addresses, so as to allow the students ample time to make decisions and send an enrollment deposit.

  • The US Embassy's Educational Advising Program in Zimbabwe offers two full-service educational advising centers in Harare and Bulawayo to which both prospective undergraduate and graduate students can become members. USEAC members have free access to email and Internet, to an array of reference guides and test preparation materials, to a vast collection of university catalogs, CD-Roms and videos, to a variety of workshops and presentations and to individual advising. Although the advising program's office is in the capital Harare, we also have satellite advising centers in Zimbabwe's four other major metropolitan areas as well as in the four main universities' libraries.

  • The number of Zimbabwean students studying in the US has steadily increased since 1998. However, in 2006, this number declined by 3%, attributable to the severe political and economic crisis Zimbabwe is facing. Many Zimbabwean youth have made the successful transition to highly competitive academic institutions and are becoming reknown for their academic and co-curricular contributions to their college and university campuses. The main obstacle for Zimbabwean students seeking admission to colleges and universities in the US for their undergraduate study is neither competence nor qualifications, but finances. Students must prove that they are serious about their study and that they have adequate non-Zimbabwean dollar sources of finances in order to apply successfully for a visa. If their documentation is complete, however, the visa process takes one day in Harare.

  • Zimbabwe has experienced extreme economic and political instability over the past eight years. As a result, the IMF and World Bank estimate that inflation in Zimbabwe has vacillated between 1655% and its current alarming rate of 300,000% since 2003. Although Zimbabwe’s official exchange rate is Z$30,630 = US$1, foreign currency is often only available on the parallel market at a rate which currently stands at Z$41,000,000 to US$1. For this reason, admissions and financial aid officers must be sensitive to the fact that even relatively wealthy Zimbabweans may be hardpressed to finance their children's education without significant financial assistance, and that figures for wages and expenses will seem artificially low on financial aid forms when converted into US dollars. Zimbabwean students planning to self-finance all or part of their education should certify their finances in foreign currency as rarely will they be able to convert sufficient amounts of Zimbabwe dollars to pay for their children’s education, even when those amounts are in their bank accounts.

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