Few things get a Zimbabwean going like slighting their much vaunted education system. We will soak up all forms abuse, but never try take away our old adage that we are the most literate people on the continent – at 92%, according to the United Nations Development Programme. It is a statistic we wear like a badge.
This explains the storm sparked by news that only 18.4% of students that sat for O-levels last year had passed.
Zimbabwe has abandoned the British Cambridge O and A-level exams, opting for local versions overseen by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council.
How high did emotions run at the release of the statistic? In Zimbabwe, a quarrel does not reach its peak until "Rhodesians" are dragged into it and Rhodesians were mentioned, right back to their Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965.
What sparked the row was data showing that only 31 767 of the 172 698 students who had sat for the exams, a route to further education, had passed, with the required five subjects graded 50% or better.
And yet, that 18.4% is not the worst Zimbabwe has ever recorded. In fact, that figure is a recovery from previous years, when pass rates hit lows of just more than 9% in 2007. Few Zimbabweans took notice then.
Zimbabwe Teachers Association head Sifiso Ndlovu is surprised by the alarm over last year's pass rate. "People are saying that children failed a lot, but when have they ever passed more? The pass rate has always hovered at about 20%," Ndlovu said.
In 2010 and 2011, the pass rate was 16.5% and 19.5% respectively.
While the numbers should not have been such a shock, the uproar has helped to draw attention to how far down the priority list Zimbabweans have allowed their once prized education system to slip.
Cost of neglect
Zimbabweans that have blissfully convinced themselves they have the best education system in Africa are beginning to face reality. Education has, in fact, been bleeding for years from neglect and the country needs to push it back up the priority list.
Education is the crown jewel of what remains of President Robert Mugabe's legacy, but years of poor funding and political disruption threaten to unravel everything he built.
In 2009, according to a report from the United Nations Children's Fund, 94% of rural schools were closed, while 66 of the 70 schools surveyed had been "abandoned" by staff.
According to Education Minister David Coltart, 98% of his budget goes to paying teachers, leaving little for facilities or books.
The teacher-to-student ratio, according to regulations, should be one teacher for 33 students. Unions say that schools today average 55 students to a teacher, although it is not unusual to find teachers handling more than three times the recommended number.
That Coltart would view the 82% failure rate as "an improvement on previous years" shows the depth of the crisis Zimbabweans have chosen to ignore while clinging to past glories.
There are bitterly contrasting views on how to fix the problem.
To Coltart's suggestion of a greater focus on practical subjects, politician Jonathan Moyo wrote: "Coltart, like the architects of Rhodesian racist education before him, is basically saying that blacks have no academic orientation and cannot be taught through mind-based pedagogy that is cerebral or academic, but are rather better taught through observational or so-called practical pedagogy that is based on the ‘monkey-see-monkey-do' colonial and UDI modules."
The debate has been nasty, but that is a good thing. Finally, Zimbabweans are taking notice of the decade-long crisis that has eaten away at their pride and joy.
There is a crisis in education. The figures show that there has been a crisis for some time and it will not be resolved through partisan posturing and mendacious vitriol.
Coltart was appointed education minister as part of the government of national unity agreement that portfolios would be shared between Zanu PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change following a contested presidential poll in 2008.
Many Zimbabwean schools share the problems of scarce textbooks and demotivated staff but few have had to deal with having their classrooms dug up by often violent gold diggers.
The Globe and Phoenix School, in the gold-rich town of Kwekwe, has been destroyed by illegal gold miners, who have dug beneath the classroom's foundation, destroyed the school workshop and ploughed up the sports fields.
There is nothing to stop them – the gangs are organised cliques who dig for gold on behalf of local gold dealers.
The school is next to the Globe and Phoenix mine, once one of Zimbabwe's largest gold producers, which shut down years ago. The damage has made the school almost impossible to use, and the Environment Management Authority (EMA) wants the school to be closed.
It was built to accommodate only the children of mineworkers, but it now serves nearly a thousand children from surrounding communities.
The mine's closure left the school broke. The school gets by with only a few teachers, each taking classes of up to 70 pupils, who share a handful of donated textbooks.
But the school is bearing the brunt of the lawlessness that has driven many Zimbabwean schools into the ground over the past decade.
After visiting the school, Sheunesu Mpepereki, chairperson of the EMA, said: "The structures could collapse any time because of the damage. If nothing is done, we face a big disaster. Children's lives are at stake here," he said. "We cannot have lessons being disrupted by gold panners."
The school's authorities would not speak about the invasion. – Jason Moyo