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Zimbabwe has historically invested in the development of its education system, resulting in a network of service provision supported by qualified teachers, with structured regulatory frameworks and a central, provincial and district-level administrative structure. While communities had historically been assigned official roles in school governance for years, their role on quality control and in addressing causes of dropout and poor performance has been limited. The 2016-2010 Education Sector Strategic Plan puts further emphasis on the development and implementation of local solutions, and the recently implemented 2015 curriculum creates ample space for community contributions towards a locally relevant and inclusive approach to education.
This presentation will reflect on the evolution of an approach to community engagement in education in rural and remote areas of Zimbabwe, starting with the initial engagement of School Development Committees and mothers’ groups in improving access, attendance and retention, and the progressive expansion of their role to encompass non-formal education and broader support to formal classes. Economic crises, natural disasters and outmigration have contributed to considerable decline in education outcomes in Zimbabwe during the last decade; the negative impact is particularly visible in rural and remote areas heavily hit by climate change. Only 35% of the girls and 38% of the boys from the poorest quintile are attending secondary school (Ministry of Education, EMIS 2014). The 2013 baseline study for this initiative found that the average EGRA reading comprehension score for girls attending Grade 6 was only 24%, indicating that upper primary students in highly marginalized areas were completing primary education without acquiring basic skills.
In this scenario, the engagement of community groups, associated to their economic empowerment, proved to be a key strategy to create a conducive learning environment, enhance local ownership of education and address social barriers to education (including heavy workloads at home and gender-based violence). The engagement of mothers’ groups increased average literacy scores by five percentage points over and above the gain observed in the control group. Communities with mothers’ groups were 18 percent more likely to report cases of abuse. A review of mothers’ groups activities indicated that their presence contributed to reinforce gender-based violence reporting and redress mechanisms at community level, as well as to foster a culture of disclosure of abuse cases, working with community leaders and parents to create a ‘new normal’ where social norms now regard gender-based violence as a less than acceptable situation. Linkages between mothers’ groups and economic empowerment initiatives allowed mobilized community members to access funding for their activities in a sustainable manner. A network formed by the mothers’ group, school development committee, religious leaders, school staff, mobilized students and local authorities resulted in concerted action towards improving the school environment; however, increased demand for accountability also created friction in some locations, and in some cases, limited capacity to mobilize funding during the peak of the 2015-16 drought resulted in locally led initiatives being stalled.
Building on this experience, the consortium implementing this initiative worked with government partners and communities to further expand this approach. While gains in learning were evident, the transition to post-primary opportunities remained a major challenge due to limited service provision and household capacity to support costs. A non-formal education approach at post-primary level is being developed, linked to mobilized student groups at community level. Non-formal education groups will be associated to mothers’ groups and economic empowerment activities, and supported by school development committees. It is expected that this community-owned, community-led approach will leverage existing structures and their investment in education and in creating a conducive environment for girls to attend classes; at the same time, linkages with economic empowerment activities will enable learners to acquire key skills to engage in entrepreneurship, directly associating skills learned in class with their application for self-employment. This approach, implemented in 2017-2021, leverages local capacity to respond to the national challenge in addressing transition into the post-primary level, contributing directly to SDG #4.