In one of the teeming suburbs of Harare, Kuwadzana, children sit resignedly crammed in an elaborately decorated living room.
On the other end of the same apartment, dozens of tiny hands play with toys, crayons and portraits.
Outside, there is a more energised group of pupils on wooden chairs, children aged 4 to 6 are immersed in their activities.
It is one of the many unregistered residential nursery schools in Harare.
This “school”, Little Angels, offers early childhood development “classes”.
The owner, who refused to be named fearing reprisals, uses her living room and other bedrooms as instruction space.
She holds a post graduate degree in Business Management from a local university but she has never trained in early childhood development.
Her school started as a baby-sitting institution, where she would take care of children when their parents were away or at work.
“My business acumen pushed me to turn it into a nursery school. I recruited two other ‘teachers’ and now we have 32 children learning here.”
The owner of Little Angels said the process of registration is not very easy to go through, hence many proprietors of such establishments then decide to operate illegally, and when caught they either pay a fine or simply shut down.
“I am yet to register with the ministry. The process is long and tedious and you have to be connected to someone within the ministry to get the permission to operate,” she claimed.
However, they are registered with the city council as a business and Little Angels has been operating for more than four years.
Mr Aaron Nyamunda also has a nursery school, Disney Nursery.
A holder of an ECD certificate, Mr Nyamunda has been offering the service in his home for more than three years ever since he retired as a headmaster.
“I have 35 pupils and I have hired one extra teacher to help me with classes,” he said.
Mr Nyamunda said his institution is registered as an accredited ECD centre with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, although he does not have any proof.
There are many unregistered nursery schools operating in Zimbabwe, with unqualified teachers operating illegally in the residential homes that have been turned into pre-schools.
Some parents seem to prefer sending their children to the unregistered residential pre-schools for ECD, instead of the formal primary schools.
And there are growing concerns about the quality of education being offered by the mushrooming pre-schools. Zimbabwe’s 2004 National Early Childhood Development policy requires all primary schools in the country to offer two years of ECD pre-primary education.
Yet children are now getting enrolled from as early as two years old.
Money-spinning nursery schools have sprung up despite the implementation of the Early Childhood Development Programme, where each Zimbabwean primary school is supposed to include a nursery class.
Miriam Makotore has been an ECD teacher for the past three years and has worked in residential pre-schools since she received her training.
“My salary isn’t much. I earn $250 a month, but it’s better than nothing. I have tried to get a job within the formal schools, but most of them are not employing at the moment so the backyard schools are quick ways to get employed,” she said.
Runesu Taruvinga, a parent who has been sending her five-year-old daughter to Little Angels, said her choice was influenced by proximity and affordability.
“The nursery school here is cheaper. It costs $15 per month, other ECD centres are expensive. They require a joining fee of $150 and a monthly school fee of $40,” she said.
Fees in Government schools are not standardised, they depend on the location of the school.
“At least she is getting educated rather than just being at home,” said Taruvinga.
Parents and educationists have said if the residential pre-schools could be registered with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, this could improve the quality of education in Zimbabwe and increase accessibility to affordable ECD centres.
Educationists aver that wholesome early childhood development is an essential pre-requisite for later success in school, the workplace, and the community.
Dr Peter Kwaira, a lecturer with the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Technical Education, said quality education is critical in a child’s formative years.
“The ability to read and write properly, the confidence to get up and talk in front of people as well as socialise with peers are some of the skills best developed in the early years of a child’s learning,” he said.
He added that parents who wish their children to excel in life should place them in a conducive learning environment to fully develop these abilities.
The severe lack of trained teachers in the ECD sector was highlighted in a 2017-18 regional education report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific Organisation (Unesco).
The ECD level has the highest percentage of unqualified teachers at 67,3 percent, the report states.
In general, the country’s education sector also suffers from a lack of age-appropriate equipment, learning materials and infrastructure, according to a 2016 Unicef education brief.
While primary schools are automatically registered for ECD, pre-schools have to register with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
The National Early Childhood Development (NECD) programme was mainly targeted at pre-school children in rural areas who did not have convenient access to early childhood education.
Preparatory or nursery schools teach basics such as colours and writing names, with an emphasis on play.
Local teachers and parents, however, look at the sprouting pre-schools as solutions for employment and child-care needs.
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