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Zimbabwe Education Profile
 

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 15 years of independence, Zimbabwe's population of over 13 million 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 fifth largest number of students from Africa to the United States.  There are, however, increasing 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 and mismatched policies of the current government have 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.  Grossly underpaid teachers are fleeing to neighboring countries, further widening the gap between well and poorly-resourced schools. 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.

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. 

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. Secondary School consists of two levels: a four year"O" level and two year "A" level curriculum. Zimbabwe phased out the ZJC examinations in 2001, but has maintained the same curricular framework for general Form 1 and 2 education (equivalent of Grades 8-9) with core subjects in math, science, English, history, Shona/Ndebele, and practical subjects.

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 in 2002, increasingly independent school students write British Cambridge IGCSE exams in addition to or in lieu of ZIMSEC exams, if they can raise the needed foreign currency to register for them.  2002 O and A level exams were thus the first to be issued purely under ZIMSEC administration without University of Cambridge collaboration.  Students typically write their "O" level exams when they are 15-17 years old.

Subjects currently on offer for  ZIMSEC "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 to colleges or universities without them. Entrance into "A" level programs is quite competitive, with the majority of "O" level students either returning to small-scale farming, entering the informal or formal work force or proceeding to a vocational-technical school or a nursing or teaching college. With Zimbabwe’s rate of unemployment currently surpassing 80%, 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. 

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 opting for four subjects.  In addition, many A level students take "English for Communication”, a challenging exam that assesses English academic writing proficiency through essays on current affairs.  English for Communication is marked on a 1-9 scale with 1 as the highest mark and a 1-6 as a pass.  A level exams have been considerably more challenging than "O" levels, yielding far less favorable pass rates, and it is thus not uncommon for a capable student to have significantly 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.

"A" level subjects currently offered in Zimbabwe include:

Arts:
English Literature, Geography, Shona/Ndebele Language and Literature, Divinity, History, French, Art, Music, Latin, German

Commercial: 
Management of Business/Business Studies, Economics, Accounts, Computer Science,

Technical Graphics

Sciences: 
Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics

University Study in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe boasts a network of seven state universities around the country, the flagship which is the University of Zimbabwe which is a comprehensive university offering faculties of Medicine, Law, Engineering, Agriculture, Business and Arts and Sciences.  The National University of Science and Technolgy (NUST) based in Bulawayo houses some of the countries’ best science and engineering programs.  Generalist university degrees (Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science) are three years with a fourth honors year offered and specialist degree programs are either three or four years in duration.  Degrees of medicine, engineering and law take five years to complete.  Two well-established private universities, Africa University (Methodist) and Solusi University (Seventh Day Adventist) follow American grading and liberal arts curricular patterns.  Despite alarming brain drain of faculty, Zimbabwean universities have maintained remarkably high standards of education.  Students can apply for copies of their university transcripts and get them in sealed, stamped envelopes; however, it is still not possible in Zimbabwe to request a university to send your transcript directly to another institution, so students will typically include their stamped, sealed transcripts with their applications.

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 and to use their SAT I Verbal score as additional proof of their English proficiency.   
  • 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 both as a Internet-based and paper-based exam  in Harare, with a testing date at least once monthly.    The Educational Advising Center offers SAT, TOEFL and GRE registration in cash in local and foreign currency.  The Educational Advising Center offers preparation materials for loan and sale, and there are now short SAT I prep courses available here.  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.  In general, we ask colleges and universities to consider standardized tests as one indicator in a wider array of educational assessment tools when predicting university academic success.
  • Students write their "A" level subjects in November and do not receive their ZIMSEC results until the end of February or Cambridge results in mid-January; thus, they often need to submit college and university applications before their results are out, faxing or scanning you A level results to complete their applications.  ZIMSEC first issues a “Statement of Results” and does not issue an official exam certificate for several years.  We advise that you only accept stamps from three sources:  the School Head, ZIMSEC or the US Embassy EducationUSA Advisor. As students are only given one copy of their exam results, they will submit copies of the originals certified and stamped.
  • 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 pale 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 terms 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.  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 at the high school level, many applications and recommendation letters will arrive to you handwitten.  Increasing numbers, but not all students will have Internet/email accessibility so written materials remain an 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 six to twelve 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 all decision and financial aid award letters to Zimbabwean candidates 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.  In addition to the two main advising centers, we also have satellite 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, since 2006, this number has declined slightly, attributable to the severe political and economic crisis Zimbabwe continues to face. 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 seven years.  Inflation in Zimbabwe has vacillated in the past five years between 16,055% and its current alarming rate of over 6,000,000%.  Foreign currency is often only available on the parallel market at a rate which currently stands at Z$450,000,000,000 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.  The majority of fee-paying Zimbabwean students are doing so through relatives based in the diaspora or with significant financial resources outside of the country.
  • The Educational Advising Center in Harare founded the United States Student Achievers Program (USAP) in 1999, a program which assists highly-talented, economically-disadvantaged students to negotiate and finance the admissions process to selective institutions in the United States.  Since its inception, USAP has seen over 150 students successfully gain admission with full funding to study in the US.  The program’s success has led to its replication in 14 countries on four continents.  For more information on USAP, please go to www.usapglobal.org

Updated July 2008

Education USA Zimbabwe