Zimbabwe's Secondary Educational System:

A Solid Foundation for Undergraduate Education


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 20 years of independence, Zimbabwe's population of 13 million has witnessed incredible strides in school expansion, teacher training, and resource improvement. 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 and Mutare. 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 seven years of primary and siz 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 have been trained for diplomas at three year teacher training colleges after their secondary schooling, with the more qualified having subsequently earned university Bachelor's degrees in 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 4. 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 topics in 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 schools based on their Grade 7 examination results. 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 this year, but has maintained the same framework for Form I and II education.

Based on their Form I and II 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, GCE "O" level examinations have been set and marked in Zimbabwe by the Zimbabwe Examinations Council in conjunction with the University of Cambridge international "O" level system. Marks from highest to lowest are A,B,C,D,E,U with A, B, and C as passing marks. Recently, elite private schools have also encouraged their students to write British IGSCE examinations during Form IV to prove those students' international calibre.

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 "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 "O" level examination serves as a gateway for many students who cannot proceed without it despite their other exam scores. Entrance into "A" level programs is quite competitive, with the majority of "O" level students either entering the work force or proceeding to a vocational course, a technical school or a nursing or primary school teaching college. Only those with the best scores manage to find a 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 usually choose between 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, most science and some other students take "General Paper," a very challenging exam that assesses both English writing skills and knowledge of current events both nationally and worldwide. "A" level examinations written in Zimbabwe continue to be set and marked at the University of Cambridge in England, and they are considerably more challenging than "O" levels, yielding far less favorable pass rates. Zimbabwe has embarked on a multiyear program of "A" level exam localization, starting with science subjects, but the program has yet to begin its implementation phase. 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.

"A" level subjects currently offered in Zimbabwe include:

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

Commercial: Management of Business, Economics, Accounts, Computer Science, Statistics

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

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 General Paper "A" level examination to have a teacher or headmaster write them a waiver letter in lieu of taking the TOEFL exam.

* Both the SAT and ACT are offered in Harare six times a year, with the SAT also offered in Bulawayo once annually. The TOEFL is offered as a computer-based exam three times weekly in Harare. Unfortunately, preparation materials are not nearly as readily available to Zimbabwean students as they are for their American counterparts and there are no test prep courses available here, putting Zimbabweans at a comparative disadvantage in terms of standardized testing.

* Because students who write their "A" level subjects in November do not receive their results until February, 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.

* Given the examination-driven national curriculum in Zimbabwe, secondary schools do not 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 as a motivator for them to work harder. The "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 by either the Headmaster of their school, by ZIMSEC or by the US Embassy Educational Advisor. Students can send a copy of their school reports or ask the school to compile this information into a one page report. They will be hard-pressed to calculate a gpa

* Secondary school teachers and administrators are not used to writing recommendations for students as often requested by US colleges and universities. 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.

* In 2000 and 2001, over 1200 Zimbabwean students per year went to the US to study at colleges and universities. Many have made the successful transition to highly competitive academic institutions. 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 most often financial resources.

* Zimbabwe has experienced extreme economic and political instability over the past year and a half. As a result, the exchange rate has skyrocketed and currently stands at Z$300 to US$1. For this reason, admissions and financial aid officers need to be especially sensitive to the fact that even relatively wealthy Zimbabweans will be hardpressed to finance their children's education without any financial assistance.

Updated November 2001, Rebecca Zeigler Mano, Educational Advisor, United States Embassy - Public Affairs Section, P.O. Box 4010, Harare, ZIMBABWE,

Tel: 263-4-758800/1/4/5, Fax: 263-4-758802; Email: rzm@pd.state.gov