My Case for a Two School-Holiday System: Eliminating the Disruptive Chaos of Zimbabwe’s Frequent Holiday Breaks

One of, if not the single outstanding joy of parenting is sending one’s child to school. Every one of us – albeit with different levels of cognitive intensity – remembers in 3D technicolour that very first day when our parent or guardian walked us into the classroom. For me, the novel ambience, the smell of new khaki uniform, newly acquired books, the scent of chalk and fresh paints, the smiling Grade 1 teacher, the giggly innocent curious faces around the classroom and at times, tinged with tears of anxiety down their cheeks – will forever remain an indelible mark in my mind. It is the wish and desire of every parent that their child attends school from start to finish. As parents, we dream of our children attaining the highest possible levels of education to launch them into dazzling career orbits.

However, there is a sinister caveat to this seemingly picturesque fantasy. Almost 80% of Zimbabwe’s parents are prone or susceptible to poverty. Unofficial figures point to an out-of-work rate hovering around 90%, of course bearing in mind that informal tasks mitigate gapping income deficits. Despite compelling right-to-education constitutional provisions, Zimbabwe’s volatile economic circumstances negate this parental obligation. Escalating costs of food, toiletries, books and medicals point to one thing – that parenting school-age children has become a formidable and insurmountable obstacle. On one hand, school and college authorities argue vehemently for inflation adjusted tuition and boarding fees. On the other, Zimbabwe’s multi-currency environment coupled with rampant, if not criminal profiteering creates room for arbitrage and rent seeking – factors that make life difficult for school authorities. Combine these negative factors and one is not surprised that end of holidays and school openings are events that overwhelm parents with intractable, if not palpable trepidation. Herein lies my case for a two school-holiday system.

For reasons known only to our British colonisers, Zimbabwean schools – apart from Christmas Holidays – take breaks in autumn (April) and spring (August). Without studying the full history of this format, it is difficult to offer objective analysis. However, what I struggle to comprehend is why the system subjects parents to three tranches of trauma – in January, April and August. January is particularly hectic and depressing – but necessary, because some pupils and students are off to a new start. After emerging from a long Christmas break, parents are compelled to contend with new entry requirements. Some are alien to the school systems, so get traumatised, not just by looking for new places, but also expenditure on uniforms, books, groceries and transport. When children eventually make it on the register, schools habitually extort ‘development’ and ‘bus’ levies from 1st time attendees. However, no sooner has the dust settled than parents are summoned to ‘consultation days’. This safari demands additional expenditure on transport and tucks. At times, some parents have to cope with children emotionally drained by the new learning environment. In some, if not most cases, so-called private schools are daring enough to demand that parents collect children for mid-term breaks soon after. What chaos!

The adage time flies applies, because Easter and Independence holidays ‘shorten’ 1st Terms and before we know it, our children are commandeered back home in April. Oh, how I wish I could sit academics professors Caiphus Nziramasanga and Steve Hanke in one tent to assist me unpack this cruel paradox. I would not have a problem convincing Nziramasanga that this first school holiday is as disruptive as it is nonsensical. For two reasons. First, the students have gained momentum in their ‘new’ learning cycle. They have just emerged from a long holiday only a few months back so why kill the learning rhythm. What ‘rest’ would they need? Hanke would find it uneconomic for parents who, barely three months ago scrapped their savings but before they even breathe, their monetary resources are stretched. My submission is that the April/May break should be discarded to allow for continuity and save parents the April ‘reboot’ prompt as they recover from the ‘January disease.’ Schools can commemorate Easter and Independence with their students as parents gather monetary momentum to receive them end of May. This means there is only one holiday in the middle of the year – the Winter Holiday of June and July – a full two months hiatus.

I see major advantages to this prognosis:

1) The continuity of 1st Term from early January to end of May gives both teachers and students sufficient time to exhaust that crucial first part of the syllabus. Moreover, students who wish to write June examinations are in a better state of preparedness. In any case, there are circumstances where some students remain at school for ‘holiday lessons.’ Thus, teachers are relieved of this burden.

2) The fact that parents and guardians emerge from January having been ‘battered’ by the trauma of school opening chaos, February to July periods accord them sufficient time to prepare for the 2nd /Last Term’s fees, uniforms, groceries and transport.

3) June and July are Zimbabwe’s coldest months. Holidays during these two months relieve the burden that schoolchildren – especially at primary level – have to bear in the harsh weather. They avoid opportunistic illness like coughs, colds and flus, besides enjoying study in the comfort of their homes. The sight of ECD and Grade 1 children scampering barefooted along the highway to schools in rural areas, contending with sub-zero morning temperatures depresses me. How cruel can a system be?

4) Teachers, school authorities and the education ministry are also able to use the two-month break for administrative efficiency.

5) The ‘mercantile chaos’ that occurs in shops, banks and transport congests and clogs the systems. Thus limiting this chaos to only December/January and July/August breaks relieves pressure off service providers, not least eliminate the trauma caused by congestion in banks, bus termini and shops.

Inevitably, critics of this radical policy proposition – no doubt with mindsets steeped in orthodox traditionalism – will opine why there are no major financial and social savings from the 2-holiday school calendar. I would assume the loudest dissent would be from those companies that provide goods and services to schools. In Zimbabwe, currency fluctuations are a breeding ground for rent seeking and rampant profiteering. Thus, service providers who benefit from ‘mercantile extortion’ will fervently oppose this idea. The policy change I propose is for the good of us parents and school authorities. In any case, radical change can never be good for everyone. That is reality.

Source: Rejoice Ngwenya

Rejoice Ngwenya is head of liberal think Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (COMALISO)