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Bill Annandale, St John’s College, Zimbabwe

Bill Annandale has been headmaster at the all-boys independent school, St John’s College, in Harare, since 2011. Despite Zimbabwe’s shortcomings, he says he’s optimistic about what the country will be able to offer the future generation of foreign educated professionals.

The PIE: When you look back over the last five years, what’s changed?

Even if it is not in my lifetime, but for the generation that is coming through, I do have a lot of hope for them

BA: We have made a lot of changes in the way that we look at things because we very much subscribe to the idea that every child should have an opportunity to succeed. Just this year has seen the launch of our Da Vinci programme, which is, for want of a better expression, like a supportive learning environment. We can create challenges for the more gifted learners, support learning gaps for people who may have them and also for less academic boys to give them the bridging knowledge that they need in each subject. We have our own tuition centre, and a mentor system. It is still in its infancy but it is really all about inclusive education.

We also look at the opportunities we can create for vocational training and qualifications which are sadly lacking in the country as a whole. We have got various ideas on that one, but that is a bit more of a longer-term project. And we do the Cambridge International iGCSEs and AS and A-levels as our core academic programmes. Really our message is to produce sound academic outcomes for everybody at any academic level and to maximise the qualification opportunities for people who may not be all that academic.

Everybody thinks ‘I need to have a university degree’, but you still need your plumbers, your carpenters and electricians and people who can cook and do administration

The PIE: Is there industry to support vocational education graduates?

BA: Yes, I think so. A lot of them are struggling at the moment but take a longer-term view. I wouldn’t say the traditional sort of manufacturing industries are all that good to look at but certainly in construction and maintenance, there is always a need for skills there, and in the motor industry, also in hospitality and tourism.

The country is a fantastic place to come and visit, despite the downturn at the moment. All the ancillary services that make society tick along, that layer of opportunities seldom gets promoted. Everybody thinks ‘I need to have a university degree,’ but you still need your plumbers, your carpenters and electricians and people who can cook and do administration. That is the area we are looking at. So for example now we have a club in the afternoons that is sponsored by Toyota Zimbabwe, where the boys can learn how to service a vehicle, learn what the parts are. It is not only a life skill, but there is genuine interest from some boys who would like to pursue an opportunity there.

The PIE: And in terms of students looking to go overseas to study, how have you seen that develop?

BA: Traditionally from Zimbabwe, at the college here, if you take our typical cohort of leavers each year, you will find that a good 20-25% of them who do want to take on tertiary education will travel to western type institutions.

A lot of them still opt for South African universities, because it is traditionally what they know and also with our exchange rate using the US dollar, it is a lot cheaper. When you look at the fees, you can go to a South African university of repute for less than half the price of any other university. But I think there is more and more interest in regional and overseas opportunities because of difficulties of getting into South African universities, because demand is increasing on those facilities from their own students.

The PIE: A lot of the students I have spoken to are very intent on graduating and coming back to Zimbabwe to help move the country along. Is there a concern among educators or parents of brain drain, that students will go away and not come back?

BA: It is a big concern because around the year 2000 we lost by some estimates two to three million people to the diaspora and typically what has happened is that the kids that leave don’t come back. It is a massive blow to the future of the country. But the situations and conditions have to be right for them to find work and to make a contribution.

It is really interesting to note though how many young and not so young people actually do come back. They are not in the numbers that we need, but I think we need economic opportunities to improve, changes of policy and so on before that will happen on the scale we need.

There is more and more interest in regional and overseas opportunities because of difficulties of getting into South African universities

I am sure like in any other society people will return to their home bases because that is what they know, if they perceive that the opportunities are improving. There are a lot of young doctors for example. I had to go and have a scan done recently and it was done by a young doctor who qualified overseas and just wants to live here because he actually loves the lifestyle and the educational facilities are still very good here.

The PIE: Are you optimistic about the future?

BA: I am always optimistic. I was born here, countries go through their phases. This country in particular has been through a series of phases since the early 1960s, some up, some down, very down, but these days people really just want to have stability and opportunity. The message behind the instability that’s always created in places like this is really running out of legs at the moment.  But there is still quite a long way to go. We can’t look at it as if it is going to happen next week, even if it is not in my lifetime, but for the generation that is coming through, I do have a lot of hope for them.

They will make a huge contribution to a country that actually really, really needs it. If you look at the infrastructure, the main highways need redoing, dams need rebuilding or new ones need building. There are plenty of opportunities for people in those fields who are prepared to come here in a stable environment.

The PIE: How big is China’s influence on education in the country?

BA: From our community here, we actually have quite a few Chinese students in the college at the moment, more than ever, although they are still not a lot in terms of pure numbers. Yes, there have been a few students who have gone over to China for various courses and opportunities that have come their way. I think these days people appreciate it is worth looking at, as much as anything else, but having been an English colony, it’s the English way of doing things that most people understand and they like to stay in their comfort zones.

The PIE: And do the Chinese students integrate well with the Zimbabwean students?

BA: Oh yes, in fact one of our upper sixth top students is Chinese. He is a prefect and he is in our pipe band, he is very, very active and a great guy and has made a great contribution to the college. A number of the students come here and they cannot speak a word of English, but their parents say ‘Well don’t worry, they will get on with it’ and after quite a bit of difficulty, we find them picking it up and making the effort. And in fact, we teach Mandarin here as well. We are the only school in the country that offers Mandarin.

We are the only school in the country that offers Mandarin

The PIE: Is Mandarin a popular course? Does it sell out?

BA: Because of teaching resources we have one full class in each year group, so now we are reaching the third year and they will go to iGCSE level in Mandarin. It’s been very popular, but they are channeled in that direction. They can either do French or Mandarin as a second language, in addition to the local language which they have to do.

The PIE: Does your school organise any sort of cultural exchanges with overseas students?

BA: We do as much as we can. We have got some Rotary exchange students at the moment, one from France, one from the United States and they have fitted in incredibly well. I think they’ve had a great year and we have loved having them here.

In fact, here on the campus, we have people of different colours, different faiths and so on, so it is pretty multicultural anyway and they learn from, at this stage, to be tolerant and to try and learn about other people and other people’s points of view. It prepares them a little bit better for interaction in workplaces and campuses where they will find even more diversity.

The PIE: Do you have students from all walks of life at the school or is it mostly just wealthy families that are able to afford it?

BA: We are by Zimbabwean standards, priced a lot higher than government institutions, but then we are self funding and we don’t operate for profit. There are no shareholders and it is a not a business as such.

In the past, businesses would sponsor employees’ children to come to schools like this. With the current economic environment and various tax law changes, that is not happening very much now, so we do have a wide spectrum of income groups.

Some really really struggle, but this is the choice they want to make- to invest in their children and we try to help them as much as we can. If people come to us and they can’t afford the fees outright, we try to find a plan for them because we see merit in the kids. We don’t just look at whether they got 90% for maths and English, we want to know can they sing, can they dance, can they speak, do they play a sport, have they had any leadership positions in their previous school, what value can they add to us. We go by that.

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