"It is difficult to imagine the meltdown in the education sector happening in a country that is at peace. You only see this kind of degeneration in countries that are experiencing civil strife or a full-fledged war," Raymond Majongwe, secretary-general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), told IRIN.
"When Zimbabwe attained its independence 28 years ago, the new government inherited an education infrastructure that had been ravaged by war and it was almost like starting afresh, but children managed to attend classes, teachers taught, and examinations were written. Virtually all that has stopped," he said.
Zimbabwe's economic slide began in earnest in 2000 and the country is now battling an official annual inflation rate of 231 million percent and unemployment of more than 80 percent, with the prospect that more than 5 million people - nearly half the population - will need food assistance in the first quarter of 2009, according to the UN.
Education policies adopted by the government after 1980 boosted the sector, giving Zimbabwe a literacy rate of more than 96 percent - one of the continent's highest. "In retrospect, nothing that has been happening over the years comes near the crisis that we face this year," Majongwe said.
Soon after independence from Britain, President Robert Mugabe's government adopted a variety of strategies to boost education, which received one of the biggest allocations in the budget. The number of schools increased, improving accessibility even in hard-to-reach areas; working conditions for teachers were improved and specialist teachers were sent to other countries for training.
Now the education system, once so highly regarded, has disintegrated, with an estimated 45,000 teachers leaving the profession since 2004.
"There was no learning that took place this year, which opened with teachers embarking on industrial action because of poor salaries. The situation was made worse by the fact that the majority of teachers did not turn up, having elected to look for greener pastures in other countries," Majongwe said.
The first term in 2008, which usually runs from January to April, ended in March because general elections were held that month. Widespread post-election violence prevented schools from opening, and the ruling ZANU-PF party's youth militias targeted teachers; school buildings were often used as bases for Mugabe supporters.
Children spent most of the second term without learning, Majongwe said, because of politically motivated violence, a shortage of teachers and strike action. No meaningful learning is currently taking place, as pupils have to pay teachers to give them private lessons; those who cannot afford to pay are left out.
"Normally, at this time of the year, schools would be busy with examinations ... but it would be grossly unfair to conduct them, given that there was hardly any learning. Examinations should just be cancelled this year," Majongwe said.
He said a PTUZ survey found there were only 23 days of normal learning this year, and projected a pass rate of about 3 percent if examinations were held. "That would affect our rating internationally, because no country takes seriously the products of a country with such a pass rate."
The absence of a substantive government has compounded the situation, as the education ministry is being run by an acting minister, Flora Buka, who recently said examinations should proceed in late October. Majongwe said schools had yet to receive timetables, and "it would be a miracle if there were any teachers to supervise those examinations."
A member of the state universities council, who declined to be named, told IRIN that "All the seven state universities have almost ground to a halt. They are failing to open for the new semester because they have not been able to publish the results for last term on time, and employees are refusing to go back to work, citing poor salaries.
"In the case of one of the universities, the management has sent an appeal to workers to report for duty in order to do a head count, so as to determine who is still around, as employees now simply go away without resigning, sometimes taking the keys with them," the representative commented.
"Indeed, the universities are receiving hardly anything from the parent ministry, and it seems as though a number of graduation ceremonies scheduled to take place this year will ... [not be held] because of lack of financial support," he said.
Samson Chivanga, a secondary school teacher in the capital, Harare, told IRIN it was impossible for him to carry out his duties on a "paltry" monthly salary of Z$62,000 (US$1.10), which was enough for two days' transport to and from work.
"We had agreed as a school that, given the unsustainable salaries, pupils should make additional payments to us on a weekly basis, but ministry authorities said that was illegal. Now most of the staff at my school would rather engage in informal trade than report for work, and that has been the case since the beginning of the year," Chivanga said.
He and his colleagues were giving private lessons off the school premises so as to survive in the hyperinflationary environment, and barring those students unable to pay the fees.
"The year 2008 should go down in history as a year in which the Zimbabwe education system came to its knees. It should be recorded as a no-show year. All the gains that the country accrued after independence are being reversed, and that is sad," Chivanga said.
Jane Chirau, a teacher in rural Mudzi, in Mashonaland East Province, said no teaching was taking place in her community. "Teachers are hungry and don't have the energy to teach.
"They have now resorted to fencing gardens for other people to raise money for food, spend three months without visiting the bank because the salaries would only cover bus fare and, in some cases, are travelling to the border with Zambia to work as porters," Chirau said.
Children have also stopped attending school because of hunger and the absence of teachers, and where they do come to school "it is only to receive food donated by non-governmental organisations," she said.
John Muranda, who lives in Harare, has enrolled his daughter a private school and she will write examinations marked by a UK examining board. "I consider myself lucky that I could afford to register her with an outside examinations board," he told IRIN. "But there are thousands of parents out there who don't have the money to do the same."