Making educational choices: Boarding or Upper Top?

By John Chitakure
I didn’t go to a boarding school, and would not have said no, if the opportunity had availed itself. It didn’t. That’s life. I vividly remember my last year at Chitakai Primary School when other students were jostling for Form One places at boarding schools such as Gokomere, Malipati, Lundi, Berejena, Zimuto, Msiso, etc. The few lucky students who had already got places at such schools became untouchable. Even our teacher gave them some special type of respect that was not accorded to the mere tongorowetas of our class like me. The good teacher started calling them by the names of their prospective boarding schools such as Mr. Malipati, Mr. Lundi, Mr. Zimuto, Mr. Pamushana, and unfortunately, there was never a Miss, Chakuti. Although I had an idea of what a boarding school looked like, I don’t remember envying the privileged students. I knew very well my station in life, and I had no time to waste crying over things that were beyond me. I was at peace with myself. Growing up poor, and my mother, had taught a valuable philosophy of life—blossom where you are planted. I learnt to accept my economic status, and to make the best out of it. Some of my readers might think that I wasn’t ambitious enough, I was, but ambition should know its limits. Yes, the sky is the limit, but one must know where his sky is located.
At that time (1985), boarding schools were among the oldest and better funded high schools in Zimbabwe. They were expensive too. Most of these were run by missionaries, and a few by the government. They had better learning facilities. They had electricity and tapped water. They had bigger classrooms and modern furniture. They had a surplus of learning resources such as books. Because of that, they attracted better qualified teachers, some of whom were not only experts in their subjects, but also examiners, although most exams were set and graded at Cambridge University. Consequently, the competition to get into a boarding school was stiff. But, it was only a competition of the “haves,” not for church mice. Since most of these school enrolled only bright students, they had higher passing rates at Ordinary level, which made them very attractive to parents, who craved the academic success of their kids.
On the other educational spectrum, there were Upper Tops or Council Secondary schools most of which had mushroomed after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Most of these were the opposite of the boarding schools. Students commuted to these schools. Some were far away from the homes of the students. Some of these upper tops were not adequately funded, which resulted in poor infrastructure—no adequate teachers’ houses, no electricity, no tapped water, no efficient transport, etc. Hence, more qualified teachers shunned these schools. These schools’ Ordinary Level passing rates were very low. Of course, the caliber of students enrolled at those schools also contributed to the pass rates.
Eventually, through a combination of handwork and miracles I pulled through high school. I became a teacher. I had the privilege of teaching at three different upper tops, and one Boarding School. I know what I know. I still don’t understand why they were called upper Tops, and what it meant. I know that most Upper Tops have improved in terms of the quality of education offered, learning resources, and their infrastructure. I know for sure that although most boarding schools still have better learning facilities than most upper tops, boarding schools too have disadvantages. For instance, some don’t give enough food to students. Some don’t have adequate dormitories and students are overcrowded. Some have poor sanitation. Some are too expensive. There is bullying at some of them, particularly for students who are less gifted academically, and the little ones. Some have bad and abusive teachers, who masquerade as demi-gods. Some of these schools are very expensive, despite the Government’s control of the fees that are charged.
As the new school year draws closer, and parents are worried about their failure to send their kids to boarding schools, here is my advice, particularly now when the economic situation is bad. Send your children to a school that you can afford. Now, all schools have qualified teachers. Teachers are teachers. They are trained in the same institutions. It is a myth to think that teachers at a boarding school are better qualified than those at an upper top. In fact, many teachers at upper tops are smarter than many at a boarding school. At upper tops, teachers deal with kids, that would have been rejected by Boarding Schools because of their not-so-attractive Grade Seven Exam results, or the Entrance Tests. Upper Tops teachers, take these kids by the hand, love them, teach them, and inspire them to face the future with boldness, creativity, and hope. More so, if you impose your child upon a Boarding School without enough pocket money, you would make that kid suffer. Your kid will become a beggar, and would even become vulnerable to being bullied by both teachers and schoolmates.
If you can’t afford sending your child to a boarding School, please, send her to an Upper Top. Provide her with things that are lacking at the school. Buy her a computer, books, and other necessary educational resources. Support your local Upper Top, so that it can assist your kid in the best way possible. Don’t frog-march your kid to a boarding school, if you can’t afford to pay the fees. Ambition should know its limits. There is nothing that a Boarding School provides that an upper top or even you, cannot possibly offer for the success of your kid. In fact, it’s a myth that Boarding Schools are better than Upper Tops. Yes, they were, in the past, but things have changed now. Don’t starve yourselves and other kids that you do have, by chasing a myth. Yes, it’s a myth. Take it from me.
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