Thursday, 24 July 2014

Helping communities to help their schools: the work of Link

Until the mid-nineties, only a quarter or so of children went to school in Malawi. Those who were lucky enough to do so went to schools which had a good reputation across southern Africa. Levels of literacy were relatively high. These schools were almost all government-aided or had been set up by missionaries. However, now that state education is free and open to all, the schools are swamped by the numbers of pupils enrolling and, as a result, conditions for learning have deteriorated significantly. This is not just a problem in Malawi; it is true across the developing world. The UN Charter for the Rights of the Child enshrines the right to basic education for all children. The Millenium Development Goals and Education for All provide targets to measure the achievement of this aim. What is emerging, however, is a potential tension between providing universal education and ensuring it is an education worth having.

That does not mean that everything about education in Malawi is negative. What it does mean is that identifying the strengths of what is already there and planning how to build on these can be challenging.

So, what are the main strengths of schools in Malawi?

Probably the greatest strength of all is that the children really want to be there. They want to learn. They want to do well. They want to make something of their lives, using the education they receive. Many schools in Britain would love to have learners as committed and motivated as the children in Malawi.

School children, particularly those at the primary stages, are also generally very well behaved, especially considering the circumstances in which they learn. They usually show respect to their teachers and do what they are told.

So, what are the challenges under which schools operate?

Even getting to school can be a challenge. Many children walk long distances in heat or cold and through dust or mud depending on the time of year. Their journeys may be difficult and unsafe.

Hunger and thirst.
Most schools do not provide school breakfasts or lunches, and many children may not eat before they leave home, or may eat little and remain hungry all day, which makes it difficult to learn. Some schools may not even have a borehole so that children can have a drink of water.

The impact of poor health and nutrition. Poor nutrition results in lassitude and difficulties concentrating. Children may find it difficult to take in and remember what they are learning. Poor nutrition also makes children more susceptible to disease. Children may have repeated bouts of malaria. Poor sanitation and unsafe water may result in waterborne diseases and endemic chronic conditions like worms which affect children's overall state of health. Rates of disability may be higher than in the west. Children may be born HIV positive, which also makes them liable to suffer from diseases like tuberculosis and develop infections and general debility. They may have to take medication to control HIV infection every day of their lives. Absence through illness may mean they miss work at school and find it difficult to catch up.

Absenteeism and dropout among learners.
Attendance decreases as learners get older and eventually, usually around Standard 4, learners start to drop out. Often less than half the children who started in Standard 1 finish school in Standard 8. Learners may find the difficulties and discomfort of school too much. They may give up if they fall behind because of absence or because the classes are too large and they do not understand the work. Their parents may keep them at home to work in the fields or look after younger siblings.

Issues relating to gender.
Girls, in particular, drop out because they may have inadequate sanitary protection and find managing menstruation difficult and, indeed, embarrassing in schools with poor sanitation. They may also be married off as soon as they have reached puberty. Girls may be victims of sexual harassment and, indeed, rape and have children very early in their lives, sometimes before their bodies are mature enough.

Inadequate school buildings and insufficient teachers.
Classes may be held outside because there are not enough classrooms, so learning takes place under the heat and brightness of the sun. When it rains, the children may not be able to get to school and if they do, learning can be very uncomfortable. Classes are very large by British standards - classes of 150 or 200 are common.

Issues relating to family circumstances
The long term impact of serious illnesses like AIDS, malaria and serious infections results in high numbers of orphans and child-headed households. Far more children have suffered bereavement and in particular, lost their parents, than in western societies. Such children may have to work to support themselves and their siblings or be dependent on the kindness or sense of duty of relatives or neighbours who may be very poor themselves and have little to spare. Poverty may mean that children are poorly dressed and may come to school without exercise books or other learning requirements.

Absenteeism and late coming by teachers.
Teachers are very poorly paid in Malawi and may have to earn money by other means to make ends meet and support and educate their own children. They usually grow their own food and may spend time cultivating their gardens - no long evenings in which to do this! They may have second or third jobs, like running shops or taxi services. They may travel a long way to get to school, and arrive late, unless they are provided with a house at the school. They may take time off to collect their salary or go to the bank. If the teacher is absent, children may be left to their own devices and will probably drift away from school.

Teaching methods and class management.
Many teachers may be untrained and unqualified. Even those who have been trained, have had a shorter training than in the west. Primary teachers spend one year in college and one year as a full-time student teacher. They then take full responsibility for a class of over a hundred.  Using active approaches to learning and assessing children's work can be very demanding in such circumstances. Although corporal punishment is no longer acceptable, beating may still go on and sometimes prefects and monitors are allowed to beat other children.
This may sound like an intimidating list of challenges for schools to cope with. And yet visitors to Malawi may be bowled over in some schools by the energy and enthusiasm of the learners and the commitment of the teachers.

You may have noticed that quite a number of the issues listed above are not necessarily related to what the school itself is doing for its children. They are environmental, family or community issues. They are issues with their roots in poverty.

Now despite the help which Malawi receives from the rest of the world, no one is going to be able to wave a magic wand and provide its children with all the advantages and privileges from which children in Britain benefit. However, these children belong to communities and it is principally their communities and families who are  responsible for them. Communities can make all the difference to children's lives and education. This is where LCD comes in: helping communities to work out what their schools need and what they can do to support them.

In Malawi, communities have legal responsibilities for supporting their local schools. School Management Committees, made up of representatives of the community, have formal roles in school governance, planning and budgetary control, while Parent Teacher Associations raise funds and provide other support, much as in British schools. Mothers' Groups support girls' education. Village headmen and local chiefs have significant roles in influencing community views.

The government expects all primary schools in Malawi to produce school improvement plans. Link Community Development (LCD or Link) has developed a unique approach to enabling communities to take active roles in the planning process: the School Performance Review Meeting (SPAM). In my previous post, How well are our schools doing? School Performance Review with LCD, I looked at the work LCD is doing to help Primary Education Advisers (PEAs) to gather information about the quality of the schools in their area. A couple of weeks after this process is finished, the PEAs and school organise a SPAM, a community meeting attended by all the key players during which they start the process of planning for improvement.

Sometimes the meeting is held in a classroom, if the school has one big enough to accommodate everyone. Here are the Mothers' Group with the SMC behind them and some of the teachers on the left.

This school, however, does not have suitable accommodation, and the meeting is held outside.You can see the pupils sitting on the ground and, on their right, the Mothers' Group.

The headteacher chairs the proceedings, supported by the PEAs. Here you can see him welcoming the participants. The camera is there because LCD is filming the proceedings for use in training. This is not normal practice.

After explanations as to the purpose of the meeting and how it is going to be organised, the participants go into groups to discuss what they think the strengths and weaknesses of the school are. Here groups of pupils from different stages prepare to record their views on a sheet of flipchart paper.

This Mothers' Group have made sure they have plenty of privacy for their discussions.

Then it is a time for everyone to share their views. In this school, the teachers record what is said.

The village headmen and SMC sit on chairs at the back, while the women come back and forth with their children, taking their places on the ground.

And plenty of views are expressed. Here a learner makes a few points about the way teachers manage classes.

And here a teacher make his views known.

The chair of the SMC makes comments about the support parents are expected to provide for their children.

The PEAs facilitate discussion and help with the summing up.

The headteacher reports on what the SPR team found during their review. Here one  of the PEAs clarifies a point.

By the end of the meeting, the participants have collated the various views and come up with a list of priorities to form the basis of the school improvement plan.

The LCD approach is an interesting one. Involving all the key parties with both a role and a stake in improving education in a particular school at a public meeting is an effective way of gaining their commitment to the agreed plan. It is also a good way of raising social issues such as children's nutrition and how best to keep girls in school. Airing different perspectives on pedagogical issues may broaden the views of all parties and help them appreciate the factors which contribute to effective learning.

At the end of the day, children belong to their communities so it is only right that those communities are actively involved in planning for their education.

You may also be interested in this account of Link's work in Uganda: Helping communities to improve their schools: a pictorial account of the work of Link Community Development.

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