Sunday, 5 April 2015

Keeping the spark of learning burning bright in secondary schools

I was back in class the other day: Senior 2 in a national secondary school of good standing, all boys. The twenty-four students were considering the properties of ethanol and butanol and various other, quite possibly hazardous, substances. They were completely engaged in the topic. They worked things out for themselves, asked questions and waved their hands vigorously in the air to catch the teacher's attention. Without prompting, they gleefully made the connection between the chemicals they were working with and the dubious alcoholic substances brewed and distilled in their villages.

When given test tubes and bottles containing various types of alcohol, they were in their element. They carefully followed their teacher's handwritten instructions, observing what happened when you mixed alcohol with water. All this was carried out on their ordinary classroom desks, with no safety equipment whatsoever.  Nevertheless, there was no messing around. Learners were far too interested for that.

Well, the class was small - secondary schools in Malawi are selective and national secondary schools are very selective. Also, it was the first day of term and some pupils had not yet arrived. 

To get as far as secondary education you have to be among the 38% who complete the difficult journey from Primary 1 to Primary 8 without dropping out. You then have to be among the 70% of these lucky ones who pass Malawi’s Primary School Leaving Certificate. And then you have to be among the tiny proportion of this successful group to be selected for one of the government’s secondary schools. 

The percentages of drop out in primary schools vary across the country. In rural areas, only 16% of the children complete primary school, compared with 42% in urban areas. 55% of the boys who drop out do so because their families are poor. 25% of the girls drop out because they are pregnant. 16% of girls in primary schools are victims of child marriage, another form of sexual abuse. Many suffer both rape and marriage, sometimes within the same week.

Nevertheless, some hardworking and fortunate young people do make it to secondary school. National secondary schools are situated in various parts of the country but draw their pupils from right across it, hence they are all boarding schools. Civil servants allocate children to schools on the basis of their results. If you don’t get into a national school, then one option is private provision. Private schools can be expensive, prestigious and reasonably well resourced. They can also be cheap, have poor reputations, minimal equipment and lacklustre teaching.

Another option is to go to one of the locally administered government-funded secondary schools. Some of these are all or partly boarding, some are day schools only and some provide boarding only for girls, for walking to and from school can be a risky business. 

If you cannot manage to scrape into these schools, then community secondary schools are your only option: generally poor quality and with reputations to match. Nevertheless, they provide a precious education for those who have been left with very few choices and chances of educational success. 

The young women I met at the community secondary school on the left were lively and bright. They were determined to do well and try to get into a teacher training college. Most of their teachers hadn't turned up at school that day, but they were still in school studying. If girls lose their chances at this stage, then marriage is the only option. Some of them will be removed from school against their will anyway, if a good bride price is on offer. Teacher absence has a direct impact on girls' futures. The girls were passionate in letting me know how important education was for them and how resentful they were about their teachers' frequent absences.

However, the boys whose chemistry class I was were the very able – and lucky – ones. Their parents had scraped together the school fees, 8,000 kwacha per term: about £2, a tiny amount to us but a huge sum in what the World Bank has recently called the 'poorest country in the world'. Most government schools have much higher fees. The children came from very modest backgrounds: there was not much uniform in evidence. Even then, some of the families were in arrears and needed support from benefactors. I know people who are supporting several children at secondary school in addition to their own. 

Some of these secondary schools go back many years to colonial times, when they were run and staffed by expatriate British schoolteachers. Many of the most notable political figures in Malawi used to attend them, and their reputation extended beyond Malawi's borders. Sadly, their own children now probably go to private schools. Nevertheless, the young people at national secondary schools are expected to become successful young professionals and entrepreneurs.

Learning can be a bit of a struggle, however. While the government is trying to upgrade facilities such as science laboratories in all state schools, aspects of education which we take for granted, like the supply and safe storage of chemicals often fall well short of the ideal. The cobwebs alone tell us how rarely the available materials are used in practical experiments. The members of the boys' class I witnessed were among the fortunate ones.

Somebody in Scotland amused me the other day by saying, 'I suppose there aren't many computers in primary schools.' 

'No, I answered,' I've never seen a primary school with electricity.'

Well, the situation in secondary schools is not much better. Few if any classrooms have electricity, though administrative offices will usually have both electricity and IT. Solar power may help but is unlikely to provide enough to power more than a laptop for the headteacher and a few mobile phones.

What about the use of computers in learning? Well, some are donated, perhaps by charitable organisations in countries like ours. They will be located in a central classroom with electricity. However, such donations are a mixed blessing. In countries with high temperatures and thick dust, hardware soon breaks down. There are no technicians. 

Second-hand computers donated from across the world may have a variety of software, some very old.  Who can afford to upgrade them? And, of course, anti-virus software is conspicuous by its absence. Even the professionals I work with have little personal access to computers and those they have are often riddled with viruses. In a country where access to wifi is expensive and sporadic, memory sticks are useful for transferring data, but not in Malawi where viruses spread rapidly through offices. 

None of the donated computers in the community secondary school on the right worked. IT has a very positive contribution to make to learning. Access to computers can help children to learn when teacher supply is a problem, but it requires significant investment and ongoing maintenance. While we were in Uganda, the government brought in a law banning donated second-hand computers. Sounds harsh, but you can understand why.

But what about other resources? How do keen young scholars expand their understanding and explore the world beyond their own direct experience? Well, the obvious way is through reading. As you can imagine, most children are highly unlikely to own books. Even text books are in short supply, with sometimes as many as a dozen students sharing one book. So the provision of libraries is key. And, indeed, most government secondary schools do have libraries. 

Libraries vary in size and content, very much dependent on contributions from benefactors. The library on the left is particularly impressive. It is housed in a large spacious building, with rows of bookshelves and tables for pupils to work on.

However, even the poorly resourced community secondary school below had a respectable selection of books, admittedly mostly textbooks but with some donations as well.
Schools in the UK often want to help schools in developing countries in practical ways. One common approach is to donate unwanted textbooks or general reading matter that have outlived their usefulness. Such books, however, may be a mixed blessing.

Here are examples of the books I found in one secondary school library.

The Makers of History: a shelfful. Here you can see volumes on Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus and Cleopatra, unlikely to be key figures in the secondary history syllabus in Britain, let alone Malawi.

There's Thomas Carlyle - History of Frederick the Great, but, alas, only Volume VII. The Challenge of New Testament Ethics is not necessarily a riveting read when you're fourteen. A more energising experience might, however, be provided by The Flight of the East Prussian Horses. The Young Traveller in New Zealand may, perhaps, whet the appetite of some young explorer. I'm not sure how far he would get with Bed and Breakfast USA 1990, however. 

Not all the shelves were filled with such light reading, however. Some contained useful textbooks, Whitmarsh Complete French Course for example, on which I honed my own linguistic skills fifty years ago, though, perhaps, from a later edition than the one in this African library. 1938: it's probably a first edition and valuable, who knows!

Pax et Imperium - A Middle School Latin Reader, also 1938 - not sure of the takers for that one or, indeed, for Schiller's Poems.

Then there's Hume's Treatise, essential reading for the budding junior philosopher.

The International Who's Who of 1959. Also from 1959, bound copies of the New Scientist.

Surely these are not donations. They must be old colonial stuff, no doubt left behind by the bluff pipe-smoking, tweed-clad schoolmasters of the early 1960s as they finally boarded their planes for Blighty following Independence. I can imagine one of them drooling over hiscopy of The Grammar Schools - their continuing tradition 1660-1714 and regretfully letting the volume drop from his fingers as he realises he has exceeded his baggage allowance

What about the more recent donations, then. Surely they are more interesting or, indeed, useful? Well, yes, if needlework is your 'thing' then I'm sure the Fabric Almanac will come in handy. I don't remember seeing any sewing machines in this boys' boarding school, however.

There were, of course, what looked at first sight to be more appropriate reading matter: shelves of GCSE science text books from the eighties and nineties. Multiple copies of Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger, no doubt the set text for some A Level class in the Midlands. And shelf after shelf of evangelical tracts with a North American provenance - ideal brain-washing material.

Not all books are ancient, but many donations are not linked in any way with the current Malawian curriculum. You may think to yourself that all pupils need to read broadly and hence will benefit anyway. True, but these pupils don't have enough time to take turns to borrow and then read their way through their own text books n their second language, let alone mug up on the curriculum of a country on the other side of the planet.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to donate the money it costs to ship such books from Britain to a fund that would buy African text books published for African pupils, with illustrations which feature young people just like them. Such books could even match their curriculum! I wonder how British pupils would react if a Malawian school donated shabby twenty-year old textbooks to them as an act of charity.

The Malawian secondary pupils I have observed have been intent on learning, despite all the difficulties they may face. Indeed, they need to be studious to make up for these difficulties. Teachers may arrive late or not at all. A lot of their learning is theoretical. I sat through a lesson on Forces and Motion without a single practical demonstration of either forces or motion. The colleague I was with listed all the resources which the teacher could have gathered or made out of local materials, but didn't. He did, however, spend a long time waving his arms in the air to illustrate 'flighting in birds', an expression solemnly written down in notebook after notebook.

Many day pupils arrive in class having walked for miles, hungry and thirsty. The boarders, however, won't be hungry, or no more so than most teenagers. However, their diet can be monotonous: nsima (cornmeal porridge) and beans day after day. Meat or chicken is a rare treat. School strikes are more frequent in Malawi than in Britain. One of the common complaints is the quality and quantity of food. In one boarding school I visited, it was the lack of water. In another it was amazing the pupils were NOT on strike as not only was the water supply so intermittent it was virtually non existent, but there was no sanitation for either pupils or teachers. No, none at all.

When the water supply is working, it will run through rows of basins, not much different from old-fashioned British boarding schools of the nineteen fifties, with their bracing cold showers.

You may have to squat to use the lavatory, but at least it flushes - when there is a water. Rooms are much like student bedrooms here, though with bunk- rather than single-beds and twice the number of occupants. However, this hostel was perfectly satisfactory and probably far more spacious and comfortable than the homes many of the pupils came from.

The students are far more independent than their British counterparts. They carry out all the cleaning of classrooms, bedrooms and bathrooms themselves. They are also responsible for doing their own laundry. Here you can see the washing spread out to dry, bedding as well as clothing.

So, hard work and determination are the order of the day in Malawian secondary schools. These bright confident young people are a pleasure to talk to. Of course, when I walk into school, they think that I - being white - can have a transformational effect on their lives and futures. Sadly, that is not the case. Any transformation - of their own lives and of their country - must come from them.

I sit in as learners talk to my colleagues about their most effective teachers and their weakest. The ones who listen to them and the ones who don't even bother turning up. They say they wish that they could do experiments in class as they know they have to do them in the exam. They wish they didn't have to share books. They wish the teachers didn't double up classes in order to have another free period. Some talk about being beaten if they can't do the work. Some talk about the teachers who never mark their exercise books. These concerns and complaints are genuine. Their secondary education is the only chance they have. Beneath everything is a strong sense of the value of learning and of the advantages education can bring which many of our own learners have all but lost.

It is not all the teachers' 'fault'. There is certainly low morale among the teaching profession here. A combination of low salaries, the payment of which is sometimes delayed by many months, and difficult working conditions made worse by financial cuts has led to continuing unrest. There are good teachers, no doubt, but expectations are low and, some would say, falling. Things are difficult.

So, who keeps the spark of learning bright in Malawi's secondary schools, then?  The learners, of course.

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