Sunday, 5 February 2017

What does a well-managed school look like in Malawi?

Every so often I stop and think about what I have written about Malawi. It is oh so easy to appear to be continually negative and despairing. However, of course there are positives as well. There are schools which provide beneficial environments for learning, and not just in the privileged urban or private sectors. Here is a guided tour around a primary school somewhere in the middle of what seemed to me to be 'nowhere', out in the Central West region of the country. I make no comment on the quality of the teaching and learning which was going on. Rather it was the general appearance and environment which struck me.

Once we had left the tarmac road, we had driven for a couple of hours anyway along a red dirt track which led on and on as if we were on the way to Zambia. Every so often we passed settlements and trading centres, all surrounded by agricultural land dug into parallel mounds for growing potatoes, sweet or 'Irish'. Sometimes earth had been shaped into bricks to dry in the sun, or long bunches of grass were stacked, waiting to replace the old thatch, as in the picture below right.


The houses were neat and tidy, with the compounds well swept. Each house was slightly raised above the ground, so that they wouldn't become waterlogged during the rainy season. The only light and ventilation came through the door, as there were rarely any but the smallest windows. Nobody sits inside the house unless they are ill or it is after dark, though even then people will gather around a fire and talk rather than go inside. Anyway, windows let in mosquitos, so tend to be blocked up if they exist.

Out here, most of the houses were one room constructions, some bigger and smarter than others, as you would expect. The most impressive houses were red brick, with precious corrugated iron roofs, far more watertight and substantial than those made of mud and thatch.

Outside most of them women were carrying out their routine tasks, cleaning, cooking, carrying water. I tend to avoid taking pictures of people whose permission I have not asked, so not much sign of them here.

However, it was the school we'd come to see. Immediately we parked, I could tell that it was more solid than many of the buildings I had come across. The latrines also looked well built. You may just be able to make out the small building on the right of the picture, with a ventilation pipe protruding from the roof: one of the VIP latrines, as they are known.

Decorative flowers and bushes surrounded the buildings. The top of the walls had even been painted with designs, something I have not seen very often. The metal window grilles had also been painted.

You will be pleased to know that the school had been built by our own UK Department for Internal Development (DfID), with the deliberate intention of making it a more attractive environment for learning than is usually the case and also to attract teachers to work in one of the more remote areas of the country.

I for one am very happy for my taxes to be used for this purpose!

When we went inside we could see immediately that the classrooms were well furnished, with professionally made desks and benches and good quality green chalkboards. The floors had been swept clean, a task which children do on a rota using the usual homemade grass brooms which they bring from home as part of the parental contribution to education (see below).

You may have noticed that the classrooms are half empty, which is unusual. They are usually packed with children. I can make no comment on this particular school. However, many of the schools we visited during the hot dry season had poor attendance. The whole country was suffering from a water shortage. Children were being kept at home so they could make longer and longer journeys to gather water, often from unsafe sources. Many families did not have enough to eat as their crops had failed. Hungry children often miss school as they do not have the energy to walk for the hour or more it may take them to get there.

Solid cupboards and shelving had been built into the rooms, on the left  for use as a 'shop' and on the right for general storage.










Teachers in this school had made real efforts to provide additional resources, making their own hanging shelving and display areas, for example, as on the left. On the right you can see a collection of pebbles for use in  mathematics.











Below left you can see some clay models laid out to dry on a rack. On the right is a bucket of water and a mug, the first time I have actually seen water supplied in the classroom itself.














Astonishingly, each pair of classrooms was separated by a preparation room for teachers, the first and only time I have seen this design in Malawi. As we chatted with their teachers, the pupils looked curiously through the open door. If some of the children in these photos look quite grown up, that may actually be the case. Classes in Malawi are not organised according to age but according to progress.

Over 20% of  children may repeat at least one class if they fail the annual examination. They may also repeat if their parents can't afford to pay the exam fee or  to receive the marked scripts, which count as 'reports' for parents. Furthermore, children may miss months or terms of school if their parents can't afford the (unofficial) school fees. Primary (not secondary) schooling is free in Malawi; however, schools often charge what may be called 'development' fees, or similar. They come back to school when their parents can afford it. However, that means that many pupils have great gaps in their schooling.

Teachers generally keep a note of attendance on the chalkboard.  In this school, however, the teachers kept paper records - one of the very few times when I have seen this, together with records of progress and attainment and also records of work.

























More commonly seen are the records which the headteacher displayed on the notice boards in his study: total enrolment for each class and performance in the Primary School Leaving Certificate examination.











Also required are the displays of the school's vision and mission, though I am not sure that Malawi needs even more 'reproductive citizens'!

The school's improvement plan must also be on display, so parents can see what money is being provided by the authorities through the School Improvement Grant (SIG), and how it is to be spent. Although in the UK we tend to regard the improvement plan as a method of ensuring that learning and teaching improves whether or not money is available, in Malawi it is financial expenditure which matters. The plan will therefore often focus on infrastructure.

The priorities for the School Improvement Plan (SIP) must match goals in the National Education Sector Plan (NESP). The three themes and the amounts allocated to each theme in this school are: Quality and Relevance (K359,266 or £460); Access and Equity (K287,412 or £ 368); and Governance and Management (K71,854 or £92).

The School Management Committee (SMC) is responsible for putting together the SIP, working with the headteacher. The SMC comprises representatives of the parent body, the local community and support groups such as the Mothers' Group. Secondary schools generally do not have improvement plans. Nor, indeed, do they have SMCs, because they do not have strong links with a local community, although they do have Boards of Governors.

As in Scotland, the primary SIP has to be reviewed and signed off by the district, usually the primary education adviser. And in effective schools, the targets are systematically addressed, progress monitored and improvement achieved. As a result, children's education is supported and their potential fulfilled.

That is what makes an effective school.

Well, it doesn't always work out quite like that. Nevertheless, there are times when one visits a school and thinks, 'Well, this is a good place for children to learn.'


And that was certainly the case out there in the remoter regions of Central West Malawi. I think we Britons should be proud of the fact that we paid for the building of this school and that local people built on our gift to create a positive environment which shows that children are valued and which encourages them to learn.



You may also be interested in the following post:

Tagging along with Link on a primary school visit

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