Monday, 7 August 2017

Taking stock

Whenever I fly out to Malawi, whether via Addis, Nairobi or Johannesburg, I come across the same plane loads of earnest young volunteers all excitedly looking forward to a few weeks ‘doing good’. I sometimes think there must be more helpers than population in Malawi! This comment is not as cynical as it sounds, for I too have been one of those volunteers, not so much in Malawi but in Uganda, and not so young, either. This time I flew British Airways/South African, a more expensive route but one which doesn’t leave you feeling quite so dog tired, though in my case I still found it difficult to put one foot in front of another when I eventually landed at Kamuzu Airport. It is also a bit too expensive for young volunteers, so quieter!

Sitting opposite me on the Heathrow/Johannesburg leg of the journey was a mature woman, slightly older than me. Born in what was once Southern Rhodesia and like many of the more liberal of her generation having lived in Britain from her late teens onwards, she was now retired, with family scattered across the world. An ex-teacher, she had spent her time since retirement volunteering in Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa, all at her own expense. She was now on her way to Johannesburg to provide advice on supporting children on the autism spectrum for staff in a school she knew. Paul Theroux sneeringly called such people and their NGO equivalents ‘agents of virtue’. I prefer the term ‘good people’.

We got talking, as you do when you realise you’re working in related fields though in different contexts. We had reached a similar stage in our lives. Here was I, returning to Malawi for what, for various reasons, may be the last time, and considering what if anything I had achieved. There she was similarly, also coming to the end of her own support activities. Like me, she had reached a state of sometimes near despair that she had accomplished anything at all sustainable, anything which had really made a difference to the futures of those young people whose lives she had touched.

We talked a lot about Uganda, a country which still means a great deal to me though when Stuart and I left it after nearly two and a half years, it was in a spirit of near-frustration. My neighbour told me stories which were so familiar but which leave you wondering what on earth can be done to bring about change.

One such story was of a young primary school teacher. In rural schools in Uganda, Malawi and no doubt other sub-Saharan countries, the ill-qualified or unqualified staff are often demoralised and demotivated, and may apparently demonstrate little commitment to, or empathy for the young learners for whose futures they are responsible. However, there are also individual teachers who are committed, truly care for their children and really want to do a good job. This young Ugandan teacher was one of the latter.

Long story short… with my neighbour’s support and advice this young man’s practice began to change. A sponsored study visit to the UK brought about further professional development. However, on return to Uganda he suffered a breakdown. He had moved too far ahead of his peers. His more developed practice was not welcome. He has since disappeared from the system.

We went on to talk about support for inclusive practices and special needs education. Most of her work had involved children on the autism spectrum, including attempts to stop them being tied to their chairs. Unqualified teachers may have little idea of their role or of how much the young people in their care can actually achieve.

One incident which had left her particularly distressed concerned a young girl in a pre-school institution. The details of bullying, beatings and self-harm are too graphic to recount here. The child, clearly on the autism spectrum, was accused by the headteacher of being possessed by demons which had to be beaten out of her. Not an uncommon scenario in a country where weekly Sunday TV programmes used to show children and adults with special needs being ritually humiliated and physically attacked in the name of Christianity: ‘casting out demons’.

Now, I am not recounting such stories to point to deficiencies in Ugandan culture or to the superiority of western approaches to special needs education. After all, it is not that long ago that such practices were common in Britain, and similar excesses still happen though, we hope, these days are more likely to be picked up and dealt with.

No, several things occurred to me as my neighbour spoke. One was, of course, the difficulty in achieving anything sustainable in educational development, especially within a different cultural setting. VSO used to talk about patience, about making ‘baby steps’, about taking the long view. All true. Difficult, however, for educationists like ourselves who know that children usually only have one chance at education. We find it hard to tolerate the 40% of Malawian children who are stunted and whose intellectual capacities are permanently damaged. We can’t bear to see the bright enthusiastic children in Standard 1 knowing that only 30% of them may make it through to Standard 8 and even fewer to the end of secondary education. We want change now, not in ten years’ time.

Another thought is of the sometimes negative impact of Christianity on former colonies. Now, don’t get me wrong. Both my aeroplane neighbour and I are at least intermittent churchgoers – when in our own countries. Neither of us, however, has found much to admire in the kind of religious belief which some of the nineteenth century missionaries inadvertently left behind them and which is increasingly being propagated by twenty-first century American Evangelical zealots. Good that missionaries set up schools and hospitals. Bad that they didn’t – or don’t - make the effort to develop in their converts a questioning rather than literal approach to Bible study, or any understanding of the continuing progression of ideas over time.

It is difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth calling for homosexuals to be killed. Car crashes are caused by defective brakes and bad driving, not ‘Satan’. I don’t think the sensible Scottish Presbyterians who gave up their lives for their Malawian brothers and sisters believed in ‘demons’. They combated slave traders, not the Devil. Mary Slessor of Dundee saved countless twins in Calabar who were condemned to die because of a belief in ‘spirits’. Birth defects and learning difficulties are not determined by God nor are they the result of a curse. They are caused by chance, heredity or poor midwifery. Yet such beliefs persist even after 150 years of Christian teaching, almost universal churchgoing and even among the educated.

And behind all this is the increasing resentment expressed by some Africans of the legacy of colonialism. Most of this resentment is legitimate. It relates to Europe's draining of resources from African countries, drawing of illogical national boundaries and establishing of unfair trading practices. However, it also includes a resentment of people like me and my aeroplane friend and a questioning of our motives for the work we do. We are seen as the new generation of colonialists, an accusation which hurts.

Nevertheless, things do change… slowly. Yes, we all chip away, not just western ‘do-gooders’ but committed local activists who must become exhausted with the sheer repetitiveness and apparent hopelessness of their efforts. Yet, we must remember, worldwide poverty has decreased, though millions are still desperately poor.

And what about my own work, as I look back over the last three or four years?

Of course there have been successes. I was fortunate when I came to Malawi that the first organisation I worked for, Link Community Development, an international NGO based in Edinburgh, operated at different levels in the system. Link provides direct support and intervention in schools through its Malawian professional staff. It also works closely with district education managers to help them identify key areas of need across the schools for which they are responsible. But also, crucially, it has had a presence at Ministry level from the earliest years of its involvement in Malawi. It is in that national context that I have carried out most of my work.

I do think that changing hearts and minds at the very highest levels is important, for these are the people who influence education across the whole country. It is particularly important in Malawi, whose society is based on four ‘pillars’ established by the first President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. These pillars are Unity, Loyalty, Discipline and Obedience. They tell you everything about the difficulties of achieving change in Malawi. People are both afraid of change and of taking responsibility for change. And who can blame them? Put it down to that first President who knowingly ‘infantilised’ a nation. In the 80s and 90s, if you stepped out of line or put your head above the parapet, it was immediately lopped off and sometimes in the most gruesome way imaginable. (See post on RememberingHastings Kamuzu Banda.)

However, in Malawi, once the people in charge have agreed that change is necessary, they ‘gazette’ it i.e. make it part of the legislative context, and then discipline and obedience come into play.

One of the encouraging things about the way Link operates is that through their close relationship with those leading education, they ensured that the National Education Standards for Primary and Secondary Schools on which I had worked with my Malawian colleagues were gazetted. That meant that they had to be implemented. It didn’t mean that implementation was supported financially, of course, nor did it mean that change would inevitably be effective, but it did mean that the standards became accepted as ‘the way we do things in Malawi’. As a result, improvement will, eventually, happen even if it is as the result of compliance. Not so much ‘hearts and minds’ at the chalkface as ‘behaviour’. But behaviour affects children, for the better, we hope. Link is but one small organisation, though with a reach far beyond its size. Changing hearts and minds is a job for the inspectorate. Over to you, boys and girls! We have given you training packs and training. Now get on with it! Mmm…, perhaps…..

However, that was a year or two back. What about now?

Well, I am now working for a different organisation, a German national development agency called GIZ. On the whole, things have gone remarkably smoothly. However, the National Standards for Teacher Education were supposed to be gazetted in January. In Malawi, delay is not unusual, and, encouragingly, in the spring the Minister of Education referred publicly to the importance of implementing the teacher education standards. However, they have not (yet) been gazetted and since then the Minister himself has changed. Still, no reason (yet) to be despondent. This, possibly my last visit to Malawi, will largely be spent on training relating to the standards development. And, wonderfully, I am also going to be working with a colleague. We will all keep our fingers crossed.

And does this work on what may seem like cold, perhaps over-rational or theoretical, concepts like ‘standards’ actually make a difference? How are the underfed and ill-taught children in Malawi’s overcrowded classrooms going to benefit from 18 definitions as to what makes for effective teacher education?

Well, think about the influence of How good is our school? on Scottish education. Publishing expectations of what constitutes effective school education empowers parents and guides teachers and school leaders. In Malawi, as in Uganda, primary schools and many secondary schools are community institutions for which parents and local people have a responsibility for ensuring that standards are met. They can only do that effectively if they know what the standards are. It is about transparency. The National Education Standards for Schools have a crucial role to play in developing openness and a sense of responsibility for educational quality.

We all know that the most effective learning comes about as the result of a relationship between a teacher or teachers and the children for whom they are responsible. In Malawi, the primary teachers have until now been woefully undereducated, not because of any fault in themselves but because of the pressures in providing sufficient staff for the system. The introduction of universal primary education meant that teachers had to be rushed through training. Even then the numbers were insufficient and many staff remained unqualified. A set of standards for teacher education based on the knowledge of experienced Malawian professionals enables some consistency to be developed across the system. In particular, it enables a focus on some of the less tangible aspects of educational experience, such as student welfare and organisational leadership. Above all, such standards enable a refocusing of attention on what students actually achieve, on whether they actually become effective teachers, not just on what the institution puts in place. If the quality of teachers coming out into the system improves, then the quality of children’s learning in the classroom will also improve.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. This post is just about taking stock and from a western perspective at that. The actual impact of all this work is somewhere down the line and will not be apparent until long after my work is over and my name forgotten. 

The impact will be seen in the children of Malawi. What better cause could there be?

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