Saturday, 15 March 2014

Tagging along with Link on a primary school visit

Perhaps I should have entitled this post Bouncing along with Link, as the hour and a half's drive at the beginning and end of the journey involved us descending into craters and inching our way round chasms. Not real ones, of course, just deep furrows in the hard red road.

The spider's web of thoroughfares which lead off the grandly named 'M1' (the tarmacked road from the capital Lilongwe, past Dedza and then on to the south) are little more than tracks. By the end of the rainy season - just now - impromptu torrents have washed away the surfaces of these dirt roads and what is left is rutted beyond description.

My solution to the stomach-churning ride was to fix my gaze on the landscape, and believe you me, once you do that you'll not want to take your eyes away. Sometimes it looked almost Tyrolean, until you noticed the grass thatch and mud walls which, in many compounds, have not yet been replaced by baked brick and corrugated iron roof.

Our destination was a 'Full' primary school somewhere beyond Dedza. Full, that is, in that it took pupils up to the end of Standard 8, rather than stopping at Standard 4 or 5. There's no point in me giving you an age range: it could be anything between six and sixty. As usual, we provoked considerable interest, particularly the odd-looking white woman with the camera.

The term full was also apt for other reasons. The school had about 1200 pupils, an average-sized primary school in Malawi but an enormous one by Scotland's standards. The first three infant classes each had around 200 pupils and just one teacher. Here is Standard 3 on the left.

The children came from several local villages, as you can see from the list below, and some pupils walked a good distance to get to school. That means setting off in the dark to arrive for the start of the school day, at 7.30am. They finish at 1pm, then walk home having eaten nothing all day.

Overall, the school had eight qualified teachers, with two volunteers from the village helping out. Here they are, together with a hanger-on on the right,  preparing their lessons in the headteacher's office.

As in most Malawian (and Ugandan) schools, class size get smaller as the children get older. It is hardly surprising that so many drop out given the conditions in which they have to learn. The retention rate in Malawi can be as low as 20% at some stages. The pupil-teacher ratio is also better at the upper end of the school, because the lucky 'survivors' are preparing for the all-important, life-changing primary leaving examinations. The Standard 8 class I visited only had 56 pupils, and that number will probably fall again before the exams.

Malawian educationists argue in vain that early years education should be prioritised, so that children become more successful learners and more engaged in school, thus reducing the dropout rate overall. However, who is going to jeopardise the chances of a successful exam pass for those desperate for the benefits that it brings: access to secondary education, better jobs and a brighter future?

Inevitably, I compared the buildings and resources with what we had seen in Uganda. Despite the overcrowding I thought the accommodation was pretty solid and well maintained. The headteacher said that the community had renovated the building several times since it was built in the early 1960s. There were proper earth floors beaten so hard they were like concrete - essential to discourage jiggers: fleas which lay their eggs in your feet causing painful ulceration. Pupils showed no sign of that condition, mercifully.

Sadly, however, there was as good as no classroom furniture in any classroom: no desk for either the teachers or the pupils. Mind you, given the cramped conditions, there would probably be no room for desks. The teachers of Standards 3 and 4 sat or stood outside the classroom a lot of the time, and can you blame them? Here is the Standard 3 teacher with her baby. Fortunately her biddable class were quietly engaged in arithmetic. You could hear a pin drop!

All the learning took place on children's knees or on the floor. Here you can see a pupil busily engaged in practical maths activities using some small stones, as were the other 196 pupils, where they could find a space. The more motivated or determined pupils tend to try to sit at the front.

The headteacher's office was approached by a steep flight of steps, here seen on the left of the block next to the Link vehicle. Fortunately I saw no cats to swing.

The office was pretty much what you'd expect, its wall covered with neatly presented administrative information. As my more cynical colleague said, we were, after all, expected! The steep steps and raised platforms on which the classrooms are built are designed to keep the building well above the water during the rainy season.

Behind the headteacher's offices was a small room designated the 'library' - where the teaching guides and materials are kept. The school had just had a delivery by School Aid of old textbooks from British schools. I do hope they were relevant to the Malawian curriculum, and accessible. The headteacher was polite about them anyway. What schools really needed in Uganda was Ugandan textbooks which showed illustrations of Ugandan children, houses and villages. It can be quite difficult for children to relate to the strange-looking contexts depicted in foreign textbooks.

I didn't venture near the latrines, but they looked okay from afar. With the help of the community and the government, the school had also built some solid teachers' houses, seen below on the right. These are essential if the school is going to keep its teachers. Teachers who have to walk or cycle miles down rutted or muddy tracks in the early morning, soon give up their enthusiasm and often their jobs. They certainly don't attend all that regularly. Building teachers' houses improves their punctuality and attendance and, one hopes, that of their charges.

Link's partnership with the school has enabled the community to build a staffroom, the round thatched building on the left.  Not quite what Scottish teachers might expect but perfectly adequate. The room was also used for the school management committee meetings.

Perhaps at this point I should say a little bit about Link's work. Link Community Development (also known as LCD) works mainly at grassroots level, on projects which make a real difference to the education and lives of learners living in rural villages. Currently the programmes includes Complementary Basic Education for those youngsters who have dropped out, perhaps because of their family's financial problems which usually involve them in child labour, perhaps because education isn't valued at home or perhaps because they have found it difficult to learn in classes of 200. Link's aim is to reintegrate such pupils into local schools once they have mastered literacy, numeracy and other important skills. The Family Literacy Project provides the same sort of support for their parents.

Link also works on a project for Keeping Girls in School. Girls' education is often jeopardised by poor attendance and drop out caused by domestic responsibilities and lack of sanitary protection and facilities during menstruation. They are also liable to be married off at puberty, even though this practice of early marriage is illegal. Link works with mothers' groups who work to support girls so that they stay in school. They may help with uniform, sanitary pads and other necessities and organise support groups.

However, the reason for the Link visit the other day was to provide training for representatives of the school community in using the Solar Connect system which Link has installed. Solar Connect provides solar power to schools, which can dramatically improve their operation and effectiveness. Electric lighting enables staff and pupils to work when it gets dark or during stormy weather. Even in sunny weather, classrooms can be very dim,, as you can probably tell from the photos. Electricity also means that a computer can be installed. ICT enables easier communication with district HQ, doing away with long journeys on foot or bike during school hours to deliver paper documents. These journeys waste valuable time and money and leave headteachers' classes untaught.

Another idea behind Solar Connect is that surplus electricity can be shared with other local schools and sold to the community, raising money for the school. The main use by the community is for charging mobile phones. As well as facilitating communication, better use of mobile technology enables money to be transferred electronically, thus supporting entrepreneurial activities. Surplus solar power can't cope with much beyond mobile phones, it has to be said, so we won't be seeing any electric cars in the Dedza region in the near future!

Participants at Link's meeting included representatives from the Parent Teacher Association, the Mothers' Group, the School Management Committee, the headteacher, a local leader and the Head Boy and Girl. A Link Officer explained about recording profits and expenditure, while the Primary Adviser energetically exhorted the participants to use the resource responsibly. As with all meetings, participants were given money for transport, food (a bread roll) and drink (the ubiquitous 'soda'), to encourage them to attend.

In addition to these grassroots activities, Link trains local education advisers and inspectors to monitor and improve the quality of education in their local schools. The school we visited had recently undergone a School Performance Review (SPR), during which an evaluation team including the local Primary Education Adviser, a Link Officer, representatives of the community and the headteacher evaluated the quality of the education, using a set of indicators.

The results of the review were shared with the community, staff and senior pupils, at a School Performance Appraisal Meeting (SPAM - yes, indeed!). Participants also took part in a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) exercise to come up with priorities for improvement. The school management committee and headteacher then produced an improvement plan. Link uses a similar approach in other countries in which it works. You can read about a Ugandan SPAM in the post Helping communities to improve their schools: a pictorial account of Link's work.

The reason for my tagging along on Link's visit to the school was simply to inform, or remind, myself what rural primary education can be like. However, I was 'informed' in more ways than one.

Standard 8 was studying subordinate clauses. When the teacher asked the class about the different kinds of subordinate clauses, I scraped together the dregs of my own English language learning from the very depths of my memory. However, when it then came to dredging up the various different kinds of adverbial clauses, I was stumped. Where was my friend Jane when I needed her?!

There are nine of types of adverbial clause, apparently. I managed about two. The full list, for those sad readers who are interested, are: reason, condition, degree, place, time, manner, purpose, result and concession.

Desks or no desks, jotters or no jotters, Standard 8 came up trumps. They recalled every single one of the adverbial clauses and made a pretty good attempt at providing examples as well!

Here they are with their proud teacher. There was nothing left for me but to tell them how impressed I was and wish them good luck in their forthcoming examinations.

Good luck, Standard 8!