Saturday, 22 November 2014

Country in crisis - children rioting

COUNTRY IN CRISIS, announced The Nation on its front page last Thursday.

It seemed somewhat melodramatic, though according to friends caught up in the riots they were pretty frightening. Working one's way through the low key account in the inside pages of The Daily Times and the more eye-catching account in The Nation which led on the story, the facts emerged as follows.

Pupils from Catholic Institute Primary School in Blantyre left their classrooms at around 9 o'clock, broke down the school fence and milled around throwing stones at cars (and sometimes hitting each other) and barricading the road with rubbish and rocks. As The Daily Times put it, 'Scores of pupils carried tree branches, looking wild while chanting.' While The Nation helpfully pointed out that they 'blocked roads with rocks, some more than their size'.

The rioting spread to half a dozen other primary schools and lasted all day. Children of all primary ages were on the streets demonstrating, some as young as six, the oldest around 14 or so. The police - unbelievably - fired shots into the air. I also heard that tear gas had been used.

I have to admit to preferring the account in The Nation, one of whose reporters apparently 'had to invest heavily in his feet to save his skin...'

Even worse, The Nation reported that 'some pupils lay on their backs across the width of the road, with their little tummies innocently bared to a chilly midday afternoon - in a daring kill-us-if-you-can affair.'

One might smile at the slightly inept phrasing of the accounts, but behind them lies a genuinely serious situation.

Why were these children on the streets? Because many of their teachers were on strike or simply hadn't turned up for work. The children had walked for a considerable distance to get to school. They wanted to learn.

Why were the teachers not in school? Because their salaries were at least a month late. 6,000 teachers appointed in May who started work in June have not received any salary at all - five months of no money coming in.

Can you imagine what that is like, in a country like Malawi? No family freezers with stores of food for 'rainy days'. No cans of own-brand beans on the larder shelves. No pay means no food for teachers' children. It means their own school fees cannot be paid, so no education for them. It means eviction from their housing because they cannot pay the rent. It means returning to their ancestral villages because there they may have a bit of land where they can grow their own food. No social care, no benefits. So, no wonder the teachers were not in school.

And Malawi's children? Universal education? I don't think so.

Malawi is barely able to keep itself afloat and the kwacha appears to be in free fall. When I was last here in June, there were 400 kwacha to the £. The figure is currently 750. Fine for those of us visiting from other countries but tough if you live here. The budgetary cupboard is bare, so no salaries.

Since the launch of the Millenium Development Goals, back in 2000, most developing countries have made great strides or even just gradual progress, in helping children go to school, keeping them there once they get there and ensuring they come out at the other end with some benefits, even if quite modest, from the education they have received.

Not so Malawi.

In Malawi, the education figures are going down.

  • The government target for the number of pupils per classroom is 60:1. Across the country, there are about 124 children per classroom, often with double that ratio in the early years. And the figures are actually getting worse. 
  • The government target for pupil to qualified teacher ratio is 92:1. In rural schools, the actual ratio was 99:1, 75:1 in urban schools. Again the figures are twice, if not three times as bad, at the early stages.
  • Pass rates in the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education have declined from around 74% in 2006 to around 70% in 2011. The gap between boys and girls is widening.
  • Malawi came 14th out of 14 countries in the Southern Africa Regional Assessment of cognitive skills (SACMEQ) in 2000 and has made no discernible progress over the years since then. Boys are 10 test scores ahead of girls in literacy and 12 in numeracy.
  • 62% of pupils who have started Standard 1 drop out of school before they reach Standard 8, the figures being significantly worse for girls than for boys.
  • The number of secondary schools has actually gone down. Almost certainly that is because they were of such poor quality that inspectors closed them down. Only 32% of Standard 8 pupils (themselves only 38% of the cohort) gain entry to secondary school.
  • In rural areas, only 16% of pupils complete lower secondary school and only 6% upper secondary school. These figures make the proportion for urban schools - 42% - look brilliant. 55% of boys who dropped out of secondary school did so because their families could not afford to keep them there. 25% of girls who dropped out were pregnant and 16% were victims of child marriage - both evidence of sexual abuse.
Key to keeping children in school is supplying teachers to teach them. However, teachers need houses because otherwise they spend all day travelling to and from their allocated schools and much of the little income they receive on travel costs. Travelling means walking, or getting a lift on a pushbike. So, paying teachers' salaries actually matters. Ensuring they have somewhere to live with their families actually matters. Currently there are four teachers for every available house.

And why is there no money to pay teachers' salaries? Because of Cashgate. Millions of kwacha were stolen by politicians and civil servants during the government of the previous president Bingu Mutharika; more disappeared during the subsequent government of Joyce Banda. Perhaps the corruption has all stopped under the oversight of the current president Peter Mutharika, brother of the aforementioned. Let us hope so. Some of the culprits are disappearing off into gaol, but most of the money is still missing. And, even worse, donor governments overseas, like the UK and other EU countries, have stopped their budget support to Malawi because of Cashgate.

And that money is what would have been used to pay the teachers.

No wonder the children were rioting.

You may also be interested in the following post:

Helping communities to improve their schools: the work of Link Community Development

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