A ‘mini’ school that takes learners only to Standard 3
The right to education is directly guaranteed in Malawi’s Constitution. But as JARSON MALOWA explores, in a rural setting in Chikwawa District, some learners drop out in Standard 3 because that is the furthest they can go at their school.
When James was born to Dalless and Harold Kazingize 12 years ago, their expectations were that their son would be able to assist them when they get old.
It is a traditional viewpoint in Malawi, where children are supposed to take care of their parents in their old age.
James is now a Standard 3 learner at Gonda Primary School in Chikwawa District. The school offers classes from standards 1 to 3 only.
“I am worried about my son’s future. The moment he gets into Standard 4, he will have to cover a distance of eight kilometres from home to school. I am not sure if he will make it,” Dalless says dolefully.
The nearest full primary school Nkhwangwa is where James will move to.
Village Head Mvinitsa in Traditional Authority (TA) Ngabu, where Nkhwangwa Primary School is located, says some learners cover up to ten kilometres to access education at the facility when they qualify for Standard 4.
“Some simply decide to drop out of school because it is difficult for a child to cover such a distance in the hot weather of the Shire Valley,” the local ruler says.
Gonda ‘Mini’ Primary School opened its doors in March 2021 when community members from the area got tired of their children dropping out of school due to the long distance they had to cover.
The idea was that since those who attend senior classes can at least cover some considerable distance and resist the searing weather of the valley, the attention should first be on the junior classes.
It has turned out that the distance remains too much even for the learners in senior classes.
“Gonda School was opened to decongest Nkhwangwa Primary School. Community members did their part and government deployed teachers,” Head teacher of Gonda School, Mackson Nkalo, said recently.
By April this year, the school had about 450 learners, 235 of them girls and 215 boys, who are from 17 villages in TA Ngabu.
Nkalo admits the numbers could be way higher if others from villages in farther locations had ways of getting to the school.
The school has five teachers, four males and one female.
The school does not have teachers’ houses, so those posted there have to seek accommodation elsewhere, mostly Ngabu Trading Centre, which is some 15 kilometres away.
“The long distance makes it impossible for the teachers to always make it to school in time. There are also cases of absenteeism,” the school head says.
The school is duly recognised by government, through the Ministry of Education, that is why it has teachers deployed by the same government.
Ministry of Education Public Relations Officer Mphatso Nkuonera insists government is determined to reduce the distance that learners cover to access education by increasing the number of schools in areas which have few.
“This will reduce dropout rates and increase the retention of learners. The goal is that no learner should be left behind as long as access to education is concerned,” Nkuonera says.
But education policy expert Benedicto Kondowe feels the long distances that learners cover to reach their nearest schools is throwing spanners in government’s own efforts of ensuring that everyone has access to quality education regardless of their settings.
Kondowe is also worried that girls could be exposed to risks such as sexual abuse if they cover long distances from their homes to schools.
“In essence, when learners walk long distances to school, they fail to concentrate in class. They are exhausted and cannot perform to their full potential.
“Some even get to school late and miss entire lessons or the introductory part. In this regard, they cannot perform well in their examinations,” Kondowe says.
He reiterates that government should invest more in infrastructure development to cut the long distances that the learners cover to their nearest schools.
“Schools should be within walkable distances. Government must also construct more teachers’ houses. This has the potential of motivating them and reducing absenteeism,” Kondowe states.
He has since called on various stakeholders including the private sector, non-government organisations and the media to do their part in promoting and protecting children’s right to education.
Kondowe further suggests that councils should consider utilising the Constituency Development Fund and the District Development Fund to bail out some of the most marginalised communities such as those relying on Gonda School.
For James and his parents, the fear of not going far with his education keeps looming large.
He is in the third and final term of Standard 3 and will have to wait to see if anything will happen between now and September, when the next term opens, which will remove the anxiety of covering eight kilometres one way to school.
“Otherwise, he may have to drop out. We are too poor to send him to a boarding private school. We wish there was a way our son could get educated,” Dalless says resignedly.