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Big classrooms, big problems: Investing in the future through investing in education

Edith Chiwalo teaches Standard 3 at Mbayani Primary School in Blantyre. Her class has 177 learners. Mbayani Primary School is located in the middle of the densely populated and famous township Mbayani in Blantyre urban and is often referred to as ‘Malawi’s biggest school’.

The biggest classroom in Malawi

Mbayani has more than 9, 000 students, 73 teachers and 80 classrooms. On the day I visit Edith’s class, little boys and girls neatly sit close to each other with hardly any space in between them and listen attentively to their teacher.

Despite the lack of space in the classroom, Edith teaches the children with enthusiasm walking back and forth in the little space in front, occasionally pointing to one of the children to answer a question or read from the book. She tactfully used her small frame to her advantage and moves to the centre of the class as she leads the children in a reading lesson.

A former student of the school, Edith says nothing much has changed over the past years. She recalls being in these same classrooms under the same conditions between 1998 and 2006. She said that she loves teaching but she was quick to point the challenges of teaching such a big class.

“It is difficult to give the children individual attention in such a big class. In order to make sure that no child is left behind, I use group work a lot. I hand out exercises very carefully, little at a time so that I am able to mark each and every child’s work,” says Edith, adding, “This way the children feel that I know and value them individually. It is overwhelming so I have to be creative to get things done.”

Malawi is one of the countries that achieved Millennium Development Goal (MGD) Four on reducing child mortality. This means that more children are now living beyond their fifth birthdays and enrolling into school. This, coupled with the fact that primary education is free, has led to an increase in the number of children enrolling into primary schools in Malawi.

A good place to appreciate this increase in enrollment and the challenges it poses is Mbayani Primary School. Five days a week over 100 children sit in the classrooms mostly on the floor to learn.

Standard four children cannot be accommodated in the classrooms so they learn under the shade of trees. Unlike all the other children who start school at 7.30, they start lessons around 10 am. This was done to reduce the numbers of children that teachers have to deal with at the same time.

The school is headed by Joe Magombo. In order to manage such a big school properly and deliver good quality education, Magombo and his team have to be very organized and creative in the way they divide roles and responsibilities.

The head master cannot successfully monitor all teachers and students so he is assisted by three deputies who oversee a team of section heads that monitor and supervise smaller teams of teachers. In this way minor issues are dealt with at section level leaving the headmaster to deal with more serious issues.

“We depend a lot on delegation. As a headmaster I cannot manage to go through each teachers’ scheme of work and lesson plan. I delegate to ensure that the teachers deliver good quality lessons to the children,” notes Magombo

Distribution of school supplies and equipment to both teachers and students also flow through the same delegation levels from the headmaster all the way down to the students themselves.

Community involvement

Because the school is so big, the Mbayani Parents Teachers Association (PTA) members are very actively involved in the running of the school. Three members of the PTA are at the school at least three times a week. They assess teacher and student attendance and punctuality and help to maintain student discipline.

Being the liaison between the school, community and community structures that support the school, they are also responsible for collecting school funds and oversee how the funds are used. The PTA is also responsible for all maintenance work and security.

The teachers and community surrounding Mbayani Primary School are clearly dedicated to deliver good quality education in these big and overcrowded classrooms but the existing challenges are bigger and stronger than teachers or the community can manage.

The future

Classrooms like Edith’s are not unique to Mbayani, but exist throughout Malawi. They are overcrowded, often managed by very few, dedicated and over worked teachers in infrastructure and under systems that need to be improved.

A recently released UNICEF report entitled Generation 2030 Africa 2.0: Prioritizing investment in children to reap the demographic dividend, predicts that between 2015 and 2030, the primary school age population will increase by 33 percent from 189 million to 250 million.

This means Edith’s class will need to accommodate about 58 more children. What are we doing as a country, communities and individuals to get ready for the 58 more children in Edith’s class? What are we doing to make sure that these children will be properly educated and acquire the knowledge and skills needed to lead to social and economic growth?

Advocating for Change

There is a clear and urgent need to improve the quality of education in Malawi.

“One way of improving education in Malawi is to reduce class sizes.There is a need to recruit and retain more teachers and support them,” says Unicef Education Specialist Kimanzi Muthengi.

Unicef is supporting the Ministry of Education to advocate to the Ministry of Finance to increase funding towards education. Increased and well managed finances can help to improve existing infrastructure in schools and recruit more teachers.

Unicef is also advocating for increased use of well-trained stand by teachers as we work towards making sure that all trained teachers have been recruited and posted to schools in need. In the past, UNICEF has funded volunteer emergency teachers who were later taken on by government.

Redistributing teachers from urban to rural areas, by improving rural teachers living conditions through the rural teacher allowance and improved housing can also help to improve education by helping to reduce class sizes to the recommended 60 and later 45 children.

Communities and the private sector can also do a lot to help improve the quality of education in Malawi. We should all realize and accept that teachers play an important role in our society and deserve our respect. Like the PTA for Mbayani Primary School, we need to appreciate the many challenges facing teachers and support them in teaching our children. We should be involved in the running of our local schools and offer help where we can.

More investments and prudent use of existing finances in education will improve the quality of education that children in schools receive. The children will come out of school with the necessary knowledge and skills that will enable them to positively participate and contribute to the economic growth of this country.

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