Outside Holy Family Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in Phalombe District, a class progresses without a teacher present.
The teachers are not on strike.
This is one of the many outside classroom education clusters established in various communities across Phalombe and other districts in the country.
The clusters comprise students themselves and were initially established so that they (the students) support each other and keep on learning during the closure of schools at the height of the Covid pandemic last year.
The clusters were useful during the partial lockdown as they provided for distance learning among learners when the schools closed.
They are as useful today as they were then.
“Before we started meeting as students, I thought that learning had ended following the school closures and I almost forgot about school and my future,” Monalisa Mbwana, an 18-year-old Form Four learner at the school said.
According to Monalisa, she lost all the interest she had in education when schools closed last year.
But the clusters helped her regain interest in education and filled the gap between home and school activities.
“By the time the schools re-opened, I had regained the knowledge and interest that I had lost in various subjects and now my performance in science subjects has improved,” she said.
Twenty-year-old Innocent Bizwick, who is also in Form Four at the same school, said the closure of schools as part of Covid lockdowns greatly affected his interest in education and other academic activities.
He said following the closure and the lack of activity that followed, he, together with several other friends, started engaging in risky behaviour such as beer drinking.
“We thought the schools will never reopen again and we lost all the hope that we had in going back to school,” Innocent said.
To Innocent, the clusters which were later established in his village were a life saver.
He says by and by, he started attending the clusters together with his friends and, like Monalisa, the clusters reignited his interest in education and learning.
“When schools reopened, I realised that my performance had improved and that my interaction with friends on education matters had improved,” Innocent said.
Elsewhere at Mafumbi Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Makhuwira in Chikwawa District, learners gather under the shade of the largest fig tree in the village.
Normal classes have just ended and the learners, mostly from Jeke Primary School, which is under Mapelera Education Zone, engage in various other lessons and extra-curricular activities.
Among others, they are taught how to express themselves, how to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus and how they can overcome the challenges that may threaten their dreams.
It is through these clusters that, according to Head Teacher at the school Frackson Pemba, both children and teachers are able to find out challenges affecting learners and which learners are not coming to school and for what reason.
“These clusters are helpful because apart from the usual classroom work, students are able to learn many life skills and interact more with friends; they are also taught how they can support one another.
“Since we started this approach, we have seen that classroom attendance has improved and we are also managing to recover the school time lost due to the closure of schools,” Pemba said.
During cluster sessions, each learner is tasked to teach fellow students one or more subjects especially those the leaners are not good at.
“This has helped me improve in the subjects that I once was not good at because, for example, if I am not good at mathematics, my friends will give me the task of teaching them that very subject. So, to understand more about the subject, I will spare time to study more. This improves my own understanding,” Innocent said.
It is now two years since the clusters were put together by communities and schools in various areas across the country.
Among others, the clusters have improved school attendance and performance among learners in both primary and secondary schools.
The clusters are also said to have reduced the alleged fear of science subjects among girls as they improve participation in group and class work.
In communities, mother groups, fathers and teachers track the attendance and performance of the clusters through physical attendance and assignments.
Frequent absentees are followed up, supported and encouraged to start attending the clusters.
At Holy Family CDSS alone, around 17 learners who did not return to school when they reopened have now gone back through the approach.
Other girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancies have also been encouraged and are back in class.
The clusters are part of an initiative child-centred organisation, Save the Children, has been implementing since December 2016.
The Apatseni Mwayi Atsikana Aphunzire (AMAA)/Let Girls Learn initiative, which is being implemented in Mzimba, Balaka, Machinga, Phalombe and Chikwawa districts, is said to have improved enrollment of girls in upper primary school and secondary schools in the country.
The initiative has also reportedly reduced school related gender based violence, especially among girls returning to school after giving birth.
It also ensured that students in both primary and secondary schools continued learning at a time schools were closed due to the Covid pandemic.
Already, 50,080 learners have been reached with various skills in schools in Chikwawa and Phalombe districts.
Chief of Party for the Let Girls Learn initiative, Lexon Ndalama, said like in many African countries, girls in Malawi face a number of challenges to attain education.
Ndalama said Malawi has one of the lowest girl retention rates in Africa.
“If you look at the enrolment and retention trends in schools in Malawi, you will see that many girls who enrol in Standard One, will begin to drop out of school by the time they reach Standard Five due to puberty and environmental and community related challenges.
“At Standard Eight, almost half of the girls who enrolled in Standard One would have dropped out of school,” Ndalama said.
He added the initiative sought to address those challenges to ensure improvements in enrolment and retention of girls in schools until they finish their education.
“We have also dealt with the challenges girls in the country have been facing in terms of limited spaces in secondary schools across the country; so to that end, we constructed six CDSSs in Balaka, five in Machinga and a girls’ dormitory at Mpherembe CDSS in Mzimba District.
“These are some of the worst hit districts in as far as girls dropout rates are concerned,” Ndalama said.
Ndalama also said the organisation has been providing bursaries to needy students to make sure that girls do not drop out of school as a result of poverty.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.