A small solar-powered radio at St Kizito Community-Based Childcare Centre (CBCC) on the outskirts of Thyolo Town has become an important tool for advancing children’s education.
Every weekday at the CBCC, located in a moderately craggy setting, the children gather around the receiver to listen to lessons relayed by Blantyre Synod Radio.
It is a similar scenario that plays out in close to 600 other centres in the tea-growing district which was once ill-famed for child labour.
“The radio lessons are ensuring no child is left behind,” Rhonia Mopiwa, a community facilitator who oversees 18 CBCCs in Thyolo’s traditional authorities Chimaliro, Kwethemule and Changata, says.
Mopiwa ensures caregivers in her jurisdiction follow the government-set guidelines in the delivery of the instruction while also using standard materials.
She regularly monitors the lessons taking place in the CBSSs and offers guidance where necessary.
“When we assess the learners, we find that they have acquired crucial knowledge for transition into primary school,” Mopiwa says.
Child-centred organisation Save the Children has been undertaking the Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) project in 10 districts, including Thyolo, in which CBCCs offer education to children in preparation for primary school.
The instruction takes a distance-education system and combines radio broadcasts with active learning to improve quality of education.
The World Bank, which is funding the Investing in Early Years programme whose components include IRI, touts the system as effective on a large scale at low cost.
“IRI programmes require teachers and students to react verbally and physically to questions and exercises posed by radio characters and to participate in group work, experiments and other activities suggested by the radio programme,” the bank says.
Mopiwa has seen that happening in the 18 CBCCs that she oversees and wishes the intervention is replicated across the country.
She says IRI further boosts social interaction for the kids who learn, develop and grow from being around others.
“These are important life skills. Education must come in a complete package,” Mopiwa says.
At St Kizito CBCC, bright and breezy children who have successfully gone through the Tiyende (Let’s walk) Radio Programme—offered before they shift to primary school—are well prepared for the big leap.
Fanny Kamwendo, five, is already able to read and count numbers before she steps her feet in a primary school next week, knowledge which her siblings who never went through the centres failed to acquire.
Her mother, Margret, has also taken up the responsibility of complementing the work that caregivers at the CBCCs do by following up on the lessons offered through the radio.
“I do record the lessons and repeat the instruction process when my daughter comes home. She is ready for primary school,” the mother says.
Thyolo District Early Childhood Development (ECD) Coordinator, Blessing Buleya, speaks highly of the IRI programme which he says has attracted thousands of reluctant children to CBCCs.
Buleya hopes the 1,339 caregivers assisting Thyolo’s children will continue diligently and skilfully doing their work.
“Save the Children has significantly pushed up the status of ECD education in Thyolo and I know it is the case in other districts where the organisation is implementing the IRI programme.
“Now, we are ready to take it up because the organisation has shown us that it is possible to offer lessons to children through the radio,” he says.
Target 4.2 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals invites member states such as Malawi to ensure all girls and boys have access to quality ECD, care and pre-primary education.
The goal directs that the provision of at least one year of free and compulsory quality pre-primary education is encouraged, to be delivered by well-trained educators, as well as that of ECD and care.
Buleya says Thyolo is marching forward in line with this target, which is also prominently highlighted in Malawi’s ECD Policy.
“We have seen an increase in CBCCs enrolment. There are over 23,300 children in CBCCs in Thyolo from around 19,000 children who were there two years ago,” he says.
In the meantime, Save the Children is building the capacity of government officials so that they successfully take over the IRI deal.
The organisation’s IRI Project Coordinator, Singilton Phiri, is confident that the skills will allow for the smooth scaling up of the intervention across the country.
The initiative, which Save the Children innovated after conducting a research on its feasibility, has reportedly proved to be beneficial to the children, communities and caregivers.
“The radio instructions also act as refreshers for caregivers as they are constantly reminded of what they are supposed to do in facilitating the lessons,” Phiri says.
He hopes the approach will also bridge the skills gap where just around 50 percent of the country’s caregivers have been optimally trained to do their work.
Phiri has also seen IRI coming in handy in times of pandemics such as Covid and disasters which drive children out of CBCCs.
“It is a kind of technology that has proved to be effective in providing lessons to children even in their homes. It is only necessary that we move with technology,” he sums up.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje