Here at the Chiseka school on the rural outskirts of town, many children attend class outside, sitting among weeds in the shade of a towering blue gum tree. There are 1,531 students, six classrooms, no running water and no light bulbs.
Yet Chiseka has the best academic record in its district by far. Last year all 40 students in the eighth grade passed their exams. And 30 did well enough to qualify for secondary school—a significant achievement in a country where less than 30 percent of students finish primary school.
Chiseka vividly shows one of the biggest challenges Africa faces today: Saving a generation that is growing up with hardly any education. One in two African children don’t finish primary school, and millions don’t go at all. Those who do often end up in crowded schools with untrained teachers.
Malawi is one of several African countries that are now overhauling education, in an effort to meet the United Nations goal of having every child of the right age enrolled in primary school by 2015. Countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania are working with donors and the United Nations to improve schools and train teachers.
But Malawi stands out because it is designing its ambitious 10-year education plan itself, in the belief that only a program designed by Africans for Africans will work in the long run. It gives children books by Malawi authors and teaches them science through their own environment. And it touts Chiseka’s recent success as a sign of slow but steady progress.
The aim isn’t to produce doctors or engineers, but simply to teach everyone to read, to do enough math to hold down a basic job and eventually to write a check and balance a checkbook. What rides on that goal is the future of the next generation, and ultimately the country’s own chances at development.
“We want to learn, we try hard to get an education. I want to be a teacher someday,” says Jeffrey Joseph, 14, a slight and timid eighth-grade boy at Chiseka, the son of a farmer.
Jeffrey, sitting beside the village’s hand-pumped well, is uneasy at sharing a dream he knows will be difficult to achieve. He scratches nervously in the dirt with a stick. He is embarrassed that he has never read a book, and can barely speak English, the language of education in Malawi beyond the fourth grade.
“That is how life is,” he says softly in Chichewa, his native tongue. “If you are born into a poor family that is your destiny.”
Malawi has a bold history of educational reform, not always successful. In 1994 Malawi was the first of at least 10 African countries to abolish primary school fees.
Today that decision is seen as a colossal blunder, premature in a country tragically unprepared for the consequences. Overnight, enrollment nearly doubled in a school system already woefully short of teachers, classrooms, textbooks and other teaching aids. The government hired many teachers right out of secondary school, and gave them just three weeks of training.
Malawi quickly learned that a generation of children cannot be educated simply by ordering it to happen. For the promise of universal primary education to mean anything, the country had to find a way to train teachers fast and reduce class sizes.
The result is Malawi’s just-launched 10-year program, a key part of its development strategy. Malawi has expanded teacher colleges, and teachers must now train for a year and assist for another year before they get their own class. Teacher-student ratios will be one to 70—even at Chiseka, there are now sometimes 200 children to a class. The plan also seeks to drastically cut dropout rates.
Malawi is also experimenting with better paths to literacy. Instead of making dozens of children simply repeat words in unison, some teachers now rotate them through smaller groups where they can learn more actively and help each other.
It’s still early, but parents, educators and private watchdog groups believe Malawi is indeed improving the quality of basic education. Class sizes have begun to come down, there are more qualified teachers in the system and many schools are showing modest improvements in test scores.
But there’s no shortage of challenges. One is finding enough primary school teachers in a country where their average monthly pay is about US $80. In addition, many have to travel long distances to get to work. Only a few get free housing for their families on campus because there are not enough houses.
Then there is the problem of money. The Education Ministry is the largest in the Cabinet and gets slightly more than 11 percent of Malawi’s national budget—the second highest priority behind agriculture and food security. But that may not be enough, says Limbani Nsapato.
“The government is committed to supporting education and I think education is moving forward,” says Nsapato, the head in Malawi of the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education. But despite the progress, he says, the government needs to more than double education spending to save a generation now languishing in public schools.
Even at Chiseka, headmaster Nkhoma acknowledges what the exam results don’t show—the class of 40 graduating eighth-graders began the first grade with more than 350 students. Somewhere along the way, more than 300 failed or gave up.
About 400 students drop out every year, most because one or both parents have died and they must work. Others drop out after tribal initiation rites, which often lead to early marriages.