Primary Education as we experience it.

Even though I see clean water as the first step on the development ladder in Malawi and food for a healthy diet as a close second, education is essential to these two even if I rank it third on my wish list. I suppose I look back to my own youth in the West of Ireland, where thankfully we had an excellent well within half a kilometre and always enough food and education was central to my parents’ expectations for the family.
I went to school at four when my mother sent me in with a neighbour’s lunch and they kept me! I think they needed the numbers rather than having discovered a child prodigy. Anyway I can remember little besides the lunch for Pat Morris, may he rest peacefully!

The school with the rather exotic name of Fort Augustus, was a present from the British, built in 1895, to a standard plan for the colonies. I even discovered the same school structure in the gold mining town of Ballarat in Australia. Even though the Brits were in Malawi, there is no such legacy, or more disastrously absent is the teacher’s house. In Fortaugustus, the teacher’s residence was impressive, second only maybe to the old landlord’s house up the road. It made a statement on the importance of the principal teacher and his place in society. It gave him stature, like the priest and the sergeant, even though he didn’t have the uniform like the other two. I suppose the respect or dependence of the people came from the fact that these teachers could read and write and very importantly could sign documents. For decades this respect for teacher and education has stuck with us and in poorer areas today the teacher is valued highly in Irish Society, particularly the primary teacher. Of course nowadays we have social workers and other pseudo medical state employees who figure they know it all, everything about everything, but an observant primary teacher, with their students for more time than their parents even, can be a wealth of knowledge and value to society. For me a good primary teacher can leave the mark of their teeth on four generations. Unfortunately I missed out on this one.

What am I ranting about? Well I recently met an Irish priest, Paddy Leahy from Tipperary, 50 years in Malawi and I was excited when telling him how a group of students, from DIT had helped a community to complete a three classroom school in two weeks, but he quickly burst my bubble by asking what about teachers houses. Good teachers can teach under a tree, but you can’t attract good teachers to Luvuwu, in the middle of nowhere without giving them a good house.
There are about forty six thousand primary teachers in Malawi and over forty thousand have to live sometimes long distances from their school. To get to school they walk or cycle and most can’t afford a good bicycle on the wages they get. In the fine weather there is some hope if you can avoid rocks craters thorns and whatever as they take all shortcuts available. In the rainy season it’s a whole other matter on dirt roads, floods, wooden bridges made of sticks, arriving late, soaking wet, with sickness and disaster ever present. No wonder most days half the staff is missing, in the hospital, burst tyres, tubes where the patches outnumber the original tube. I know how tough it to cycle to school, but I only did 7km each way, on a good bike, on a good road. Oh, I travelled 10 km each way for one year, as our school was being refurbished, on a sand road. It was tough enough, but nothing like the goat paths here, and I wasn’t a qualified teacher, just in sixth class!

I then thought of Ison, the school principal, in Luvuwu, living in a poorly constructed thatched house, with his wife, children and extra orphans, and knew immediately why he couldn’t command any respect for himself or the message he was offering. He was no better off than the people he was trying to lift and inspire. What good is education if this is what a principal teacher can afford? To date I have found no teacher with a landmark house, one that makes a statement, one that would inspire any young person to become a teacher. I believe, in the end only a good primary school system with well trained, paid and respected teachers will ever lift this country from its status as a begging dependency

All I have seen is the North, where we are supposed to have the most educated Malawians and it’s awful. Now if I am seeing the best education in the country, God help the rest. Statistics, God help us, tell us that Primary Education in Malawi is free since 1964, I think, but what does that mean. 100 children sitting on the floor of a poorly constructed classroom, with no books, copies or pencils, learning by rote writing English they don’t understand on a white blackboard. The primary school system is absent, if you use any meaningful yardstick, the secondary school system is expensive or private and very often supported by donor money and Church bodies. Teachers are poorly trained and paid, have no status and the brighter ones find themselves delivering aid for NGO’s who should realise that their work would be much more effective if they left them in their schools. Of course who can blame the teachers for accepting the white jeep, the big money, the expenses, and the status?

The next big issue is that you have teachers, with poor English, preparing students for exams in English. We have recently done some inservice teacher training with six volunteering Irish primary school teachers, working with staff in a remote primary school, and the improvements were amazing with even a little intervention. Regular follow up contact between teachers, here and there, is having great response.
Another issue is that of books. The school above has no books for Standard 8, the year where they do the exam for admission to Secondary school. You can’t buy them, they are not available. They printed millions a few years ago and when they’re gone they are gone!

As the world commemorated the International Day of Literacy last month the teacher in Malawi continues to play second fiddle in almost every sphere of life. The nurse’s wages have been propped up by the world of NGOs because of the AIDS pandemic, the Aid business gobbles up the brightest and training is not great. The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MDGS) well acknowledges that education is crucial for Malawi to achieve the much desired sustainable socio-economic development, but as usual Malawians talk a lot but application is regularly missing. Loads of Strategy but where do they start? As is regularly found the central people in this, the teachers are of such low status, they are omitted from the script. Loads of bureaucratic bullshit, big words, hotels, meetings, meals, expenses and out of pocket expenses and millions of donor money spent, results in little or no spend on the issue. Donor driven reports in Malawi are ten a penny, a must have for every bureaucrats shelf or more regularly drawer, rarely produce results. They do however employ and overcompensate the consultants of the Aid business, and pretend that all this money is spent on Malawi and Malawians. The National Education Sector Plan (NESP) recognized that inadequate and inferior physical infrastructure, including teachers’ houses, is one of the challenges facing primary education. Malawians love shortening names but in reality this plan like a million others lacks any kind of teeth, and if it does ever happen it will cost 500% of what it should with much of the money going to foreign, highly paid consultants and little will go on teachers houses!!

Mary Coyne, Edited Jan 3 2011

If they make it to Secondary school, we have a fund to pay for them


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