From Band Aid to school aid

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports from Malawi, where the First Minister has been on a fact-finding mission

Jack McConnell has seen part of the future of what Scotland can do for Malawi - and he thinks it will work.

The First Minister was not long into his five-day visit to see education and health projects in the central African country - to "refresh the historic links" between Scotland and Malawi - when he heard what his hosts really, really want.

Minga community secondary school lies at the end of a parched dirt track on the outskirts of the capital, Lilongwe. Mr McConnell saw not only the 150 pupils at their lessons, cross-legged on almost bare classroom floors but five pupils from Sanday Junior High in Orkney, who won the Scottish Schools Africa Challenge, launched by the First Minister in February.

The youngsters were spending a week in Malawi with their new partners at Minga who will receive a similar culture shock when they visit Orkney in the autumn.

Alexon Kankhwani, the headteacher at Minga, lost no time in drawing attention to the lack of facilities and the long distances children walk to school, in some cases a round trip of up to nine miles. The average teacher's pay is the equivalent of around pound;100 a year, the First Minister was told.

Simeon Hau, a senior official in the Malawi education ministry, highlighted the needs of schools like Minga: a lack of labs and libraries, a teaching force that wants to upgrade its qualifications - secondaries are almost all staffed by primary-trained teachers - and the shortage of ICT to help disabled pupils.

The First Minister will meet senior representatives of Scotland's teacher training colleges immediately on his return from Malawi to explore how Scotland can help the country train more, and better qualified, teachers.

He is also due to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament next Wednesday about plans to step up efforts to support projects, including educational ones, in Malawi.

Sandra Towrie, one of two Sanday teachers who travelled to Malawi, plans to start an immediate fundraising drive to help equip Minga with desks and chairs. It will not cost much. It has been estimated that 770 schools could be built in Malawi for the cost of one pound;15 million secondary in Scotland.

Ms Towrie said she had seen excellent teaching at Minga with good interaction between pupil and teacher. The Sanday students had one "spooky moment" when the biology lesson on blood circulation was one they had just completed back home. As for computer studies, the subject is taught at Minga - but the school has no computers.

The return visit by the young Malawians to Orkney will allow Sanday to continue its work on global education and citizenship.

The lesson for young Scots must surely be the eagerness for learning the Minga pupils demonstrate, despite the barriers of walking to school and the fees which must be paid, not just for attending secondary school but for every exam they sit.

The latent demand for schooling was shown when the country abolished fees for primary education in 1994 and numbers shot up from 1.9 million to 3 million - but the country has never had enough facilities or teachers to cope.

Mr McConnell appeared well aware of the dangers in helping to train more teachers who may then leave for better paid opportunities overseas (it is estimated that more Malawians are practising medicine in Manchester than in their own country). But he was equally clear there is a job to be done.

Minga has eight teachers (including the head) for its 150 pupils, but the country as a whole has only one teacher for every 95 pupils.

Lack of training is not the only enemy, but Africa's Aids pandemic. Paul Miamba, a schools inspector, told us in Malawi 12 teachers a month die from Aids-related conditions. Education, the worst hit ministry, spends much of its meagre funding on coffins for teachers and supporting their families.

The country as a whole has 500,000 Aids orphans - the equivalent of the population of Edinburgh. Children under the age of five are 27 times more likely to be in an early grave than in Scotland. And only one in three youngsters completes five years in education.

Thomas Newton, one of the Sanday pupils, said: "I had an idea what it would be like, but it's still a bit of a shock when you come here and see it."

That is just one of the many painful realities that will limit Mr McConnell's ambitions to "galvanise a whole generation of young Scots" to develop productive relations with the developing world. As Mrs Thatcher put it so memorably in a different context, it's about "a hand up, not a hand-out".

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