Malawi co-operation agreement pays off for pupils and teachers

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Education in the African country will not be rebuilt in a day but, as Neil Munro reports, a promising start has been made - thanks to Scottish efforts

Five years ago, next Wednesday, Scotland signed a "co-operation agreement" with Malawi, binding the two countries to work together on education and other areas such as health and economic development.

For some, it was final confirmation that the then First Minister, Jack (now Lord) McConnell had acquired ideas beyond his station. What was a Parliament that did not even have full powers in its own country doing, dabbling in the affairs of another?

In the case for the defence, Lord McConnell says that, "as a prosperous developed nation, I believed Scotland had a wider responsibility than just promoting our own wealth and development" - particularly, he adds, in a country which has strong historical connections with Scotland (dating from David Livingstone's journey there in 1859, and then forged largely through the churches).

But Malawi's problems were, and are, formidable (see box below). None of the media who accompanied First Minister McConnell on his initial visit to Malawi in 2005, will readily forget moments such as our visit to Bottom Hospital, the main maternity unit in the capital Lilongwe, where pregnant women lay on bare concrete floors waiting - often in vain - for the next bloodstained mattress on which to give birth; or looking up at a clear blue sky through the roofless primary school building in Linthipe township, 35 kilometres from the capital, where education ceases for almost half the year during the rainy season (November to March).

If teachers have to spend almost half the year without their pupils, many of the pupils have to live without their parents. On the day we visited Linthipe, the school was performing its other role as a teeming feeding station for the many youngsters from surrounding villages who had been orphaned by Aids - as many as half a million in the country as a whole, it has been estimated.

"What on earth was Britain's pound;80 million-plus aid budget to Malawi being spent on?" might have been a legitimate question.

But it was during those very moments, standing in Bottom Hospital and in the Linthipe primary school, that we began to realise how little it would take to make a difference and how much Scotland's limited resources could, therefore, contribute. One of the most compelling statistics was that 770 schools could be built in Malawi for the cost of one pound;15 million secondary school in Scotland.

The impact of Scotland's own "special relationship" is becoming evident after five short years. Bottom Hospital, for example, is no more: following a Scottish fund-raising effort, a modern emergency maternity unit stands in its place.

And that school in Linthipe, with its 500 pupils and five teachers, can now operate all year round: it has a roof, again thanks to Scottish efforts.

Roofs over heads has inspired a London-based Scots architect to lend his expertise to Malawi - fee free. John McAslan, whose practice has worked on major projects such as the redevelopment of King's Cross station and the Royal Academy of Music, has designed a prototype classroom block for Malawi, working initially with the Clinton Hunter development initiative.

Remarkably, they cost the same to build as the "shacks" teachers there have been used to. This is about more than bricks and mortar, however: Malawi needs to build an additional 25,000 classrooms over the next decade if it is to meet its target of increasing the number of youngsters receiving primary education from 80 per cent to 95 per cent, and from 16 per cent to 30 per cent for secondary education.

On Wednesday, teachers from the 200 Scottish schools which now have links with Malawi were honoured at a special reception in the Scottish Parliament, hosted by Lord McConnell and Fiona Hyslop, Minister for Culture and External Affairs.

The teachers are in little doubt that their impact on the country is making a difference - and that they are getting something valuable in return.

Fiona Leishman, headteacher at Craighead Primary in East Dunbartonshire, comments: "These links benefit all the children, not just in terms of their education, but of their personal and social development too. In a western society which is all about `me, me, me', it's important that children realise they are part of an international community in which they learn to be responsible citizens."

Craighead is twinned with Chikololere Primary in the Dedza area of Malawi. It has even fund-raised to the tune of pound;8,500 to build a classroom block for its twin - but only after the villagers committed to the project by making the bricks.

This is the kind of partnership of equals encouraged by the Scotland- Malawi Partnership. "Schools must be careful that money does not become the primary goal, otherwise the relationship can become distorted," it warns. Aid is a dirty word in this particular lexicon. "It's about people helping people," Lord McConnell declares.

For some, the experience has been life-changing. Earlier this year, we reported how Tony Begley, depute head at Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow, was so inspired by the school's extensive links with Malawi that he gave up his job to work for Mary's Meals, the charity which provides food for children in countries where poverty and hunger prevent them getting an education.

The education connections are not confined to schools: Strathclyde University is involved in training primary teachers in Malawi; and a consortium of further education colleges, led by Adam Smith College in Fife, is supporting the professional development of college staff in Malawi.


Malawi factfile:

- 40 per cent of the 14 million population is below the poverty line (UK figure, 14 per cent);

- 100 children per thousand die before the age of five (UK, six);

- 12 per cent of those aged 15-49 die of HIVAids (UK, 0.11 per cent);

- 807 women per 100,000 die in childbirth (UK, 11);

- GDP per head is $299 (UK, $32,798).

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