Revolutionary road to three Rs

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Malawian teachers' training college and Strathclyde University devise literacy programme together

Scottish and African academics have joined forces to transform literacy teaching for thousands of Malawian children.

A new programme will help primary teachers overcome challenges in schools where classes can have more than 100 pupils, by creating a network of literacy educators.

This follows the 2006 launch of a Scottish Government-funded "top-up degree" in primary education, led by Strathclyde University and Malawi University's Chancellor College and supported by each of Scotland's teacher education institutions. Students - all tutors in Malawian teacher- training colleges - work out ways of teaching maths or literacy which address issues specific to Malawi.

The new network will make it easier for students to stay in touch and share ideas. It is being designed by Macford Chinambalala, of Kasungu Teachers' Training College, and Chancellor College's Foster Kholo-wa, who are working with Strathclyde University colleagues. They visited the UK this summer to find out about existing literacy networks, and want the Malawian version to link up with others in Europe and the United States.

Sue Ellis, reader in literacy and language at Strathclyde University's department of childhood and primary studies, said: "In Malawi, teaching children to read and write presents challenges, and it's not just a question of resources. There are wider problems which mean teachers need to teach differently.

"Children may not see many adults reading or writing outside school, books are not readily available, storybooks for children are particularly expensive and scarce, and many parents are working until dusk in areas where electricity is expensive. In rural villages, there are very few shop or road signs, so children are not familiar with the printed word before they begin school."

As a result, children may see little point in learning to read and write, and class sizes make it difficult to change their minds.

Amanda Corrigan, Strathclyde University lecturer in childhood and primary studies, said: "The changes will not happen overnight, but work being undertaken can help improve education for thousands of Malawians. When the literacy network is up and running, we'll also be able to support the development of a maths network. It's great to be involved in something that will be self-sustaining and help transform teaching in primary schools across Malawi."

Meanwhile, a separate project to champion Malawian girls' rights to education is being expanded.

An evaluation by North Lanarkshire Council, which provided expertise for a trial in Malawi, found that training parents had improved the chances of girls going to school.

So-called Mother Group training, run by the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi, encourages people to speak up for the right to education of their communities' young women.

"Often families struggle to find money for school fees, uniforms and books, and are forced to choose between educating a boy or a girl - so often the girl in the family will miss out on schooling," said the report's author Charles Fawcett.

Violence also stops girls getting to school. The project encourages men to condemn sexual exploitation.

Hazel Manda, education manager at Malawi's Shire Highlands Education Division, believes the evaluation has revealed a "very positive effect" on girls' empowerment, as well as progress in eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIVAids. "I firmly believe that properly-administered Mother Group training, along with appropriate resources, is the most cost-effective way in which Malawi can become a mature, developed country," she said.

- An event was held at Strathclyde University last month to mark 150 years of links between Scotland and Malawi. The missionary David Livingstone reached the shores of Lake Malawi on September 17, 1859.

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