Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Basic Education

Education in Zambia issue 1: What do children learn at a public primary school? Does the school offer them a better future or does the educational system perpetuate the social inequalities that it is supposed to make up for?

Nchimunya entering Basic School for her first teaching practice day.

My wife is doing a diploma course in primary school education. Last term she had to do her teaching practice at a government school at Choma. The school, initially a community school, literally is still under construction. Despite insufficient means, it is well managed by the headmaster, the deputy headmaster and the senior teacher. The construction of the school is supported by the community providing labour and financially by a sister of the Catholic Church.

The operating condition of the school has its specific features but much of it applies to a great many government primary schools in Zambia. Many informed parents and guardians are aware of the deficiencies of primary education in Zambia and prefer to send their children to private schools in the hope of better performance. The overwhelming majority of parents cannot afford such a solution and their children must run the “normal” primary school course in a government school.

Nchimunya was teaching term 3 of grade 2. In such schools grade 1 is taught in the prevailing local language (Chitonga in this case) and grade two is taught bilingual both in English and Chitonga. Most children come from homes where no English is spoken. Starting literacy and language subjects in the prevailing local language is supposed to make it easier for these children to start to read and write as the local language is familiar to them and English is not.

Part of my wife’s assignment at the school was to conduct research in an educational problem area, identify the causes of the problem and suggest solutions for it. She chose to look into language related problems, that is, in Chitonga, English and Literacy (i.e., a subject about the ability to read in English). Obviously poor performance in these subjects would negatively impact on most other subjects of the grade 2 curriculum.

She started to teach a class of over 60 children. Fortunately the school management had the sense and grace to split up the class in two, despite an acute lack of class rooms. The results stated below therefore apply to 30 children.

Twelve out of thirty children (40%) had an average score of 25% or less (out of 100) in Chitonga, English and Literacy.

Ten out of thirty pupils (33%) had an average score between 26 and 50% (out of 100) in Chitonga, English and Literacy.

Eight children (26%) had an average score over 50% (out of 100) in Chitonga, English and Literacy.

In short, the results of only 26% of the pupils are acceptable, for 33% there might be some hope for improvement and for 40% prospects are dim, if not very dim.

What accounts for these frightening results? Three types of variables were considered: factors related to the situation at home; factors related to the situation at school; and disorders of a mental, physical or social nature.

Domestic factors affecting the twelve poorest performers were: No English spoken at home (100%); lack of support and encouragement for the child (58%); illiteracy of parents (58%); neglect of child (41%); no Chitonga spoken at home (41%); malnutrition (33%); abusive child labour (25%) and disease at home (8%).

Factors pertaining to the school situation are: Poor education/achievement in previous grade; overpopulated classes; lack of individual guidance; lack of teaching aids; problematic methodology (by grading pupils into groups by achievement thus stigmatising the poor performers) and lack of provision for extra tuition. As a result the school cannot make good the handicaps the children have in linguistic abilities, especially reading skills.

The situation is aggravated by incidents of disorders and/or undesirable behaviours. One child in this class requires specialist mental care; four children might be dyslectic and eight children display deviant social behaviour. There is a clear correlation between misbehaving in class and poor performance. Extra care required to deal with such pupils is not possible in oversized classes.

In addition two other main factors contribute to poor language and literacy performance. Firstly, the number of teaching hours is too little and in fact just over half of a “normal” situation (as in a private school). Secondly, the rules for passing to the next grade are too lenient. In this case doing better than class average is rewarded at the end of the year by promotion to the next grade, even though results might be way below a 55% score out of 100 that should be the minimum requirement for a pass. Both factors have to do with the lack of schools or classrooms, and ultimately the cost of education and the availability of finance.

The net result of these policies and conditions simply is that the majority of public primary school leavers in fact are below standard performers and bound to fail in further education. It also means that the public educational system at foundation level does not make up for social and economic inequalities of the pupils and their parents or guardians. When poor you must be exceptionally bright and/or benefit from exceptional support in order to make the grade to higher levels of learning. When coming from a well off family you might be successful in further education even when mediocre by the better quality of education and additional support that the parents can afford. Effectively, therefore, social inequalities are sustained by the very educational system that is supposed to offer a better future for its pupils.

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