Malawi School Conference

Malawi school

Children attend an outdoor school in Malawi. A CRS sponsored Malawi Education Symposium brought together government officials, the church, NGOs and civil society to discuss the changes needed in Malawi’s current education system. Photo by CRS staff

As I lifted the last box of poster board and markers into the truck, it suddenly occurred to me that it was over. The two day education symposium titled “Solidarity in Action to Improve Education” I had helped organize as part of a CRS Malawi taskforce was now in the past. Upon my arrival in Malawi to begin my assignment as an International Development Fellow, I was immediately assigned to assist with the organization of a symposium focused on pre-university education.

Since 1990 Malawi has witnessed a 136 percent increase in primary school enrollment. While this increase is encouraging, student-teacher ratios have exploded as a result. Currently there are 80 students to every 1 teacher, which means a decrease in the quality of education and subsequent learning achievement. Actual learning time is low. Each year 20 percent of Malawian students repeat a grade. That’s the highest among the countries monitored by the Southern African Development Community. School attendance expectancy in Malawi is only 7 years. It is not uncommon to find a group of 100 or more children competing for shade in their outdoor classroom, with their teacher sparingly distributing what few books they have.

Malawi meeting

CRS sponsored Malawi Education Symposium participants look over materials at the symposium in Lilongwe. Photo by CRS staff

CRS Malawi decided to add education programs in response to the Malawian Catholic Church’s interest in improving education. USAID and World Bank education assessment reports demonstrated a clear need to strengthen Malawi’s schools.
We brought together key players in Malawi’s education sector to discuss how we could work together to solve problems facing Malawi’s schools. The topics introduced by panelists and presenters helped inform CRS Malawi how to best to proceed with education programs.

Interest was high. The Episcopal Conference of Malawi, the Ministry of Gender, Child and Community Development, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, various Catholic institutions and international aid organizations came together to make this symposium a success. The involvement of this diverse array of groups boosted the visibility and perception of the event. This was the first organized meeting in Malawi by CRS that brought these groups together for a formal discussion about education.

Reflecting back on the past two days, I’m astounded at the number of interesting discussions that took place. People brought up concerns about land ownership and Catholic school presence, others spoke of the lack of parenting skills for those with young children, some broached the controversial topic of whether or not to provide compensation to volunteer caregivers of community based childcare centers, and others emphasized the importance of training communities on how to monitor and evaluate the performance of its schools and how they are managed.

There were constructive debates, talks between Bishops and Government representatives, informative networking sessions with Catholic institutions and other local organizations, and considerable positive feedback. CRS Malawi now has to sort through the information and begin to define a niche in which it can work together with church partners to improve education. As I climbed into the truck, I exchanged smiles with my fellow taskforce members and recalled all our hard work over the last month. “Solidarity in Action,” I thought, “has definitely paid off!”

CRS international development fellow Torrey Peace is stationed in Malawi

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