The Education System in Rural Zambia
The Education System in Rural Zambia
Is there any country in the world that has an excellent education system? I don’t know. I know that it’s quite lacking in the US. And it is here in Zambia as well. No surprise in a country that has only been independent since 1964. The British pulled out, leaving the schools to the new government. With so many people living in the rural areas where there are too few schools, not nearly enough teachers, no student textbooks, and no science labs or other perks (read: no money) what can be done? I wish I had an answer. I wish someone had an answer.
The rural areas are truly the hardest hit. If you live in the city, you are more likely to have a qualified teacher in every class. You are more likely to have textbooks. Your class sizes will be smaller. You will be taught in English. You will have access to other educational resources. Your parents have money for school fees. [please note that I am not talking about the thousands of kids who live on the streets, but the kids who have homes with working parents]. But if you were born in the village, you have to work much harder – to find school fees, to find books to teach yourself what you are not taught in school, to find the time to study (crops still need to be planted and harvested). I had a young man show up at my door one day. Please, madam, I have just been made prefect at school and need a red tie. Will you buy this guava tree seedling from me for K5,000? ($1 US). How could I say no? It’s an honor to be a prefect. He needs the red tie and his family doesn’t have that extra money. That was easy. But it becomes more difficult when they need K50,000 for term 2 and you know that term 3 will follow close behind and they probably won’t have that money either.
Grades 1-7 are “free,” except for a K2,000 (about 40 cents) fee per child for maintenance of the grounds and a K15,000 ($3) fee for an identification card needed before the grade 7 examination can be taken, plus uniforms, notebooks, pencils, and such. Grade 8 this year costs K80,000 ($16). Grade 9 is the same, plus a fee for the exam. The fees for grades 10-12 vary depending on which school a student is assigned to. When a student passes the grade 9 exam, s/he is assigned a school, partly determined by which schools cater to the strengths of the student. Some of these schools are way out in the middle of nowhere, increasing transportation costs for the family. The average cost seems to be about $200 US for each term. That’s a lot of money for these families to come up with when many earn less than $2 a day. You can imagine that even if child number one goes to school, child number two won’t be able to. And parents do have to make that decision. If they can only send one child, which one should go?
It would be easy to think at this point, why bother? What chance do these kids have? Especially the girls, many of whom drop out of school early due to a lack of fees or to pregnancy, or who don’t pass the grade 9 exam. But some of these kids are really driven to succeed. They know there is a whole world out there and they want a part of it, some with a desire to come back to the village to help their people (though many never make it back). Who do you help? Who has the budget to help them all? How do you say yes to one and no to another?
Sometimes the help is not in the form of money, but in tutoring, or in providing books they can study. A crazy thing about the grade 12 exam is that what the students are tested on is not what they are taught in the classroom. They must study on their own, teaching themselves and each other, in order to receive good marks that will get them a scholarship to university. And there are good scholarships for village students who score well. Scoring well is the operative phrase. In a system that does not prepare you for the final exam, scoring well is out of reach for many.
As has been mentioned in other sections of this website, English is not taught until grade 3. While that may not seem too late to someone in America, it is late when you consider that many children in grade 3 are 10 years old, not 7. The younger you are when you begin to learn a language, the greater success you will have (the opposite of that is true, by the way – the older you are, the more difficult it is). Knowing English is a key component to a successful education. Even children of English speaking parents are not learning English well. And experience proves that teachers at the local school tend to speak Bemba to the students rather than English. You can imagine the cycle. If I speak to him in English, he won’t understand. So I speak to him in Bemba. But the more I speak to him in Bemba, the less English he will learn. Somehow the cycle needs to be broken. What about a year of nothing but English? Maybe numbers also, since math is its own language anyway. Wait to begin science and social studies and the other subjects until grade 2 or 3, after the students have a good grasp of English. It’s just a thought.
The other thing that bears mentioning is class size. I can hear a teacher saying, I have 108 second graders. How can I teach them all well? Even if the class is split in two, as has been done this year, that is still over 50 pupils per class. How can any teacher be effective in that situation? How much are the students really learning? At what point do they give up? At what point does the teacher give up? But not all teachers give up. And not all students give up. Some do very well, even going on to university. And that is encouraging. Somewhere, somehow it works for some, no matter where the school is. It is a shame that it doesn’t work for more students in the rural areas.