Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Hard choices over food versus education in Malawi

By Nils Blythe
Business correspondent, BBC News, Lilongwe

Break time at Chilamba school
Linda walks 12 miles to school and back everyday

Food or education? Public spending choices are never easy.

But in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, the choices are particularly stark.

The government has made "food security" - which means making sure people have enough to eat - the top priority for government spending.

The programme of providing heavily subsidised fertiliser and seeds to poor farmers has had real success in reducing hunger. But education in Malawi is under-funded and struggling.

Primary school classes typically have over a hundred pupils for every teacher. Classes with two hundred pupils are not uncommon.

British grant

Chilamba School stands amid the dry rocky hills of central Malawi. The class room for the six year olds has mud walls and a thatched roof. About a hundred pupils sit in neat rows, three to a bench, competing to put their hands up and answer questions.

This school has recently had its teacher numbers increased by a small grant from Britain's Department for International Development (DFID).

The head teacher, Roylex Jason, is full of energy and enthusiasm. But he says that at one time he had only two teachers for around five hundred pupils.

Pupils of Chilamba School, with headmaster Roylex Jason
Headmaster Roylex Jason with pupils at his school

Learning is not easy in a class of over a hundred. And many pupils have long journeys to cope with as well.

I was introduced to Linda, who has an impressive grasp of English for a nine-year-old living in a remote village. She walks 6 miles to school every day - 12 miles for the round trip - and she says she finds it tiring.

Before she sets off in the morning Linda has some maize porridge to eat. Many other pupils are not so fortunate, arriving at school without having eaten.

The school has no budget to feed them, so they go hungry until the end of the day.

Not top priority

For all its problems, Chilamba School seems a cheerful place.

But the underlying problems in Malawian education run very deep. There are not enough teachers. And some of the teachers are not well qualified themselves, according to Lexon Ndalama.

Mr Ndalama is a former school inspector who leads a coalition of educational groups.

He argues that Malawi is trapped in a vicious circle in which those entering the teaching profession have themselves been poorly taught in over-crowded classes.

Malawi's education minister George Chaponda admits that class sizes are a major problem.

He wants to improve teacher-pupil ratios in the next few years. The short term will be a system in which pupils come to school in shifts.

Teacher training

The longer term solution is to train more teachers.

Emmanuel Teacher Training College - funded by European church groups - is the latest addition to the country's facilities. The buildings are pristine and the young trainee teachers are eager.

But Malawi has lost many teachers to HIV/AIDS.

Pupils of Chilamba School
Education is not a top priority, but is that shortsighted?

And senior lecturer Frank Zachariah says that even with new training colleges like his opening up, the need for new teachers far outstrips the supply.

Education is not the top priority of the Malawian government.

Its biggest commitment is to reducing the number of people who go hungry. But the danger is that inadequate education will hold back Malawi in its fight against poverty.

As Don Taylor, the educational adviser for DFID in Malawi, argues that education is part of a virtuous circle.

It enables subsistence farmers to produce more food. It helps reduce the very high birth rates which are a feature of most poor countries.

And those things, in turn, lead to better educational opportunities.

But what if the question is how do you spend a poor country's limited government budget: better education or more food? It's a question to which there is no right answer.



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