Time for crop harvesting offers relief to many families, especially in rural areas of the country. During this period, most households are assured of food availability.
But for all the good tidings it brings into households, harvesting work in crop fields seems to bear an extra cost and burden on children’s education in Mchinji.
This agriculture practice is among several factors that are keeping most children away from school, resulting in an upward spiral in the rate of absenteeism.
A snap survey indicates that such a development is usually common between April and July when harvesting of various crops is at the peak.
A visit to some of the primary schools in Chimteka education zone established that most learners were missing their classes. Authorities attribute this to increased labour during the harvesting period.
At Legison Kayira Junior Primary School in Chioshya, Traditional Authority (T/A) Simphasi in the district, it was found that on a normal school day, half of the learners do not attend classes.
For instance, one class of standard five learners has an enrolment of 375 pupils but out of these, 242 pupils were absent on one Thursday (July 5), according to a class attendance register Malawi News Agency saw.
“Most parents detain children at home for works such as harvesting and shelling groundnuts and threshing soybeans among other crops,” says Nemezio Jobo Mwale, head teacher at Legison Kayira School.
At Chimwa Primary School, which is under Mikundi zone in T/A Mduwa, another Standard five class with an enrolment of 99 pupils has an average of 33 learners missing classes every day.
These are just some of the many examples demonstrating a high rate of absenteeism in primary schools in Mchinji.
While reasons for the high rate of absenteeism range from lack of sheer interest by learners in education, most children are involved in manual work in their parents’ farms.
Mwale says the school authorities have engaged parents and communities for several occasions to address this challenge, but nothing fruitful has come out of these interactions.
Group village head Chimphamba in T/A Simphasi says that the lure for quick money is also another driving force that puts some children away from classes.
“While it is true that some guardians send their children to work in crop fields, a number of children do piece works on their own to generate income without the knowledge of their parents,” the chief says.
Although farm activities are said to cause high rate of absenteeism, other quarters suggest that the environment within the learning facilities should not be spared from the blame.
A recent report by Link for Community Development in Malawi, one of the nongovernmental organisations working in the education sector in Mchinji, faults the conduct of some teachers in executing their duties.
Some practices include lack of preparation by teachers in terms of coming up with lesson plans, inadequate assessment of learners and continuation in administering corporal punishment.
Using data collected from 200 primary school last year, Link established that most teachers fail to adequately prepare lesson plans and schemes of work, which negatively affect delivery of lessons resulting in learners losing interest.
The report further states that some teachers are still administering corporal punishments and that most schools do not have clear systems of dealing with issues related to abuse of learners.
“Learners are still subjected to corporal punishment despite teachers being fully aware that it is illegal. In the absence of solutions to this mode of disciplinary action, learners find the school environment difficult to live in,” reads part of the report.
According to Link Malawi Project Manager, Clement Mwazambumba, the school performance review exposes multiple causes of absenteeism that require a systematic approach to address them.
“Lack of inspection in schools is seen as major set-back and is accelerated by shortage of inspectors to assess standards for establishing benchmarks for improvement,” says Mwazambumba.
Currently, Mchinji has one inspector for 204 schools.
As such, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology tries to use inspectors from Lilongwe. But that alternative is too expensive and tedious and this leaves many schools not being inspected, according to Mwazambumba.
With its project called Integrated School Performance Improvement Review and Engagement (INSPIRE), Link Malawi is trying to address some of the issues related to high absenteeism
One of the approaches is the development of a model to equip primary education advisors (PEAs) with skills in assessing schools and establish objectives for ratings.
The National Education Standards (NES) say that schools which fall below minimum standards hinder the future of the children they are set up to serve.
District Education Manager (DEM) for Mchinji Nellie Kamtedza says eliminating high absenteeism is a tricky action for her office.
“Absenteeism in school is beyond our control. The learners stay with parents and guardians and they have a big role to play in ensuring that these children attend classes on daily basis,” Kamtedza says.
She is hopeful that INSPIRE project by Link Malawi will reverse the situation through its engagement with school authorities in setting up measures for improving school attendance.
“The standards set by the project will help to assess learners regularly and ensure that they do not miss classes,” Kamtedza says.
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