At a primary school on the scruffy green outskirts of Lusaka, parents are being given a demonstration of Internet-enabled learning. The Internet connection isn’t actually working – due to technical problems, the content is being played from a visitor’s laptop – but the parents don’t seem to notice. They sit along benches at the sides of the room, their children in front, watching stories being projected in words and pictures onto the screen at the front of the classroom. Not all of the Grade 1 pupils are here today, but the teacher tells us that in total she has ninety-nine of them – fifty in the morning class and forty-nine in the afternoon one. Without the projector it is hard to see how they could all follow the story.
The first story is in Chinyanja, the local language. The second is in English. The children on the floor watch the Chinyanja story keenly, but fidget and talk during the English one. These are Grade 1 pupils, and English – the main language of their future education, and (if they are lucky) their future careers – remains foreign to them. Yet the stories are authentically local, part of a curriculum specially prepared by teachers working for the iSchool project, using themes and pictures and voices with which Zambian children are familiar.
Some of the parents look sceptical. “They have been complaining that the children aren’t writing as much as they used to,” the teacher had told us. A few of the parents left. On the way out they were collared by college students brandishing survey forms. “How valuable do you think computer-based learning is to your children?” the questionnaires ask. On a scale of 1 to 5, nobody ranks it higher than 2.
But the demonstration isn’t over yet. The pupils now gather round in front, while the teacher projects pictures of pieces of furniture on the screen. What are these? Hands in the air, children clamour to recite the names, in English and then Chinyanja. Stool, table, bench, chair. Which is the odd one out? The table, because we eat off it rather than sitting on it. The last part isn’t in English, but you don’t need fluency in the language to follow this kind of lesson. And while the children are learning English, I’m picking up several words of Chinyanja. I don’t need to take anyone’s word for it that this is good education.
Nor do the parents, who are smiling now. They are beginning to realise that iSchool isn’t just about putting computers into classrooms. It is about fostering an interactive style of learning, one that encourages pupils to think and challenge and question and contribute, in place of the dull rote learning that is currently the staple diet of most African schoolchildren. And the interaction is only just beginning. It is now time to turn to the laptops, which are lined up on the tables at the sides of the classroom. The six and seven year-olds in the class are already familiar with these machines, having worked with them all term, but most of their parents have never used a computer before. In pairs the adults work through a training session on the screen. The small white laptops look on the outside like toys, but they are fully-functional computers, and even come with headphones and little mice. The parents are engrossed.
Outside, young children are running around playing, while older ones attack the grass around the school compound with an assortment of sticks, hoes and machetes. Teaching has finished for the term, and apart from tidying the school grounds the pupils’ only activity for the week is to sit the end-of-term tests that are a fixture of the Zambian school calendar. Western educationalists question the value of these tests, but parents attach great importance to them. Many of them have made big sacrifices to send their children to school, and they are anxious to know whether they are getting value for money.
When the parents’ lesson is over, one of them turns to the iSchool representatives who have come to visit for the day. “Zikomo, zikomo” she says - thank you, thank you. And, in faltering English, “We want more.”
On the way out, there are more surveys. Having tried out the technology for themselves, most of the parents now give it a rating of 5 out of 5. But then comes the crucial question. “How much would you be willing to pay for computer-based learning for your child?”. The computers and training at this school were provided by iSchool free, as part of a pilot programme, but if the scheme is to be rolled out across Zambia, money must be found. Most parents are poor – the average family income among those we survey is around $300 a month. Divided among a large family (the average parent here is caring for over five dependents, often including nieces and nephews and in-laws as well as sons and daughters), this is not far above the ‘dollar- a-day’ that is symbolic of extreme poverty. The parents we survey are actually among the wealthier ones: in Zambia as a whole, 68% of people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line.
And yet when asked how much they would pay per term, the vast majority of the parents opt for the highest option: “Above 10,000 kwacha.” Some volunteer numbers of their own: 20,000 kwacha, 25,000 kwacha, 50,000 kwacha. By Western standards these are not large sums of money – a few dollars – but the apparent willingness of such poor people to pay anything at all is striking.
But maybe these parents are only telling us what we want to hear. In practice, could they actually come up with the money? It seems as if they could. Our interviewees enumerate the sums they already pay towards their children’s education. Primary education is supposed to be free in Zambia, but in practice parents find money for uniforms, school lunches, transport, books, PTA fees, user fees, and a litany of ‘miscellaneous’ costs, some of them bizarre. One set of parents have been charged $4 each for “carpet”. This, it was explained to me later, is a sign of progress: schools are buying carpets so that children can huddle on the floor around the teacher in the sort of fun, interactive, modern-style lesson we have just witnessed, rather than sitting at their desks staring at a blackboard.
At Grade 1 the costs are modest, but for parents with other children, especially older ones in secondary school, the bills are substantial. In total, the families we survey are paying around $250 per term towards their children’s schooling – a large proportion of their income. Yet the standard of education they currently get for this money is often abysmal, with the 2006 National Assessment Surveys showing that barely a third of Grade 5 pupils reaching even the ‘minimum standards’ in English and Maths. And this minimum standard is itself very low: 40% on a multiple-choice test in which 25% of the answers could correctly be guessed at random. Parents want better, and in a country where a good education can make the difference between extreme poverty and extreme prosperity, they are clearly willing to pay for it. Whether they could pay enough to make the iSchool project sustainable, and what alternative sources of funding might be available if not, remains to be seen.
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