Deborah Chipande is determined to become a medical doctor. The 11-year-old is in grade five at Mtsiliza Primary School in Lilongwe Urban. She placed seventh in the term one final examinations, but she candidly acknowledges she could have performed better had she been less playful.
“I hope to do better next time”, she says. One challenge standing in the way of her life ambition, she says, has been the shortage of classrooms, with some students forced to learn outdoors, under the glare of the sun or the sparse shade offered by the few trees at the school.
Holding classes under the trees or in full sun is not an experience that Eness Nkhonjera, a teacher at the school, cherishes. It is a nightmare in the teaching and learning process, she says, as the students’ attention is often drawn to the goings-on around them.
“There’s a huge difference when a class is held in the open compared to a classroom. In the open, students get distracted by what is happening around them instead of focusing on the lessons. Other students who may not be in class at the time come around to disturb fellow pupils who are learning,” Nkhonjera says.
An even bigger challenge facing the school is the high pupil-teacher ratio. Mtsiliza Primary School has an enrollment of 6,442 pupils (3,431 boys and 3,011 girls) and only 28 classrooms and 53 permanent teachers, a situation that Fredrick Chiphaka, the school principal, considers far from ideal, considering the guidelines put in place to reopen schools after the COVID-19 pandemic closures in 2020 and early 2021.
“The coronavirus guidelines on the reopening of schools directed us to have 40 students in each class, but we could increase the pupil-teacher ratio to 60 in the worst-case scenario. But we had too many students against too few teachers and classrooms. We created 116 streams, but even that was not enough,” Chiphaka says.