Social accountability for better education in Malawi: How community score cards helped turn a school around

Matthew Pickard, Country Director, CARE Malawi, and Jeff Thindwa, Program Manager, Global Partnership for Social Accountability

By Matthew Pickard, Country Director, CARE Malawi, and Jeff Thindwa, Program Manager, Global Partnership for Social Accountability


There is no classroom so you are teaching outside. The children are hungry and distracted. Most of them can’t read. There are no books, pens, paper. And you haven’t been paid this month. Unfortunately, this is too often the reality of teaching in Malawi – but a CARE project, giving parents and the community the tools to support the school and hold it to account, has turned the situation around. Here’s how they did it.

First, you need to imagine standing in front of 200 six- and seven-year-olds.  Imagine you have to teach a lesson, but wait, there is no classroom, you are teaching outside, under a tree. Fortunately, it is not raining, but by 10am you know it is going to be hot. The children are distracted, understandably. Almost all of them have not been to pre-school, they have never had to sit still for long periods of time.

Now imagine that many of these children will not have eaten breakfast before they came to school, most will have had chores to do around the house before leaving for school and almost all will have walked to school, some of them for several kilometers. They will likely be hungry and tired before they even start classes and this certainly won’t help their concentration.

Most of the children cannot read and anyway there are no text books, paper, pens or any other teaching aids for that matter– except what mother nature has given them.

Now imagine that you walked 5 km that morning to arrive at school in time for class.

Finally, imagine you have to do this day after day… oh, yes, and last month your salary was not paid into your account, so you had to borrow money from a friend who is now demanding the money back; you will need to walk 15 km to the nearest bank to sort this out.

Now repeat this, hundreds, possibly thousands of times.

This is the reality of teaching in Malawi. No wonder teacher absenteeism is high, no wonder learners skip class or drop out of school altogether, no wonder many of them leave school unable to read or write properly. How would you fare? Would you have the patience or the courage to continue when the odds are so firmly stacked against you?

In many ways, in 2014 Chambidzi Primary school was just like any other primary school in rural Malawi, with over 900 learners but only six teachers; eight year-groups but only four classrooms; very few text books, or desks, or chairs; no exercise books, no pens, no pencils or other teaching aids.

Yet now, today, Chambidzi is transformed. Where once there were only four classrooms there are now eight; in addition, there is a school library and office, which the head teacher shows us around with obvious pride. The library is stacked full of text books, with a neat register showing which child has taken out what book.

A representative of the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) rushes to show us more. Round the back of the school there are four brand new houses that the community – through the PTA – has constructed. There are neat rows of ‘burnt’ bricks, molded and baked by the community, stacked and ready to construct three more houses, there is money for the zinc roofing sheets and everyone is ready to help, we are told.

The head of the PTA explains that this is to make sure teachers have somewhere to stay close to the school (one of the reasons why teacher absenteeism in Malawi is so high is because teachers have to walk long distances to get to and from school as there is no suitable housing available for them close by).

It is clear that everyone is highly motivated. Isaac Chinyamula, the Government District Education Manager and Primary Education Advisor (PEA), tells us that teacher absenteeism has fallen from 50% to almost nil over the past four years. Those who are absent have legitimate reasons and inform the head teacher ahead of time. This is virtually unheard of in Malawi. Not only are teachers teaching, but there are more of them. In 2014 there were only six teachers, today there are 16 –  and they are all on the government payroll!

And yes you have guessed it, learner enrolment is up – from 900 learners there are now over 1,200 at the school. Better still, Isaac tells us: ‘Chambidzi primary school is one of the schools that is sending a lot of girls on to secondary school.’ Can the story get any better?  

Of course, it is a bit harder to track the impact all this has had on learning outcomes especially over such a short period of time. However, with highly motivated teachers, an engaged head, close supervision and support from the district education department, as well as an active PTA and an involved community and learners taking responsibility themselves to follow up on those who skip school or drop out, it seems that things are pointing in the right direction to provide a better learning environment.

So how was this transformation possible? Surely, it is a story of deep pockets, a story of money and resources – surely this kind of rapid transformation is only possible with bucket loads of investment behind it?

Well actually that’s not this story; this story is a different one. This is a story of relentless leadership, intense collaboration, of pulling together towards a common goal. There is no magic, no fairy dust, no miracle. Simply put, this is a story of what is possible when a community learns to work together, to take responsibility for solving its problems, and to understand what role all can play in transforming and changing our futures.

CARE and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) had set out to do two things: to support schools in monitoring the procurement process of teaching and learning materials to ensure there were adequate text books in schools, and to support schools in managing teacher absenteeism. By introducing a process of structured dialogue between parents, teachers, government officials, traditional authorities and the learners themselves – the CARE community scorecard process – we were able to bring the service providers and the end users together to work out how to solve some of these seemingly intractable problems.

And do you know the best bit? It’s that through the scorecard process people realised that they really could make the difference – and that they had a responsibility to take action. No more blame game, no more finger pointing, just identifying who should be doing what and holding them accountable to their commitments, but also recognising there is more that you yourself could and should be doing. We can think of this as a case of ‘positive deviance’; these communities broke out of the parameters of the original project development objective to deliver consequential results that were not planned.

Meet Alinafe Ware:

Alinafe Ware has been a student since standard one and now is in standard eight. Here is her story regarding the changes that have taken place since CARE’s work through the GPSA: “We were attending school for the sake of attending but we didn’t have hope of progressing with our education. There were few school blocks so others were learning outside under the trees. We had few teachers who had to walk long distance due to lack of houses, and there were more corporal punishments for little offences.” - Alinafe Ware, who has been a student since standard one and now is in standard eight

 “When I was posted here there were only four school rooms and with few sanitary facilities and there were no reference books, and no library for the school children. Teacher absenteeism was high as teachers could travel five to eight km to find decent accommodation which in turn made students suffer.” – Head Teacher