Zambian children share their dreams with UNICEF Regional Ambassador, Tendai Mtawarira, amid educational challenges

Only 2 per cent of 15-year-olds reach proficiency levels in maths and reading respectively in Zambia, as per PISA assessment 2017.

13 June 2023
UNICEF Regional Ambassador Tendai Mtawarira (also known as "Beast") engages with Grade 7 students on their hopes and dreams and aspirations for better schooling at Bethel Primary School, Katete Zambia
UNICEF Regional Ambassador Tendai Mtawarira (also known as "Beast") engages with Grade 7 students on their hopes and dreams and aspirations for better schooling at Bethel Primary School, Katete Zambia

UNICEF Regional Ambassador for Eastern and Southern Africa, Tendai Mtawarira, also known as “The Beast” has been in Zambia to highlight education and protection issues experienced by children and adolescents.

The Rugby legend and World Cup winner visited schools and interacted with children in Chipata and Katete in Zambia’s Eastern Province. He joined their literacy and numeracy lessons, interacted and played with them, and exchanged views on the importance of education and ending child marriage, among other key issues. Mtawarira encouraged the children to keep attending school against all odds.

“Children have the right to a quality education. I believe education is a great equaliser. Despite the challenges the children are facing, they remain motivated to show up every day. That was incredibly inspiring for me,” said Mtawarira.

The children shared their dreams with the retired rugby player. “My favourite subject is literacy. I want to become a teacher when I complete my education because I am inspired by how my teachers are committed to ensuring that we understand the lessons,” 13-year-old Semmy Phiri explained. Learners also talked about their dream school. “My dream school is one that has a school bus that can provide easy movements for pupils from far places, a library, sports field and a computer lab,” added 14-year-old Susan Mpelembe.

Countries in Africa have made considerable progress in boosting primary and lower secondary enrolment in the last two decades. While countries have significantly increased access to education, millions of children are not developing the basic foundational literacy and numeracy skills they need to move on to higher levels of education. In Zambia, the National Assessment Survey of Grade 5 (2021) indicates that less than 40 per cent of learners can read in their own languages.

This concerning academic performance by pupils was partially triggered by a two-fold increase in school enrolments between 2000 and 2015, which resulted in larger classroom sizes and increased teacher-learner ratios. This subsequently led to a fall in learning outcomes.

At Dumisa Community Primary School in rural Chipata district, the teacher-pupil ratio is 1-80. There are just two classrooms for 480 students, and many classes are held outdoors under trees. Most of the children walk long distances along a dusty road to attend classes.

“Classrooms are full of pupils. This is partially a result of the country’s Education for all Policy, which eliminated school fees. Now, that’s good in theory, but we are seeing that the teacher-pupil ratio is very high. The teachers have very few educational aids and, in many cases, they are poorly equipped and lack mentoring. There are positive trends, like the Teaching at the Right Level programme that lays important foundational skills in literacy and numeracy for children in Chipata and other provinces throughout Zambia,” said Mtawarira.

 The Teaching at the Right Level programme or “Catch-Up” is an accelerated learning method for foundational literacy and numeracy skills. It was piloted by the Government of the Republic of Zambia with support from UNICEF and other partners in 80 schools in Zambia in 2016. Since then, the programme has grown. It is now implemented in 8 out of 10 provinces in the country, with plans to move into the 9th province. About 4,500 schools follow this methodology.

These learning challenges are in no way unique to Zambia. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, 90 per cent of 10-year-olds cannot read and understand a simple story. This places the continent’s future at severe risk unless we see a significant change in countries’ approach to learning, and the funding of the education sector.

“Governments and partners must prioritise and invest in a number of solutions to secure our children’s futures. We need to get – and keep - every child in the classroom, measure their learning, help them catch up and support teachers with training, materials and supervision – and that there are adequate numbers of teachers with the minimum required qualifications to meet learner’s needs, especially in the most remote areas,” stated Mtawarira.

The UNICEF Regional Ambassador also visited a mentoring programme in Zambia, called Coaching Boys into Men. This initiative uses sports to shift attitudes and behaviors of boys towards greater gender equality and, ultimately, contribute to ending child marriage. The programme specifically targets boys as key allies, mentoring them to embrace a gender transformative approach and address gender norms that contribute to gender inequality. The approach combines sport and dialogue to create a safe space for the boys to discuss these important topics and change perceptions and practices that negatively impact women and girls. The boys are drawn from the target communities and schools. Some of the boys who had dropped out of school are being reintegrated back into school following their involvement in the Coaching Boys into Men programme.

The Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) programme or “Catch-Up” works by dividing children in Grades 3, 4 and 5 into groups based on learning levels rather than age or grade, dedicating time to basic skills rather than focusing solely on the curriculum, and regularly assessing each learner's performance, rather than relying only on end-of-year examinations, allowing the teacher to closely monitor the progress of each child.  

The TaRL programme has significantly improved the learning outcomes of children in Zambia. 
By the end of 2021, the proportion of:  

  • Children able to read a paragraph increased by 19 percentage points 
  • Children able to do subtraction improved by 20 percentage points 

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