There are 26 pupils in the average UK class - while in Malawi teachers regularly have to contend with 110+ children per class. An education project using tablet computers, launched by VSO last week, aims to reduce the strain and has already seen children complete a year's worth of learning in just eight weeks during a pilot last year.
There are 26 pupils in my daughter's class in the UK. When I visited Phereni Primary School, 20km from Lilongwe City Centre, Malawi last week, there were more than 100 children in some classes.
Although Malawi has made strides forward in the numbers of children enrolled in primary school, the head teacher, Lawrence Kumanda told me that "delivering high quality education is still a big challenge, in part due to class sizes".
According to VSO Malawi's Country Director Dario Gentili:
"Malawi's school systems suffer from issues that have been compounding since Free Primary Education was introduced in 1995. Now an insufficient number of teachers, low teaching quality, and large class sizes still stand as the main debilitating factors in delivering the best education to these children."
In spite of large classes, Lawrence is hopeful that children at Phereni will be able to achieve respectable literacy and numeracy skills. This is because his school is one of 68 where VSO has introduced education technology to tackle children's learning crisis and boost the quality of learning for Malawi's primary school children.
We have partnered with a UK-based software company, onebillion, to support learning enhanced through technology in the schools. Each has established a learning centre stocked with Apple iPad Minis, which Standard 1 & 2 pupils can access for around half an hour per day.
Offering one-to-one tuition at a child's pace
When I visited Phereni Primary School, most classes were full. However, in the oneclass learning centre attached to the school children were sitting in groups of just 30, learning numeracy and literacy skills on tablets. They were working through applications that allowed them to learn at their own pace, offering them the one-to-one interactive instruction that is hard to deliver with huge class sizes.
"Unlocking Talent is surprisingly cost-effective because a number of children access the same iPad; the cost comes out to be about seven pounds per child," said VSO Malawi's Country Director Dario Gentili.
Programmed in their local language, the apps are based on the national curriculum and cover maths, literacy skills and some basic English. The maths app is available for free download for iOS and Android devices.
Teachers in the schools manage the project, guiding and encouraging children whilst also using data collected by the apps to monitor individual progress; education policy makers, head teachers and teachers can monitor the progress of individual children in real time.
During a randomised control trial conducted in Malawi in 2014 by Nottingham University, children were found to be making a comparable amount of progress in eight weeks of using the tablets compared to a year's worth of 'business as usual' classroom teaching.
My VSO colleague Khanyiwe Shawa, a senior education manager, sums up her excitement about the project: "What excites me about the project is the potential and hope that the project brings in that at the end of the day children are actually learning and you can see it straight away."
The Unlocking Talent through Technology project was formally launched last Thursday. It is funded through the Norwegian Embassy and Scottish Government, and implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, onebillion, Airtel, University of Malawi, and University of Nottingham.
At VSO, we recognise that technology is no magic bullet solution but can empower teachers to deliver their lessons effectively. Unlocking Talent is part of a broad strategy for improving education in Malawi that is also increasing the number of teachers trained in using child-centred teaching methods.
However, results so far have been encouraging, and a bonus of using technology is that projects can be scaled up to more schools, quickly and efficiently. We're looking forward to what the future holds for technology in education - and the bright young minds of Malawi and other countries.