From the centre of Lusaka, it takes 20 minutes by car to reach Linda Compound on the southern side of Zambia’s capital city. Heavy traffic and giant potholes make it hard-going and the closer to the compound the worse the road becomes, eventually deteriorating into little more than a bumpy pass.

A township-cum-settlement is home to more than 18,000 people, most of whom are unemployed.

It is here where you will find Linda Open Community School, which provides education to more than 1,600 children from this poor settlement. The school is known locally as ZOCS, an acronym for Zambia Open Community Schools because of its links with the organisation.

One of the untrained teachers at the school is 20-year-old Terry Tembo. The pupils call him “our teacher”, a man they have singled out as a role model in their community. 

Mr Tembo’s father died when he was young, leaving her mother to take care of him and his siblings. He was enrolled at Linda School for his primary education and went on to complete his secondary school at Parklands High School in Chilanga.

“My aim is to encourage the pupils so that they can see me as an example because even when I’m poor I have tried to reach this level,” he said.

Mr. Tembo says he was motivated to go back to teach at Linda because of the significant part the school has played in his life as well as the lives of other children.

“The vulnerable and many (children) whose parents have passed on, these schools are best for them because there is no discrimination.”

It seems the children are equally happy to see one of their own teach at the school.

“We know him, he is one of us. That on its own gives us the motivation to work hard and be like him,” said one of the pupils. 

The idea of community schools in Zambia started in the early 1990s when the number of children from vulnerable and poverty-stricken communities was increasing because their parents were dying from AIDS.  The government schools simply had no place to take in extra children. In some places, community schools started because the nearest government school would be hundreds of kilometres away.

Community schools have proved to be a last resort for many children who can’t afford private or government schools. They are an initiative of a variety of groups; non-profit organizations, churches, or even parents in a home. Although community schools are not part of the mainstream government schooling system, they account for 20% enrolments in basic schools, according to official government documents.

The schools themselves range from makeshift classrooms to passable schools. But they all have something in common: a determined community, children hungry for an education and selfless, voluntary and untrained teachers, usually from the same community.

A Catholic nun who was working in the area helped establish Linda Open Community School, says Shadreck Mwale, the headteacher. Mr. Mwale says the school has made tremendous contribution to the education of children who can’t make it to the only other school nearby in Chilanga, some 5 kilometres from Linda Township.

“We have over 1,600 children here, without this school we are talking of more than 1,623 children out of school,” he said.

Mr Mwale, who has been working at Linda since 2002, is hoping that the government will soon look into the plight of teachers in community schools. He says the only support they receive from government is basic materials such as books and a monthly fee of 350,000 kwacha (70 US dollars), which is irregular and usually not paid on time.

“These children who are in this (Linda) school are Zambians, orphaned and vulnerable. They are most in need and the government needs to consider putting a few trained teachers on the government payroll and send in more teachers,” he said.

Linda School currently has four trained teachers who are supported by twelve others, on monthly salaries ranging from 250,000 (50 US dollars) to 500,000 kwacha (100 US dollars) paid by the parents community school committee. Mr. Mwale, a qualified trained teacher himself, says although community schools have been used as “lay-bys” by trained teachers, he has clocked ten years because he loves his job and his community.

Commentators argue that every child should be in a government school in order to access quality and affordable education, but the sad reality is that often this is not possible. Several teachers spoken to in public schools repeatedly expressed gratitude to government for the enormous investment in infrastructure development. Yet this measure of praise was consistently tempered by a string of complaints. One such complaint is the high number of pupils in classes, with most public schools recording well over 70 pupils.

The challenges faced by Linda Open Community School are emblematic of Zambia’s failure to provide education for all its citizens. Many community schools in the country lack clean classrooms, learning materials, teachers as well as water and sanitation facilities. Often, there is no clearly defined curriculum. Children sit on logs during lessons and in some cases they endure the heat from the sun in roofless classrooms.

Two years ago, the Minister of Education under the previous government, Dora Siliya, pledged government support to the plight of children in community schools during a visit to Linda School. Addressing pupils, the minister spoke of “government’s determination to put money in community schools because this is where it is needed the most”.

“I am determined to put money where it is needed, that is in these (community) schools.”

But that pledge by the former minister has remained a far-fetched dream.

The Patriotic Front government’s immediate reaction has been to take over community schools. Last year, the Minister of Education, Dr John Phiri, confirmed this by promising to absorb all community schools into the mainstream public education system.

It may take some time to realise this dream, but the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Miriam Chinyama confirmed that the new government is currently working on putting in place the right infrastructure for this to happen.

“I can reconfirm that we would like to see community schools upgraded. We need to build the infrastructure and also we need to deploy the teachers but we are committed to taking trained teachers into community schools,” Mrs Chinyama said.

Government has pointed to its free education policy at primary school level, which was introduced in 2002, for the increase in basic school enrolment. However, experts contend that the increase is partly attributed to community schools.

As a 2008 education evaluation report called Primary Education in Zambia by the Netherlands Embassy noted: “Within six years, enrolment in primary education had increased by 67% (from 1.6 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2007). Private schools and (especially) community schools have contributed significantly to this achievement.”

Despite the chest-thumping, community schools’ financial and material share from government is relatively small.

“In most cases, community schools receive grants which are irregular and hard to come by,” says a community worker from Eastern Province. “The situation,” she adds “has been made worse by donors’ withdrawal to support the school feeding programme”.

With a few trained and qualified teachers, Linda is moving in the right direction. The situation, however, is not the same in other schools.

Kalungula Orphanage Community School, situated in Chinyunyu, some 60 kilometres east of Lusaka, has volunteer teachers who rely on the goodwill of the community. Bishop Prince Musopelo from the Church of God World Missions says the school is more than a place of learning but a home for hundreds of marginalised children.

“The children who would have had no opportunity to learn come here to learn. Some of these children come from child-headed homes, so when they are here, they are at home,” he said.

International aid agencies are increasing their attention on community schools. This year the US Agency for International Development (USAID) selected Education Development Centre (EDC) to help improve education opportunities in Zambia by working with the Ministry of Education to institutionalise support to community schools throughout the country. The five-year, 30 million US dollar (145.5 billion) time to learn initiative, according to Alison Cohen of EDC “will enhance learning opportunities, increase school effectiveness, and mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS on children’s education in Zambia”.

EDC’s Lisa Easterbrooks added “Zambia’s community schools face serious challenges in their capacity to provide children with a quality education.”

As the prominent educationist Professor Michael Kelly noted back in 2012: “If we didn’t have community schools, we would not have that possibility of reaching MDG 2; Universal Primary Education for All by 2015.”

Zambia is getting closer but there is still much more to do if primary education is to be made genuinely accessible to all the country’s children.

See also the bulletin & record, September edition.