When you peer into a Grade 2 classroom, you expect to see little children sitting on tiny chairs at desks built for them. So it was slightly incongruous watching a six-foot 17-year old young man sitting on a chair made for someone a third of his age reciting words at the instruction of the radio teacher along with seven and eight-year olds.

I met Tumaini, whose name means “hope” in Swahili, at a community-based radio school outside of Dar es Salaam some years back and have never forgotten his story. Orphaned at the age of 10, he and his brother learned to survive by doing odd jobs and begging. They set up a chip-making business by the side of the road. He told me that he felt humiliated because he couldn’t read money, and that he knew he was being cheated.

Tumaini had heard about “radio school”, where everyone was welcome. You might think that Tumaini’s situation was unusual. But it wasn’t. For hundreds of thousands of children who had been orphaned, were working to help support their families, or were too poor to attend school, radio schools offer a viable option for a high quality basic education.

What is a radio school?

A radio school is a school, be it a formal classroom or under a tree, that uses radio to broadcast school lessons based on national curriculums. Radio is also be used to help teachers improve or upgrade their teaching skills.

A radio school is not reliant on a physical building – it can be under the shade of a tree if there’s no other place to meet. Radio school is free, and doesn’t require children to wear uniforms. Because the teachers are on the radio, radio school doesn’t require trained teachers. They simply need a literate adult as a classroom mentor.

For many years our solar Prime radios were used by children to listen to school lessons broadcast on national and community radio stations. More recently, our Lifeplayers – which include a media player so lessons can be preloaded- are being used. In Zambia and Ethiopia, for example, Lifeplayers have replaced our Prime radios in schools. This way lessons are not dependent on radio broadcasts, giving teachers and classroom mentors the flexibility to use the lessons when it’s most convenient, and pricey broadcasting fees do not have to be paid.

Great strides have been made in getting poor children, and particularly girls, into school, with a 75% increase since 1999 in the number of learners enrolled at primary level. However, with 30 million children not attending school, sub-Saharan Africa is still home to more than half of the world’s out-of-school children. UNESCO estimates 6,2 million new teachers will be needed by 2030 to achieve universal primary education. Exacerbating the problem is a growing population: for every 100 primary school children in 2012, there will be 147 in 2030. This means filling 4 million vacant posts by 2030, and creating another 2.3 million new teaching positions.

“In the rush to fill this gap, many countries are lowering standards, often leaving new teachers with little or no training. Without concerted efforts, these chronic shortages of skilled teachers will continue to deny the fundamental right to primary education for millions of children for decades to come,” according to UNESCO.

Adding to the paucity of trained teacher are large classes in many countries, poor teacher remuneration, and a lack of textbooks and school supplies.

How does radio school help literacy?

Even in countries where primary education is free, families can’t afford uniforms or books. For others who live in rural areas, schools are too far away. Radio can reach children wherever they are – even in the most remote areas. Futher, children who attend radio school typically score 10-15% higher than in conventional government classrooms.

Radio provides quality school lessons.  Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) is a teaching methodology in which a radio broadcast guides a teacher and learners through a lesson’s activities. IRI ensures active learning, because learners participate in the lessons by singing, reading, writing, answering questions and solving problems. And it’s fun.

Radio is cost-effective. Once the lessons are recorded, they can be broadcast at a fraction of the cost of any other technology. And with our Lifeplayers, those radio lessons can be recorded and listened to again and again. No other technology can teach as many children for so little.

Radio is democratic. It does not see age, and it does not discriminate against those who are illiterate. If you can hear a lesson, you can begin to learn. If you’re above the age of 8 or 9 in most African countries, government schools won’t admit you. We’ve seen radio schools admit adults who missed out on an education when they were young.

Radio develops listening skills. Improving listening skills in turn develops children’s comprehension, understanding, and language skills.

Radio sparks imagination. In Zambia’s Taonga Market project, we asked children what the radio teacher, Mrs Masondo, looked like. The answers were as varied as the children. For some, she was young and pretty. For others, she was a comforting gogo. But they all had an image.

It’s hard to imagine being unable to read or write. Not being able to tell the difference between bank notes. Not being able to write your own name. Being unable to read medicine instructions. Being called stupid because you couldn’t read a sign. Never reading a book. And being consigned to the lowest level of work and pay.

Despite the advances of many technologies in Africa, radio and MP3 have huge roles to play in educating children, especially in poorly resourced environments.