Flexible learning methods such as self-study guides and catch-up clubs reduced school dropout rates in Lesotho and Malawi up to 45% – ensuring that disadvantaged children don’t miss out on their education.


  • Following introduction of the flexible learning approach, primary and secondary schools in Malawi and Lesotho experienced reduced dropout rates (up to 45% in Malawi).
  • In Malawi, pilot schools in the research project put in place plans to change discriminatory policies (eg excluding children who didn't attend regularly due to caring for family members with HIV) to improve inclusiveness; and to support disadvantaged children locally (eg buddy scheme and community support).
  • A formal qualification for teachers on guidance and counselling was introduced in Lesotho.
  • Templates of self-study guides from the project were made available to Malawi district education offices.
  • Improvements following the flexible learning approach in Lesotho and Malawi included:
    • Teacher engagement with children was enhanced
    • A buddy scheme reduced vulnerable children’s isolation
    • Scores in mathematics improved
    • Children’s confidence and self-esteem increased, friendships were built, and children were motivated to continue attending school.

About the research

African countries that are affected by the HIV/AIDS experience low levels of educational achievement and have high dropout rates of pupils from school. Orphaned or vulnerable children find it difficult to go to school because they may have to work to support themselves and their family, or care for parents who are HIV/AIDS sufferers – at the same time facing school exclusion policies that discriminate against children from poorer families.

The SOFIE project (Strengthening open and flexible learning for increased education access) was a three-year research study funded by the ESRC-DFID Joint Scheme for Poverty Alleviation Research. A research team led by Professor Pat Pridmore, from the Institute of Education at University College London, partnered with universities in South Africa, Lesotho and Malawi to investigate whether a flexible approach to learning could improve educational achievement, and reduce the number of vulnerable children who leave school prematurely.

Over a three-year period from 2007, the research team developed and trialled a package of flexible learning approaches and local community support for children in 20 primary schools in Malawi (age 11-12 years) and 16 secondary schools in Lesotho (age 14-15 years). Flexible learning, including 'school-in-a-bag', self-study guides and catch-up clubs developed as part of the project enabled children to maintain their education.

"Vulnerable children were not always able to attend regularly – so rather than ignoring them, letting them fall behind in their lessons and allowing exclusion to deepen, schools and youth volunteers provided additional support," says Catherine Jere, lead researcher in Malawi. "Against a context of underlying poverty and disadvantage, having someone who provides emotional support, takes an interest and pays attention to whether they’re in school or not – be it a buddy, teacher, community leader – is of great value to pupils who regularly experience isolation."

"The SOFIE research project shows that you can break patterns of educational inequality and disadvantage if you help vulnerable children while they are still in school," says Professor Pridmore. "However, this requires an integrated strategy including improved teacher education, self-study learning materials, student support and national policies to enable flexible delivery of the curriculum."