By Solister Mogha:
In 1994, Malawi introduced free primary education (FPE) abolishing all fees attached to primary school education.
The introduction of FPE was meant to improve school enrolment while at the same time ease the trouble families had to endure when sending their children to school on top of paying school fees and buy school uniforms for their children.
According to an analysis of free primary education reform policy in Malawi by Samson Mac Jessie Mbewe, Published in Sage Journal in 2002, since Malawi attained independence in 1964, primary education had not been free except in 1991-1992 academic year when government introduced a school-fee waiver scheme for classes 1-4.
Mbewe in his analysis said due to lack of fees and with demand for school uniform, many children dropped out of school and some completely failed to participate in primary education.
“In 1994 government identified high illiteracy as a major cause of poverty in Malawi. By this year, for instance, 70 percent of females who constitute 51 percent of the population and 50 percent of males were illiterate.
“Consequently, government saw eradication of illiteracy as one way of reducing poverty and on May 21, 1994, free primary education was declared,” reads part for the article.
It is no doubt though that since the introduction of free primary education, school enrolment has improved tremendously in Malawi.
Public Relations Officer for the Ministry of Education, Chikondi Chimala, said school enrolment has since 1994 increased from 1.6 million to about 4.8 million.
Nevertheless, Chimala said the increase in the number of students has contributed to some of the challenges such as high teacher-pupil ratio, demand for proper infrastructure, equipment and supplies as well as learning and teaching materials.
“Apart from free primary education, the ministry is preparing towards implementation of compulsory education which is in line with Sustainable Development Goal number four where all United Nations members are encouraged to implement full compulsory basic education by 2030,” Chimala said.
The successes and challenges of free primary education policy are topics for another day. Today’s focus is on the school bonus that government has attached to the social cash transfer.
As a background, in 2006, the Government of Malawi, with support from development partners, introduced the social cash transfer programme targeting ultra-poor and labour-constrained households.
The objectives of the programme were to alleviate poverty and hunger, increase school enrolment and attendance and improve health and nutrition.
It was the government’s anticipation that although primary school was free, poor households would still face difficulties in supporting their school-going children; hence, the school bonus.
According to Zomba District Council Social Cash Transfer Desk Officer, Ned Mkumba, every primary school-going child in the targeted households is allocated K10,000 per month and the money is paid wholesomely bimonthly.
However, in some rare cases, transfers are made after four months or more.
Mkumba said Zomba District has 15,605 households in the programme with 42,000 school-going children of whom only 32,000 are in school.
He described the school bonus as beneficial as many parents are now able to meet their children’s school needs.
“Learning from a number of stories from the households benefiting from the cash transfers, many are saying they are able to support their children and school dropout rates and absenteeism have been reduced.
“Apart from easing pressure on parents, the bonus acts as an encouragement to parents to force their children to remain in school and see them through the education ladder,” Mkumba said.
Assistant Centre Coordinating Officer for Mtonda Education Zone in Zomba, Hector Banda, concurred with Mkumba that the school bonus has improved school enrolment as well as reduced cases of dropout.
Banda said through the support, parents are able to buy books and uniforms and pay development fee for their wards.
“Despite that primary education is free; there are a number of things that would still fail one to complete his or her education cycle. The social cash transfer school bonus is acting as lubricant to the challenges that families would have encountered in providing for support for their children,” Banda stated.
Cecelia Marko of Traditional Authority Mwambo, whose children are benefiting from the school bonus, said before the social cash transfer, she had difficulties in supporting her three children.
Marko, a widower, said no matter how she tried to search for support, things did not go her way.
“If it was not for this support, my children would have dropped out of school. I am, therefore, grateful to government for introducing the school bonus which is helping many families to send their children to school,” she added.
Marko appealed to government to continue with the social cash transfer programme and target more poor families.
A Standard Six learner at Namachete Primary School in Zomba, Tadala Idini, said ever since she started receiving the support, she has never absconded from classes.
Idini said her parents are able to meet her education needs because of the support.
“With the bonus, I have been able to buy school uniform, books and also pay for end of term examination fees. In addition, I have never at all absconded classes due to lack of support,” Idini testified.
Starting as a pilot initiative in 2006 in Mchinji District, social cash transfer programme has revolved over the years and it is one of the reliable and much touted social protection programmes.—Mana