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Crisis in education

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Sgnes NyaLonje

Failure by Malawi to meet obligations on improving education standards has left the country in a crisis whose long-term effects could be more disastrous…

Inefficiencies in the education system have thrust the Ministry of Education into grasping at the straws as it seeks to meet demands triggered by high enrolment rates against few spaces available in public schools, among several other challenges.

And educationists have warned that Malawi risks being left behind in terms of international education standards if it does not improve the situation.

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In a statement on projects the Ministry of Education is implementing, responsible minister Agnes NyaLonje says currently, there are over 5.4 million learners in primary schools with a repetition rate standing at 22 percent and a four percent dropout rate, particularly in lower grades.

“This represents a significant source of inefficiency. In addition, completion rates have for a long time stagnated at 51 percent. This means that for every 100 children that start Standard 1, 49 do not go all the way and complete Standard 8,” the statement from the ministry says.

Reacting to the revelations, educationists Steve Sharra and Felix Munthali warn that the trend has been getting worse for some time and that several factors have contributed to the crisis.

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“This is not surprising. You sometimes wonder whether we are really serious about our education standards. More and more children are being denied an opportunity to learn because authorities have for a long time neglected the education sector,” Munthali said in an interview yesterday.

According to NyaLonje, the high fertility rate is resulting in rapid growth in primary school enrolment, subsequently exerting pressure on classroom space and other school infrastructure, pressure on teaching and learning materials, and pressure on teachers “which ultimately impacts on learning outcomes”.

Low investments in education have also seen Malawi struggling to fill classrooms with desks and other materials, now requiring K176 billion to address the problem.

NyaLonje’s statement says the desire of her ministry is to provide adequate desks especially in lower classes to help “little children” acquire reading, writing, computing and drawing skills.

But, according to Munthali, Malawi’s lack of seriousness in meeting the targets it sets for its education sector is contributing to problems like these.

He says: “We agree as a country to invest certain amounts of money in the improvement of education. These are things that should be done gradually. But it appears there was a time we slumbered too much.”

The Ministry of Education statement adds that the school-meals programme has been heavily affected by several problems including the scaling down of funding by some partners who have been supporting the initiative.

According to NyaLonje, the rising cost of food commodities is also weighing down on school meals budgets while the community production model is often affected by droughts, floods, pests and crop diseases.

In secondary education, the minister admits that the major constraint is low access.

“While the total enrolment at primary is 5.4 million learners, at secondary the total enrolment is 415,000. The net enrolment rate is at 15 percent, which means that 85 percent of secondary school going age (14–17 year olds) are not accessing secondary education.

“In addition, the transition rate from primary to secondary is at 38 percent meaning that 62 percent of candidates of Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations do not proceed to secondary education,” the statement says.

According to the ministry, infrastructure also remains the biggest hindrance to access to secondary education in Malawi.

It admits that there are inadequate teachers, unqualified teachers, inadequate teaching and learning materials and lack of specialised rooms such as laboratories, workshops and libraries.

“There is [also] unequal participation in secondary education between boys and girls with fewer girls completing secondary education,” the ministry says.

It adds that some education projects are facing resistance because some traditional leaders are offering land for the initiatives without consent from the land owners.

The ministry lists several other problems that are impeding progress in the country’s education sector.

Sharra finds it “quite shocking” that 85 percent of 14-17 year-old Malawians are out of school.

“It is very distressing to see 62 percent of those who pass Standard 8 examinations having nowhere else to go because our secondary school capacity accommodates only 38 percent of those who pass.

“To demonstrate how precarious and fragile our education and social protection systems are, 450,000 primary school learners did not return to school after the school closures. That is eight percent of the total enrolment in 2020,” he said.

Sharra further fears that the impacts of the disasters triggered by tropical cyclones Ana and Gombe will also be far reaching.

He notes that before the disasters struck, one in ten primary school learners was using a temporary classroom, while one in four was using an open air classroom.

Sharra has also decried the slow progress in the construction of infrastructure such as teach training colleges “but four years since construction started, not even one has been completed”.

He, however, sees a bright side in the “ambitious and forward-looking policies and strategies” which he says will lead to tremendous improvements in the education system by 2030 and beyond, if strictly followed and implemented.

“There are two other really important strategic interventions the government is undertaking. The Ministry of Education is introducing open, distance and eLearning across the entire education system.

“That will unlock access for millions of Malawians who are denied an opportunity for education especially at secondary and tertiary level,” Sharra said in a written response to our questionnaire on the status of Malawi’s education.

He further calls on authorities to develop a strong implementation strategy to ensure that all commitments are followed through.

“We should put behind us the era of developing brilliant policies and strategies but failing to implement them. The Malawi 2063 and the first Malawi Investment Plan are brilliant, well -out documents.

“But they require vigilance and dedication, especially in the governance and public sector performance areas. The revelations of massive corruption and theft that have now become a daily menu are a big threat to the national vision,” Sharra says.

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