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Education development needs collective effort

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It is a fact that Malawi’s public school infrastructure is an eyesore and a public health disaster waiting to happen. The sight of classrooms, staff houses and pupils’ toilets do not give any hope for better and quality education.

Most of the schools that we are proud of were built by the missionaries. However, after their departure, all the institutions are deteriorating. Most Malawians do not to take pride in renovating those schools. The country has local companies that are doing well but majority cannot even allocate some resources to erect even a 50-desk classroom for poor children to attain education.

Much as we appreciate that the government has a role in education sector, it will be suicidal if we expect all things to look rosy under government’s tutelage. It is shameful to see children still learning in huts or under trees sitting on dusty grounds. It is a disgrace that companies are making unrealistic profits but do not want to help in the education sector.

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It is unfathomable that of Africa’s nearly 128 million school-aged children, 17 million will never attend school. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that another 37 million African children will learn so little while they are in school that they will not be much better off than those children who never attended school. As a consequence, the prognosis for Africa’s future economic growth and social development is poor.

These numbers come from the new Africa Learning Barometer created by the Centre for Universal Education at Brookings. Their objective was to identify a baseline assessment of learning in Africa by using the existing data.

Using data from regional examinations such as Programme d’Analyse des Systèmes Educatifs de la Confemen (Pasec) and Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) and national assessments of fourth or fifth grade students, the barometer provides a picture of the state of learning for 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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In each of these assessments, they identified a cut-off point at which students scoring below that level were learning so little that they had no value added to their education. While these tests do not even begin to scratch the surface on the values, knowledge and skills that children should learn in school to live healthy and productive lives, they do provide some basic indications about the state of learning in the region.

The findings are astonishing. There are seven countries in which 40 percent or more of children do not meet a minimum standard of learning by grades Four or Five. In countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia, over half of in-school students are not learning basic skills by the end of primary school.

Through the barometer, aggregate the total number of children not learning based on out-of-school children at the end of primary school, children who are likely to drop out by the fifth grade and those in school but not learning. The results are distressing. Under the current model, half of sub-Saharan Africa’s total primary school population – 61 million children – will reach adolescence without the basic skills needed to lead successful and productive lives.

The barometer also points out the massive inequalities between the rich and poor. Looking at the rates of extreme education poverty in the region, the percentage of adults with less than two years of education show the disadvantages that poor, rural students face in accessing education in comparison to their rich and urban counterparts.

For instance, in Ethiopia, 68.3 percent of the poorest quintile of the population lives in education poverty, compared to only 13.8 percent of the richest. The barometer also points out the massive inequalities between the rich and poor.

Coming to Malawi, our education standards have gone down drastically and much as we all wait for the government to do something, we are all to blame because we are not partaking in assisting the government in promoting quality education. According to Unesco, Malawi has 4.5 million pupils enrolled in primary and secondary education. Of these pupils, about 3.7 million (83 percent) are enrolled in primary education.

In Malawi, 11 percent of children of official primary school ages are out of school, with poorer children most likely to fall into this category. Based on educational attainment of 15 – 24 year olds in 2010, five percent received no education at all, 57 percent failed to complete primary school, 11 percent studied until the end of primary school, 19 percent attended secondary school but failed to complete their secondary education, seven percent completed secondary education and one percent studied beyond secondary level.

According to RIPPLE Africa and the submission by Sylwia Bielec, pre-school education provides an important foundation for learning and development. The government of Malawi recognises the importance of pre-school education and encourages communities to set up their own pre-schools but does not support pre-schools financially.

With no funds to support pre-schools, most of them are run on a voluntary basis and are unregistered. Most teachers work for free and have no resources to help them teach, lacking the very basics including blackboards and chalk, let alone books and toys which might commonly be associated with pre-school education in the West.

It is rare that pre-schools have their own school buildings and many pre-schools share facilities with local churches or other buildings built for a different purpose. Not all children have access to pre-school education as access is dependent upon location and upon voluntary community involvement. Official data on the number of pre-schools in Malawi is difficult to find because schools are unregistered.

Most primary schools in Malawi are very basic, lacking the most fundamental resources, including textbooks and basic teaching materials. Although many primary schools have brick classroom blocks, many students learn outside in temporary structures, making teaching impossible during the rainy season. Often, three students have to share one desk, if they are lucky enough to have desks at all.

It is extremely unusual for primary schools to have access to electricity. Although the government of Malawi provides government-paid teachers, there are rarely enough teachers for each primary school and often not even enough teachers for each school year class.

In Nkhata Bay, the average student to teacher ratio for primary schools is 96:1, when the government of Malawi recommends 60:1 (and even this is very high!). The shortage of teachers in Malawi is due to two main reasons. Firstly, there are not enough trained teachers who have completed all their necessary qualifications to go around, and, secondly, primary schools in Malawi must provide teachers’ houses to attract good teachers to their school.

Teachers’ houses can be very expensive to build but, without them, it is impossible to attract new teachers to the area.

Although primary education in Malawi is free, students are required to purchase their own school uniform, pens and notebooks, which many families find difficult. Most children own only one school uniform and, in our local schools, Wednesday is a non-uniform day to enable parents to wash (and repair) the uniform.

Rates for dropouts are high and many children repeat one or more school years, often several times, if they have had to take significant time out of school and have fallen behind.

It is very common for children in Malawi to come in and out of school depending on their family situation, employment responsibilities, pregnancy and marriage at a young age, sickness and more. By the time students leave primary school, many of them are far older than primary age, having repeated several years and many lose interest and drop out altogether.

With many classes being larger than the desired student-teacher ratio of 60:1 and the classroom congestion lead to lower learning achievements.

Although many secondary schools are better resourced than their primary school counterparts, secondary school education in Malawi still varies greatly and is extremely under-resourced. Secondary school students in Malawi still struggle with poor student to teacher ratios, access to books and learning materials, adequate classroom facilities, and adequately trained teachers.

The quality of secondary education is low and retention and completion levels in secondary education are a challenge. Untrained secondary school teachers make up 42.5 percent of the total number of teachers at the secondary school level and the numbers of untrained teachers at the community day secondary schools (CDSSs) is significantly higher than at conventional schools (government day or boarding schools), given that the latter can provide superior conditions for teachers than the CDSSs.

There are also additional challenges to education in Malawi which are unique to secondary school. In addition to prohibitive school fees, a lack of secondary schools in total means that many students in Malawi have to walk great distances just to attend school each day, which obviously has a huge impact on attendance as well as significantly cutting into study time.

In the entire Nkhata Bay, there are just 37 secondary schools which serve just 5,514 pupils, compared to 184 primary schools which serve 75,368 pupils. Many secondary school subjects such as physics and biology also require special facilities such as a laboratory for students to study and take a practical examination for their Malawi School Certificate of Education.

Out of the 37 secondary schools in Nkhata Bay, only nine have laboratories, of which only four are listed as “conventional” and only two are test centres for the entire district. Most schools cannot even attempt to teach physical science, yet students wishing to study the subject will still be examined on the topic, for which they have never been properly taught. Only 19 of the 37 secondary schools in the district have libraries.

As of 2000, only one percent of Malawi’s population was enrolled in universities. Approximately 72 percent of all college students were pursuing degrees in education, 10.9 percent were studying for degrees in the social sciences, 12.2 percent were pursuing science degrees, 3.9 percent were pursuing degrees in medicine and 0.4 percent were pursuing degrees in the humanities. Given Malawi’s growing need for high-powered labour, Malawi will be dependent on expatriate skilled labour far into the foreseeable future unless the university system expands.

We are all alumni of some school somewhere, can we not go back to encourage more pupils to be in school by erecting a class for our brothers and sisters who are unable to learn due to lack of schools’ infrastructure?

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