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Malawi’s long, tedious walk to compulsory basic education

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Joyce Banda

Sounds of joy reverberated across Malawi that Thursday afternoon, October 31 2013, when Malawi’s Parliament passed the Education Bill.

This was because the Education Act of 2013 has a provision on compulsory basic education.

One of the people whose countenance betrayed their feelings then is quality education advocate-cum-Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe, who described the occasion as “momentous”.

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“Everyone, especially children, have a right to basic education and, after the President [then Joyce Banda] assents to the bill, we expect positive change in the country,” he said, reflecting the hope that was written all over quality education advocates’ faces then.

It was not to be.

Almost nine years after the President assented to the bill, meaning that Malawi had an updated Act, there is minimal, if any, movement on the ground.

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No wonder that, nine years later, Kondowe is not impressed.

“It is very concerning that, since 2013, when the Education Act was made into law, no further steps have been taken by the government to operationalise it.

“We believe that the law in itself is not enough. There is a need to develop an implementation plan, which is ideal in as far as operationalisation of the law is concerned. Unfortunately, that has not been done and, yet, we are talking about close to 10 years since this law was put in place,” Kondowe said.

The Parliamentary Committee on Education is equally concerned with delays to make basic education compulsory in the country.

The committee’s chairperson Brainex Kaisi feels that there is little progress being made on the issue.

Kaisi said committee members want to establish reasons behind the delays.

“We would like to understand setbacks the ministry could be facing to enforce provisions that provide for compulsory education in the law.

“Our main role will be offering assistance in the form of advice and committee members will sit down with ministry officials to look into pros and cons of compulsory education. We are doing this because we are there to offer services such as monitoring. We are also always ready to offer pieces of advice if we feel we can assist,” Kaisi said.

He added that the committee will also engage civil society organisations that advance the cause of quality education on the matter.

“Their insights are significant in efforts aimed at improving education standards in the country,” Kaisi indicated.

Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje indicated that the Malawi Government had put in place strategies that would ensure smooth implementation of compulsory basic education as one way of ensuring that an increased number of children enjoy access to quality education.

“This is essential for human capital development and the realisation of our socio-economic development [goals] as outlined in Malawi 2063. It is also essential if we are to give every child the opportunity to realise their God-given potential and provide them with opportunities to avoid a life of poverty. The commitment to implement compulsory primary education, expressed by His Excellency the President [Lazarus Chakwera] in the Sona [State of the Nation Address], is an essential first step along the road to 2063 and we seek the engagement and support of all Malawians to help make high quality basic education a reality for all our children,” NyaLonje.

As at now, she said, the ministry was making sure that children have access to quality education.

She said that is the reason the education authorities are, in the 2022-23 fiscal year, committed to procuring 3,425,016 literacy textbooks for infant classes, of which 1,712,508 are English textbooks and 1,712,508 are Chichewa textbooks to achieve a 1:1 textbook to student ratio for infant classes.

The ministry is also set to procure 1,399,046 literacy textbooks for junior classes, of which 699,523 are English textbooks and 699,523 are Chichewa textbooks, to achieve a 1:2 textbook to student ratio for junior classes.

NyaLonje is sure that the provision of adequate textbooks to lower classes will strengthen acquisition of foundation skills in reading, which is also one way of addressing the problem of the high literacy rate in Malawi.

“Desks are also desperately needed in our schools. In the 2021- 22 financial year, my ministry, with support from Unicef [United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund] procured 81,000 desks for 1,551 primary schools; so far, over 70,000 of these desks have been distributed to 1,371 primary schools.

“Distribution is still in progress for the remaining 11,000 desks. My ministry is working on strategies for sustainable and affordable supply of desks in all our schools and I will, at a later date, come back to share more on this,” NyaLonje explained.

This is coming at a time the government also says it plans to increase the number of teachers by recruiting 6,900 teachers in the 2022-23 financial year.

“We are seeking to establish a qualified teacher to student ratio of 1:60. In the 2021-22 [financial year], my ministry recruited 2,200 primary school teachers and 3,270 auxiliary teachers. In the 2022- 23 Financial Year, my ministry will recruit 6,900 primary school teachers, 3,000 auxiliary teachers and 230 inspectors,” NyaLonje said.

However, all these efforts may come to naught if a good number of children remain at home, mainly due to delays to operationalise compulsory basic education in Malawi.

According to Gemany’s development arm, Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), which has been implementing the ‘Basic Education Programme (BEP)’ from 2018 to 2022 after German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development commissioned it in Malawi, access to basic education is key to sustainable national development.

It indicates that, after the Malawi Government introduced free access to basic education in 1994, there have been capacity constraints because “the vast increase of enrolment numbers put an enormous strain on the limited physical and technical capacities of the primary education sub-sector”.

GIZ, which has been implementing the programme with the Ministry of Education, further indicates that the performance of learners has plummeted.

“Furthermore, there are continued challenges in improving the quality of education. Malawian learners’ learning results are some of the lowest in the region: The high repetition rate (22.7 percent in 2019) and low primary school survival rate (58 percent in 2019) are alarming. Large class sizes of an average of 120 learners per classroom and an average of one qualified teacher for 64 learners continue to have a negative effect on the quality of primary education. The country continues to face issues such as teacher absenteeism, also due to low teacher motivation,” it says.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the United Nations promotes access to education. It says, for instance, that, by 2030, all girls and boys should be able complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

It also seeks to ensure that, by 2030, all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Not just that; it seeks to ensure that, by 2030, all women and men enjoy access to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

However, all this depends on a strong foundation, which in this case includes compulsory basic education which Malawi seems to be undermining.

No one knows for how long.

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