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Survival of the fittest as learners scrum for secondary education in Malawi

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WHAT’S THEIR FUTURE?—Primary school learners in class

By Charles Mpaka:

In Malawi, getting selected to secondary school is as hard as entering heaven—as Christians preach. The gate is narrow; the space is limited; only a few are chosen.

Learners that have just sat for the 2022 Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLCE) which ended last week may not know this; but Hadson Mmeta, a minibus conductor in Bangwe, has had an experience of it.

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Twice, he sat for PSLCE examination. Twice he passed. Twice he failed to get selected to secondary school.

“I really wanted to go further with my education. Up to now, I don’t understand why I was not selected because I was an above average student,” he tells Malawi News.

Hadson, now 24, is among the millions that have failed in the past 30 years—from the time Malawi started free primary school education resulting in very high learner enrollment in the subsector—to make it past the scrum at the gate into secondary school in Malawi.

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Every year, between 70 and 80 percent qualify for a Primary School Leaving certificate. But every year, no more than 38 percent of those that pass the exams get a place in secondary school.

For example, in 2016, out of 197,000 students that passed PSLCE examination, 128,000 did not get selected to public secondary schools.

In 2019, of the 218,000 that passed, 136,000 were left out of public secondary school selection.

In 2020, out of 225,000 that passed, 141,000 did not make it.

In 2021, 226,000 learners passed the final primary school examinations but 142,000 of them did not get selected to secondary school.

Some of those that fail to get selected to public secondary schools can turn to private secondary schools. But, as analysts observe, besides being unaffordable to many learners, private secondary schools can only take in 20,000 students in a year.

These that fail to make it to secondary school despite passing the exams join a pile of tens of thousands of students that fail the exams altogether —translating into millions of children left out in the cold over the years.

With only a total of around 1,500 secondary schools—a combination of public and private secondary schools in Malawi—entry into secondary school in Malawi is a proper scramble where only the fittest survive.

Government admits there is a problem.

“The transition rate to secondary school is mainly determined by the number of Form 1 available places in secondary schools. Not all learners who complete primary school are absorbed by the secondary education sub-sector,” says government in the 2020-21 Education Sector Performance Report.

But it also admits that attainment of secondary school education has potential of bringing life changing impacts on both learners and the country. It says, in the report, that secondary school education is “the cornerstone of economic development of the country and one’s entry into the modern sector of the economy”.

As to the shortage of secondary school space, government attributes it to history, saying secondary school education developed late in Malawi as little effort was devoted to develop it throughout the colonial era.

Over the years, the focus turned to primary subsector — from introduction of free primary education in 1992 to increased investment.

“This, overtime, has led to great strides in the primary subsector but with unmatching growth in the secondary education. This has led to low transition from primary to secondary school,” government says.

During the announcement of 2019/2020 PSLCE examination results last year, Minister of Education, Agness NyaLonje, said for Malawi to significantly improve secondary school space shortage and double intake in the next five years, it needs about K2.85 trillion.

With that amount, Malawi can construct 949 secondary schools at the rate of K3 billion per school to double the transition rate of students from primary to secondary school from 37.73 percent to 76 percent.

“If we are to stagger the construction of these schools across a five-year period, we would require K569 billion per year,” said NyaLonje.

But the budget allocation to education is consistently far too short to meet this mammoth challenge.

For instance, in the 2022/23 budget, government allocated K462.2 billion to the entire education sector. Even if that whole amount was to be allocated for construction of secondary schools alone, it would be almost K100 billion short of what is required each year just to build secondary schools.

Interestingly, the education sector allocation is the lion’s share of the total 2022-23 national budget pegged at K2.84 trillion.

Education policy activist Limbani Nsapato says the tragedy is that this problem of having two-thirds of deserving students not making it to public secondary schools will not be resolved any time soon.

Nsapato says with just around 1,500 secondary schools and a primary school enrolment of around 5 million, it suggests that learners from 13 primary schools set out to compete for space in one secondary school.

To ensure every primary school learner has secondary school space, the country needs to construct at least an additional 25,000 classrooms or at least 2,000 secondary schools.

“This is a tall order which requires more than government to address,” he says.

Nsapato says incorporating learners that are left out into vocational education and entrepreneurship programmes and agri-business could reduce the misery and desperation of such dropouts. But this is not straightforward either, especially in a formal system.

According to the 2022 Apprenticeship Selection list by the Technical Entrepreneurial Vocational Training Authority (TEVETA), a total of 2,241 were selected to the country’s 24 national technical colleges.

The selection is based on bed space. Besides, those that qualify for selection are the ones that have a good Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), the final qualification in secondary school, with credits in science subjects.

Makhumbo Munthali, Director of Economic Social and Cultural Rights at Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), says government’s continued failure to view this as an urgent challenge requiring a robust policy response is a clear violation of local and international frameworks on education.

He cites the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Article 13b) which requires the State to make secondary school education generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means.

To deal with despair of students left out, Munthali also suggests that government should invest more in out-of-school programmes targeting these youths.

“Besides, government needs to create a conductive and enabling environment for business to enable those youths to engage in small-medium enterprises.

“At the same time, government should be able to engage with the private schools to make sure that they don’t charge exorbitant fees, and should encourage the private sector as part of corporate social responsibility to financially support learners who decide to enroll in private schools,” he says.

Whatever reforms happen, whenever that will be, if at all, millions more will have missed out on decent education. And, left out of that ‘heaven’, life may not be easy for many of them—if Hadson’s experience is anything to go by.

After failing to get into secondary school in his village in Phalombe District, Hadson relocated to Blantyre in 2015 to find a means of earning a living.

“Life in the village was tough so I thought I could find opportunities here. I failed to find a proper job because of the low qualification,” he said.

Since 2016, he earns a living as a minibus conductor.

“This is not what I wanted to do growing up. It’s miserable. I believe that had I attained secondary school education, my life would have been better.

“But I am stuck now and I gave up. This is the job I wake up to if I am to feed my wife and child and support my mother in the village,” says Hadson, ending the interview abruptly as he has to holler at potential passengers for his minibus, one of the 12 at a rank in Bangwe Township that morning.

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