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Where do the rest of the learners go?

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By Feston Malekezo

Figures from the Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb) indicate that 152,589 candidates will sit Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations while 159,946 are expected to take their Junior Certificate of Education examinations this year.

Some 266,639 students were expected to take the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations which were administered last week.

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These are over half a million people who might be determined to seriously go beyond their current levels of education.

They could even be looking forward to acquiring education certificates which they can use to earn a living.

This piece’s particular interest is on young learners who took the PSLCE test from July 13 to 15, 2022 and what happens to those who do not make it to secondary school.

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For starters, from 2020, the total number of learners who register to sit the PSLCE examinations has been going down.

Figures from Maneb indicate that in that year, at least 302,985 learners sat the examinations, a figure that dropped to 281,329, in 2021. This year, the figure has further fallen by 5.2 percent, but this is not the story for today.

When these learners take the examinations, their immediate aspirations are to get to secondary school, then college, after which they may get jobs or do whatever pleases them.

But they are faced with a familiar reality check: It is just not easy for someone to make it to secondary school even when they sufficiently qualify for such space.

Take this, for instance: In 2020, out of the 225,387 learners who passed the PSLCE examinations, only 84,947 were selected to secondary schools in the country. This means over 140,000 others were left behind.

Similarly, in 2021, about 226,800 learners passed the PSLCE examinations but only 83,845 or 39 percent were selected to various secondary schools.

Deputy Minister of Education, Monica Chang’anamuno, recently disclosed that out of candidates who pass Standard Eight examinations, only around 37 get themselves space in secondary schools.

So the question is: Where do those who make up the remaining 63 percent go?

Privately-owned secondary schools obviously come into the picture, but studies indicate that the sector consumes not more than 20 percent of the remaining 63 percent.

Late last year, Minister of Education Agnes NyaLonje said Malawi needs about K2.85 trillion to construct 949 secondary schools at the rate of K3 billion per school to double the transition rate of learners from primary to secondary schools from 37.73 percent to 76 percent.

Staggering the construction of the schools across a five-year period, the country would require K569 billion per year.

That time, NyaLonje said that there was “severe shortage of secondary school spaces”, which has led to low selection of learners who pass Standard Eight examination to secondary schools.

According to Unicef, most education budgets are applied to salaries and wages with recurrent costs absorbing an average of 85 percent of the national education budget between financial years 2013- 14 and 2017-18.

This means only 15 percent of the budget remained for developments such as construction of schools.

Apparently, the government is banking hopes on the K65.4 billion Secondary Education Expansion for Development project being funded by the United States (US) government through the US Agency for International Development to expand and build 250 secondary schools across the country.

Phase one of the project would see the expansion of 30 existing secondary schools in the country’s four cities to decongest existing institutions and accommodate the ever-rising urban population.

Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe said it is worrying that the majority of learners who write PSLCE examinations fail to get space in secondary schools.

“Such developments even frustrate programmes aimed at encouraging girls to be in school. That is why some of us continue to press government to fast-track the construction of secondary schools.

“That is the only way we can safeguard the future of these children. The implementation of projects to increase secondary schools is dragging and this is a cause for worry,” Kondowe said.

In just the first four months of this year, at least 5,000 teen girls got pregnant in the Northern Region alone. It is a fact that most of these are those who could not find space in secondary school because the schools could not absorb them even after they had qualified.

Across the country, the figures are higher.

So beyond looking at learners failing to make it to secondary school as just being an education issue, it is important to also think about where they go, especially girls.

Some get married even before their 18th birthdays while others engage in sexual relationships and give birth while still young.

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