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Free primary education backfires

An ambitious plan by the Malawi government to boost its education levels by offering free primary education has backfired, largely because of the horrendously poor conditions of the country’s primary schools and teaching staff.
Brian Ligomeka

Although admission rates to primary schools initially soared by more than a staggering 80 per cent after free education was introduced in Malawi in the mid-1990s, they have consistently dropped again because conditions at schools remain deplorable.

In 1993, there were about 1.6 million primary school students in Malawi. However, when President Bakili Muluzi introduced free primary education in 1994, the number of students jumped to over three million.

There were no classrooms for the pupils, no teaching and learning materials, and no qualified teachers to teach the newly inflated classes.

The government had no choice but to recruit unqualified and untrained teachers. Some of the recruited teachers did not even have the Malawi School Certificate of Education, which is the equivalent to the British General Certificate of Education O Level.

Worse still, the untrained teachers became demoralized due to poor salaries, poor housing, and lack of teaching and learning materials.

"The conditions in the schools are very bad," admits Kuthemba Mwale, Director of Policy Planning with the Ministry of Education. "When we declared free primary education there was not enough teachers and materials. The children are frustrated. There is a lot of absenteeism, poor performance, and a very high repetition rate."

Malawi has one of the highest school dropout rates in southern Africa, with 15 per cent of girls (three in every 20 girls), and 12 per cent of boys (three in every 25 boys), dropping out between Grades Five and Eight.

Girls are especially pressured to abandon their education because they have to help out with family chores, fall pregnant, or are married off young. HIV/AIDS has also contributed to the high dropout rate amongst girls.

"The HIV pandemic has taken away the breadwinner from many families," Mwale explains. "Consequently, the responsibility falls onto girls to take care of their families."

The recruitment of unqualified and untrained teachers, both at the primary and secondary school levels, resulted in the poor performance of pupils during examinations. A commission of inquiry, appointed by the government to probe the causes of problems dogging the education system, released the results of its findings in November last year.

The commission, headed by veteran educationist Lewis Malunga, blamed President Muluzi for serious government policy disasters that contributed to mass failures. President Muluzi’s election campaign promise to provide free primary education without ensuring that there were qualified teachers to carry this promise out, says the commission, has proved disastrous to the education system.

The President's ambition was to make primary education free for all Malawian children. But while enrolment shot up and schools became overcrowded, the size of the teaching staff did not increase in corresponding terms.

Presently, Malawi’s secondary schools need at least 12,000 teachers, but there are only 4,968. Of these, only 1,628 are qualified to teach in secondary schools while the rest could do well in primary schools. They have been required to teach in secondary schools because of an acute teacher shortage.

The commission points out that the introduction of free primary education has resulted in increased enrolment, a development that has complicated the already under-staffed and under-motivated education system.

But the government had anticipated the dramatic increase in primary school enrolment. It quickly opened additional secondary schools, but these were schools only in name. They had no teachers, no learning materials, and no buildings.

It did not help that the Muluzi government selected primary school teachers for a three-week training course before posting them to secondary schools. "This was a recipe for disaster," the inquiry’s report notes.

Candidates for the Malawi School Certificate of Education increased from 7,000 in the early 1990s to 45,416 in 1999. According to the report, the increase did not correspond to both teacher capability and population. "The increased number of candidates and examination centres over-stretched the human resources available to the extent that security, reliability and validity of the examination has been compromised," the report observes.

Muluzi and his ruling United Democratic Front proposed the introduction of universal free primary education as their rallying call in the run-up to the 1994 general elections.

The commission of inquiry recommended a review of that policy. Its report urged the government to consider the introduction of a cost-sharing mechanism.

If the suggestion is accepted, the report says, "parents will have to contribute more than what they are currently paying in the form of school fees to ensure adequate supply of teaching and learning materials and improved infrastructure," the report says.

The government has, however, been reluctant to introduce primary school fees as that can shoot down President Muluzi's main campaign promise, which saw him defeat Dr Kamuzu Banda in the 1994 elections and be re-elected in 1999.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is also contributing to the decline of educational standards in Malawi, as the few well-qualified teachers succumb to the incurable disease. An average of 600 teachers die from AIDS-related ailments every year.

The University of Malawi, which trains secondary school teachers, is also finding problems in achieving its education goals due to inadequate financing. For instance, many of the university’s constituent colleges fail to open in time due to lack of funding from the government.

University Vice-Chancellor Prof. David Rubadiri said that this cash crunch prevents many departments and affiliated colleges from paying academic staff or beginning their lectures in January. Every year, he begs for money from various sources to fund the university’s operations.

Rubadiri said that reduced government grants this year covered only one third, or US$5 million, of the university's US$17.5 million annual operating budget. Many university students have also problems paying the tuition fee, which is currently pegged at US$360, he said.

Once students struggle through primary, secondary, and university education, there is no guarantee that they will secure a good job. Thousands of Malawi's university graduates roam the streets without employment. Many try to raise money by begging from their comparatively successful former schoolmates.

"I always beg for money from my former schoolmates," says Peter Phiri who completed university studies some three years ago. "Right now all my hopes are shattered. The industries do not need my qualification. I am now realising how unsuitable my arts degree is."

Leading labour experts from both the private and public sectors caution that the situation could worsen, considering that only some 20,000 jobs are created annually while the employment market consists of 100,000 job seekers.

"The major problem in this country is the incompatibility of employee resources and that of market needs," says James Ngulube, an economics student at the University of Malawi. "Therefore, there is an urgent need for Malawi's education system to be overhauled and modified in order to achieve a redirection of aspirations to correspond with economic needs and employment opportunities."

Senate Paulo, a former secondary school teacher, says the country's education system focuses too heavily on academic subjects, while there is lack of vocational and career guidance.

Minister of Education George Mtafu admits that the increase in the number of secondary schools due to the upgrading of former distance learning educational centres into community secondary schools led to the lowering of standards.

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