Thursday, 15 December 2016

Looking at the education statistics in Malawi

The Nation and other newspapers in Malawi have been full of it: the Malawi government's Education Information Management Systems (EMIS) report for 2015 was published a couple of months or so ago and many column inches have been used to study the data and their implications. They make sobering reading, though there is little to surprise anyone who knows even a little about education in Malawi.

So, what do I take out of it? Here is what I have managed to piece together over the last few weeks.

One of the key figures quoted in the headlines is that less than half of pupils in Malawi's primary schools complete the full eight years of basic education. Actually, I thought the total might be even less than that. However, this is because I tend to visit desperately poor schools in rural areas. In such schools, the completion rate might well be in the region of 30%, but is balanced out nationally by the completion rate in the better private schools and in urban government schools. What is worrying, however, is that the completion rate is falling. It was 52% in 2013. While everyone agrees that the EMIS figures are shocking, some researchers even so do not consider them to be accurate. Analysis by Chancellor College, University of Malawi, suggests that the overall primary completion rate is actually less than 30%.

As you might expect, completion rates in some districts are worse than others. In Mangochi in southern Malawi, for example, which, at 6.7% year by year has the worst rates, many children drop out  to engage in fishing and contribute to the family income. Machinga (south-east) and Dedza (central) also have very high rates of dropout, year by year at around 6%. In urban areas like Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba which are centres for higher education, year-by-year dropout rates are much lower, at less than 1%.

Most children drop out of school between Standard 1 and Standard 2 when classes are at their largest. Furthermore, it is not just completion which is a problem. Many children repeat classes, sometimes year after year: almost 22% across the country.  The lakeside district of Nkhotakota has a repetition rate of nearly 30%, as do Balaka and Mwanza, compared with rates of around 14.5% in the cities of Blantyre, Mzuzu and Lilongwe. Pupils who repeat, don't move on. They rarely learn much more as the problems which have damaged their education remain. They are stuck, educationally, socially and intellectually.

The situation for girls is particularly bad: more of them repeat classes and more of them drop out, mostly through child marriage. The gender differences are low at the early stages, for example 65% of boys and 64% of girls continue from Standard 1 into Standard 5. However, over time, girls' domestic duties increase and their parents' aspirations fall.  While 35% of boys in Standard 5 make it to Standard 8, only 29% of girls manage to stay on.

The impact on the population as a whole are significant. UNESCO's figures for 2010 indicate that of 15-24 year olds in Malawi, 5% had received no education at all, 57% failed to complete primary school, 11% completed primary school, 19% attended but failed to complete secondary school, 7% completed secondary education and 1% studied beyond secondary level. These are the educational levels achieved by the parents of the current cohort of pupils.

The low completion rate results in high levels of illiteracy or semi-literacy among the general population, and failure to master other basic competences. Those missing children will not have sat their Primary School Leaving Certificate Examination (PSLCE), an essential qualification for employment. Out of the one million pupils who entered Standard 1 eight years ago, only one quarter sat their PSLCE. Indeed, across Malawi, only 36% enter secondary school (34% of girls). Many of these learners drop out, usually because their parents cannot pay the fees or, if they are girls, because they get married or become pregnant.

Both completion rates and rates of transition to secondary school are key measures of education quality. They are also indicators of serious problems for the country in the future. Those missing children who do not enter secondary school would have been the future nurses, engineers and teachers in a country with a desperate skills shortage. Another recently published report, by Gazette View, named Malawi to be the poorest and most underdeveloped country in the world. How can the country move forward with such a poorly educated population?

One reason why children drop out of primary school is failure to learn in classes which are simply too big for the teachers to cope with. Globally, the pupil-teacher ratio is supposed to be 1:50. In Malawi, it can be 1:110. That is, of course, an average figure across Standard 1 to Standard 8. In Standards 1 and 2, the pupil teacher ratio may be as high as 1:200 or even more. In some remote schools, a single teacher may be in charge of all eight classes. Such schools are not the small one-teacher schools of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Primary schools in Malawi may have a thousand or more pupils.

It is a vicious circle. High class sizes at the early stages of primary school contribute to dropout. Drop out results in too few pupils entering secondary school. Too few secondary pupils result in too few trainee teachers which, in turn, means a pupil-teacher ratio which is too high.

The quality of education is also a issue. Many primary teachers are unqualified. In Malawi, the proportion of qualified teachers to pupils is around 1:75, far below international standards. Under the Millenium Development Goals, the target was 1:40. The current Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030) set the target at 1:31. Malawi's current National Education Sector Plan 2008-2017 sets the target at 1:60. Teachers are supposed to have achieved passes at Malawi School Certificate of Education Level (equivalent to GCSE). In fact many of them only have qualifications at Junior Certificate of Education, taken after a couple of years in secondary school. For some years now, the government has attempted to deal with the lack of qualified teachers by running Open and Distance Learning (ODL) courses alongside conventional Initial Primary Teacher Education (IPTE) courses at teacher training colleges (TTCs).

Even when teachers qualify at TTCs, it can be more than a year before they are posted to jobs. There is currently a backlog of 9,400 qualified teachers trained on ODL or IPTE courses who have not yet been placed in schools. Additional to these unemployed teachers, there are about 8,000 newly qualified teachers (figures from November 2016) also waiting for jobs. This in a country with a desperate teacher shortage. The key element in learner achievement is interaction with the teacher. With so few teachers is it any wonder that the children in Malawi's schools don't learn?

Who knows why it takes officials so long to organise these postings. Insufficient funds? Bureaucracy? Incompetent management? In the meantime, qualified teachers remain at home, scratching a living as best they can. Some take up jobs in private schools and may be lost to the state system altogether. And meanwhile, the children, of course, have no teachers.

Another reason for the shortage of teachers, is the lack of accommodation for them and their families. Newly qualified teachers are normally posted to rural areas away from their homes, where the need is greatest for their first five years. Many schools in poorer communities do not have sufficient teachers' houses and staff drift away.

The distance between school and home is also an issue for pupils, so traditionally, secondary pupils at government schools have had to board. Few ordinary families can afford to pay for boarding on top of school fees. Without sponsors, most able children are unable to attend secondary school. Although class sizes at secondary can be much smaller than primary, and basic resources such as desks and chairs more plentiful, there are many difficulties in accessing secondary education.

To deal with this problem, the government has started opening local schools called Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSSs). These schools are supposed to be built much closer to communities, to encourage more young people to enter secondary education. However, the distances may still be quite far: in Nkhata Bay, for example, up to 49 kilometers. It may also be risky for girls in particular to walk back and forth to school so many become 'self-boarding', ie they rent spaces in other people's houses or join together to rent a hut. Here they are often vulnerable to sexual harassment or engage in transactional sex, and may end up leaving school anyway because of pregnancy. In Nkhata Bay, 23 preganant girls drop out of secondary school each month. At Kavusi CDSS alone, out of 25 girls enrolled in Form 1, only 8 made it to Form 4. The rest were married off by their parents, who may even encourage relationships with older men, or became pregnant. The Deputy District Education Manager told the Daily Times that the girls who dropped out were 'the most intelligent'. He went on to say:

'These girls waste their time on Chilimika dances, instead of concentrating on their studies.' A classic case of blaming the victims.

[In one primary school I went to, near the Lake, parents sent their girls out at night to the local lodges to earn the equivalent of 75 pence.]

Poor quality teaching also affects secondary schools. Across all types of secondary schools, 42.5% of teachers are untrained, with the CDSSs in particular having very high levels of unqualified staff. Other aspects of secondary education are also inadequate. Of the 37 secondary schools serving the 5,514 secondary pupils in Nkhata Bay, only nine have laboratories, of which only four are 'conventional' and two are test centres. The first and only time many secondary pupils use a laboratory is the day they sit their practical science examination. Only 19 of the 37 Nkhata secondary schools has a library. (The Daily Times 9/11/16)

Here are photos of a library and a science store at a government secondary school elsewhere in Malawi. The library is the best resourced I have seen, though most of the books are very old or unsuitable donations from western charities. The science resources are typical of what I have seen.

Given these weaknesses, it is hardly surprising that only 1% of Malawi's population have attended university. For a country with a desperate need to industrialise, to diversify and improve its agricultural practices, and to support a developing mining industry, this is serious. Local talent is going to waste. Individuals are frustrated through lack of opportunity while jobs continue to go to expatriates with the necessary technical skills.

It is not just Malawi which faces these problems, of course. Out of Africa's 128 million school-aged children, 17 million will never attend school while another 37 million learn so little at school that they are no better educated than the non-attenders. (Africa Learning Barometer, Centre for Universal Education, Brookings). In seven countries, 40% or more of children do not meet minimum levels of education by Grades 4 and 5. Half of sub-Saharan Africa's primary school population, 61 million children, will reach adolescence without the basic skills needed to live healthy and productive lives. Countries like Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia, as well as Malawi, are among those with major challenges in delivering effective education to all their learners. `

Now, let us remember that in almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, education, health and survival rates have been improving significantly particularly now HIV/AIDs can be treated. The trouble is that these countries not only have to deal with very high birth rates which increase the pressure on public services, they are also have endemic diseases such as malaria which weaken the general health of the population, result in high death rates and break up families. Hunger and water shortages are the result of climate change and phenomena such as El Nino and have effects which are far more serious than any which Europe has to deal with. So, before we think that these countries are 'hopeless' we should consider the severity of the challenges they must address.

Malawi is, of course, one of the nations trying to deal with such challenges. Currently 23% of the national budget is allocated to education, a very high proportion, of which 49% goes to primary schools. So the will to improve is there; it is just that the overall 'pot' of money is small, particularly now western donors have ceased contributing to the national budget. Nevertheless, some positive action is being taken.

A new cohort tracking system which allocates each pupil a registration number, should enable schools and districts to identify those who repeat, drop out or die. Not only will this system enable resources to be allocated more fairly, in theory it will also help district advisers and managers address, and deal promptly with problems in schools, and and enable support to be provided to vulnerable pupils. Persuading parents that the whole family will benefit if they keep their children in school is key. For this, districts need to know which learners are dropping out.

Campaigns and projects to encourage smaller families and the spacing of children through family planning should not only improve the health of the pupil population and protect girls from dangerous early childbirth but also reduce the pressure on schools of the rapidly rising population. The average woman in Malawi gives birth to between five and six children. Whereas the middle classes may have only two or three children, poor rural families may have up to a dozen, ill fed, vulnerable to sickness, undereducated and probably functionally illiterate. They are the parents of the future.

There are some signs of improvement, however. In Thyolo, the drop out rate for girls in secondary schools has fallen from 24% to 20% through providing modest levels of financial support. Concerted efforts by the government, supported by donors and NGOs have resulted in improvements in retention rates for girls. The longer girls are educated, the healthier their children and the fewer they have.

In 2015, the number of female student teachers - 5,890 - was greater than that of the males - 4,304. So at least girls have more chance of observing educated female role models. Standard Bank and UNICEF have set up a mentorship programme in Dedza, Salima and Mangochi in which female bank employees visit schools  to encourage girls to stay in school up to university. UNICEF has a similar scheme for girls who are out of school.

The government has also taken steps to ban self boarding, in order to protect girls. In its assessment of self-boarding, only 3 girls in the 135 schools sampled got below 20 points in MSCE examinations (the lower the score, the better the achievement) and only one made it to university. The government is prioritising the building of CDSSs. However, in order to develop secondary education, which is essential for national development, it will have to divert resources from already under-resourced primary schools. These are the kinds of decisions which developing nations make all the time.

The data in this post may seem overwhelming in its significance for the long term development of Malawi. However, change is possible. Improvements happen - think of the strides made by countries like Ghana, for example. Such improvements depend on careful prioritisation and planning and for these accurate data is needed. Depressing though the data may look, the important thing is that at least it is now being gathered and reported. Let us hope that it will now be used and acted on.


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