Thursday, December 15, 2016

Malawi’s public education system: from planning to implementing

If Malawi truly wanted to improve the quality of public education, three questions would need to provide guidance. Which local, endogenous wisdom would we draw from? Which countries’ models would we want to learn from? And, how would we want the learning to look like? Although there are no easy answers to these questions, there are good reasons to pursue them.

Drawing from local, endogenous wisdom is important because learning from other societies is as inevitable as it is messy and complex. You can never borrow and transplant an entire system. You can only adapt what you are borrowing to an already existing, endogenous yet dynamic system. For which countries to borrow from, this is not a straightforward matter either. There are successful education systems in the global North and in the global South, with very different cultures.

As to how we would want the learning to look like, we would want to learn on our terms, not on the terms of those we are learning from. That is how successful egalitarian societies have managed to achieve their success.

A teacher continuous professional development session in Thyolo
What we know thus far about successful egalitarian education systems is that not only do they understand the significance of making their teachers the best educated and most prestigious professionals; they actually make the necessary investments. All countries say education is important. The difference between successful nations and unsuccessful ones lies in going beyond the rhetoric and implementing national plans.

On 16th September 2015, President Professor Peter Mutharika opened Chiradzulu Teachers’ College and said what must have been the most pleasing statements any Malawian educationist would want to hear. The president said, as quoted in Nyasatimes, “We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions. My government wants to make sure that teachers also live a good life like Engineers, lawyers and doctors as a way of motivating them to mould our children’s future with dedication.”

The president went on to say: “Let us be people who raise the flag of our standards very high. We deserve the best and must aspire to be at our best. Education is where we begin the making of a nation.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, these were very powerful, delightful things to say and Malawians are waiting to see the fulfilment of those promises. If what the president said were to become reality, Malawi would have one of the best education systems in the world.

There are countries that have actually made good on such promises. In Africa, Zimbabwe is one example. In Asia, there is Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In Europe, there is Scotland, Germany, and Finland, among others. What these countries have done, particularly Finland, is to make teaching the most prestigious profession. Finland’s teacher preparation programmes are the most selective, admitting only the best scoring students and subjecting them to a rigorous interview process before finally accepting them into a teacher education programme.

The minimum qualification to become a teacher in Finland, starting at the preschool level, is a research masters’ degree. The result is that the Finnish education system ranks amongst the best in the world, despite having slipped in PISA rankings since 2012 (In the 2015 rankings, released on 6th December 2016, Singapore took the number one position). Teachers, educationists and researchers from around the world go to Finland to learn how the country achieved this.

In the 1950s Finland was a largely agrarian society with very low school enrolment and transition rates. In the 1960s the country made a decision to transform its economy, and it started with the education system. In 1968 the country changed its basic education system and introduced comprehensive and compulsory education from Grades 1 to 9. They changed teacher certification requirements, introduced a new curriculum and started providing free meals to all students.

The country consolidated these changes by decentralising control to local municipalities and assemblies, and later shifted from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Education became the basis for innovation, open-mindedness, and flexibility. Students were taught to be responsible for their own learning, and schools and teachers were given autonomy. Top-performing students were incentivised to join the teaching profession, resulting in highly educated professionals who were trusted.

Critics like to point out that Finland has a very small, homogenous population and therefore it cannot be a model for countries that differ from its makeup. That is well and true, but it does not negate the importance, nor the feasibility, of heavily investing in teacher education and professional development, and fostering responsibility for students’ own learning and self-awareness.


If Malawi were to transform its education system and improve the quality of education, we would need to start by conscientising ourselves to endogenous forms of knowledge that define who we are as a country. We would then be in a position to determine what we wanted to learn from others, on our terms rather than on the terms of those we were learning from.

We have not done a good job of learning or borrowing, and that is why we have mismanaged our education system. The results have had adverse effects on much of our society. One particular form of endogenous knowledge we have not explored is that of uMunthu; the human dignity imperative.

The most recent education statistics, from 2015, show a few gains and many losses. We have improved in net enrolment and at least 95 percent of our six-year olds are entering school. The problem is that they are not persisting to completion. We have made great strides in getting girls into school, who now outnumber boys in primary school by a small margin. Girls also outnumber boys in Form 1 selection, and our teacher training programmes are now enrolling more female student teachers than males. We are training more teachers and the qualified teacher pupil ratio is slightly improving.

A significant percentage of primary school students drop-out annually (3.8 percent) and, an even higher percentage repeat annually (21.9 percent). By the time they reach Standard 8, up to 68 percent have dropped out or are repeating. Of those who finish Standard 8, only 36 percent transition to secondary school. In terms of net enrolment, the percentage of 13-17 year-olds who are supposed to be in secondary school, only 15 percent actually are.

Our secondary school system leaves out so many young people it has become dangerously unsustainable. The majority of Malawians 15 years and above have never attained a secondary school education. The figures stand 64 percent for men and 74 percent for women, according to the 2016 Malawi Health and Demographic Survey (p.11). For those who do attend, the quality is very poor, except for very few in elite public and private secondary schools. The majority of teachers in community day secondary schools are unqualified. It is even worse in private secondary schools, where 72 percent of teachers are untrained.

We have a textbook shortage, but it is made worse by irregular distribution and uncertainties in supply. It is a common sight to see twenty students sharing one textbook while new, unwrapped books are kept inside cupboards in headteachers’ offices for fear that if they get damaged there will be no replacements. We have many students both in primary and secondary schools who go for years without touching a textbook. These students end up in universities and are unleashed onto the streets.

In the tertiary and higher education system, our approach to solutions has been more politically-driven than based on sound thinking. The quota system, officially termed equitable access, is supposed to be used to level the ground for students disadvantaged by poverty, gender and disability, but it has become a tool that punishes high performing students even from among the disadvantaged groups. We need to address resource imbalances and shortages at the primary and secondary levels so as to give everyone a quality basic and secondary education.

We also need to acknowledge that a few private universities now offer alternative options to high performing students. These institutions deserve government support. They are now taking in the many qualified students left out of the public universities. Levelling the ground from basic education and utilising the private universities to widen access would eliminate the need to apply quotas at the higher education level. It would leave academic merit as the only criteria.

The higher education system itself is now reeling from years of elitist exclusivity and arrested development. The decades-old failure to expand access has created bottled-up pressure that is now exploding due to escalating costs amidst rapid expansion. The debate around the fees hike is undifferentiated, pitting two sides that are using sweeping statements to argue that the fees are either justified or they are too high. Missing from the debate is a discussion of how to use data and verifiable records to make students from wealthy families pay, while providing loans and scholarships to those who cannot.

Within three months of its loans recovery campaign, between April and June 2016, the Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board (NHESLGB) was able to recover K27.5 million, from 2,700 former students. This averaged K10,000 per former student, very little when compared to the actual amount spent to educate them.

The NHESLGB has the potential to become an important part of the solution to the problem of higher education fees, especially if it can recover loans at current exchange value and inflation, with interest. It needs to find bolder ways of growing its fund base. The lesson from successful education systems is that their governments use aggressive taxation, particularly from natural resources, to generate enough revenue to provide higher education to as many citizens as possible. We are on the extreme end of the continuum.

The current capacity of our higher education misleads us into thinking that the majority of our secondary school leavers do not qualify for university education. In fact they do. Every year no less than 70,000 pass the MSCE but only 6,000 or thereabouts find space in our public universities. An even smaller number go to private universities. The reality is that many more students deserve to be admitted into higher education but capacity problems deny them this opportunity.


If we truly wanted to improve the quality of education in Malawi, we have the knowledge and the expertise. We know where to learn from. Our leaders say all the right things but fail to put them into action. It has become cliché to say what we lack is political will, shorthand for inaction due to politicised rather than national visions. It is time we moved from a planning nation to an implementing one.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Lamp magazine.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Literacy, Language and Power: Thoughts on International Literacy Day 2016

It warms my heart that today, 8th September 2016, Malawi is celebrating the International Literacy Day on its designated day. More often than not, we are jolted into action after seeing what other parts of the world are doing on the day, and then we go “Ah! So today is International Literacy Day? Let us choose a day to commemorate it.” So we end up doing the commemoration in the latter part of the month, or even in October.

This year, a press release was floated in the papers a week or so ahead of the day. Two ministers, for Education, Science and Technology (Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano), and Gender (Dr. Jean Kalilani) are expected to be at Champiti Primary School in Ntcheu district to commemorate the day.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
This brings back memories of how we commemorated the day in 2010. A few weeks to the day, I went around knocking on people’s office doors at Capital Hill asking if there were any events planned to commemorate the day. I went to the Ministry of Education where the then acting Secretary for Education, Science and Technology was not in office that day. His secretary referred me to one of the directors. The director told me that the Ministry of Gender had traditionally commemorated the day, so they might be better placed to know if there were any events being planned.

I went to the Ministry of Gender, met a director, and learned that there was no event being planned. Shouldn’t this be a Ministry of Education event, actually? Asked the director, rhetorically. As I wrote in a blogpost in 2010, it dawned on me that “literacy” in Malawi’s seat of government, at least as of 2010, was understood as “adult literacy.”

It wasn’t until I met the National Librarian, Mr Grey Nyali, that we managed to put together an event. We went to Zodiak Broadcasting Station, where Winston Mwale, a former teacher turned journalist, jumped at the idea. We pre-recorded a one-hour panel discussion, which aired on ZBS on 8th September 2010.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Literacy Day. The theme this year is “Reading the Past, Writing the Future,” according to UNESCO. As is the case every year, the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are being awarded. They are the King Sejong Literacy Prize and the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy.

The King Sejong Literacy Prize is being awarded to organisations in Vietnam and Thailand. In Vietnam the Center for Knowledge Assistance and Community Development is working to bring books to rural communities. In Thailand the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, at Mahidol University, has a programme that promotes multilingual education.

The Confucius Prize is being awarded to three winners in South Africa, Senegal and India. They are the South African Department of Basic Education, for a mass literacy campaign; the Directorate of Literacy and National Languages in Senegal; and the Jan Shikshan Sansthan organisation, in Kerala, India.

All the five winners appear to have a common cause: promoting literacy amongst marginalised groups. Although the winning organisations seem to be going about pursuing this common interest in various ways, at the core of their endeavours is the role of language in promoting literacy. Two problems continue to pose a remarkable obstacle in the way we think about literacy.

The first problem lies in the way literacy is understood in most societies. Because we see the school as the primary agency for imparting literacy skills, we think of literacy in academic terms only. Reading and writing tend to be the standard markers of literacy. We do not think of literacy in cultural and organic terms, referred to as “vernacular literacies” by the literacy researcher David Barton.

Barton (2007) argues that we enact literacy activities in our everyday lives, many of them hidden from public view, and occurring outside reading and writing. Examples include how we relate with others, earn livelihoods, feed ourselves and our families, and acquire new knowledge, among others. When these activities do not involve overt reading and writing practices, we do not think of them as literacy events.

The second problem is the tyrannical dualism that resides in officialdom and defines language as either official or national. This is particularly the case in countries that were formerly colonised. The ruling elites of these countries think of language in either-or terms, and impose English, or whichever colonial language the country inherited, as the official language. The idea that an indigenous language can be given the same status as the colonial language and co-exist with it is anathema to them.

There has been a plethora of research and advocacy, from universities and international cultural organisations such as UNESCO, arguing for the importance of linguistic diversity in national language policies. Much of it falls on barren ground. The elites have dug in, and have bought into the linguistic monoculture sold by English-only imperialism.

Everyday litreacies. Photo credit: Steve Sharra
In most formerly colonised countries, indigenous languages are not taught in the public school systems. When they are, they are used for the first four years of primary schooling, after which English takes over. In the case of Malawi, the Education Act of 2013 goes as far as prohibiting indigenous languages from the school system, declaring English as the language of instruction from Standard One.

But English imperialism is global. In a 2010 article, Sonia Nieto, now professor emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote about the struggle for linguistic diversity in American schools. She wrote about how as a child, she was told not to speak Spanish on school premises because it was “rude.” This was one example, of many, which demonstrated to her the “power of language to either affirm or disaffirm one’s identity.” Nieto argued that for 21st century education, “knowing more than one language is an asset rather than a disability, particularly in these times of globalisation and increased immigration.”

In a 6 September article on The Conversation, Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula, a University of Cape Town professor and PhD candidate respectively, write about how South African schools “use language as a way to exclude children.” Written in the wake of revelations about South African schools which discipline students for speaking indigenous languages, they point out that recent research in language, bilingualism and bilingual education shows that there are academic benefits to students being allowed to use more than one language in the classroom.  

What I find surprising is that this comes as a surprise, at least in South Africa. In Malawi and in much of the Southern African region, indigenous languages are seen, by the elites, as a burden that needs to be rid of. Almost all private schools in Malawi prohibit students from speaking Malawian languages on school premises. The idea behind the trend is that students will improve their spoken English if they are prevented from speaking indigenous languages.

The imperative for students to improve English proficiency is as undeniable as it is well meaning. English opens doors to advanced knowledge and to careers. The problem arises when this belief is taken to extremes and becomes what Nieto calls an “ideology of exclusion and dominance” that views diversity as a negative rather than a positive. McKinney and Guzula say this ideology sees “language as a problem” instead of a resource. It is an ideology borne of what they term “Anglonormativity”, the perception that if one is not proficient in English, one is deficient.

When I was in secondary school, at Nankhunda Seminary and later at Police Secondary School, my best friend and I made an agreement that we would speak to each other only in English. A few other friends joined us. It helped us enormously, and enabled us to become proficient in English. It was an arrangement we made willingly without coercion from school authorities. As a result, we became creative in how we went about improving our English. We competed in who would read the most novels in one week, and who would write the most fiction.

The problem with schools prohibiting the use of indigenous languages and forcing students to speak English only is that it reinforces everything that is negative and hated about schooling. It curtails students’ motivation to learn, and stifles their creativity. It prevents students from developing responsibility for their own learning, the most important cognitive skill schools should teach.

English becomes associated with fear and a deep sense of inferiority. It becomes one of the reasons many students fail in school and in life. It is important that we encourage students to become proficient in English, but fear and dread and are not the best approaches to achieve this.

Malawi’s abysmal educational attainment statistics are a consequence of these beliefs and vices, carried on into adulthood and perpetuating themselves in our society. Every year close to one million Malawian children enter school. After eight years, only 250,000 survive to sit the primary school leaving certificate. After four years, 150,000 of them survive to sit the secondary school leaving certificate. Of these, no more than 50,000 make it into tertiary education.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
The verdict on these hundreds of thousands of students that do not make it to the top is that they are failures, a label that becomes self-fulfilling, and life-long. Yet many of them are very bright people with diverse gifts that are neither recognised nor rewarded. As Julius Nyerere put it in 1967, Africans now get the “worst of both systems.” The modern education system fails too many people, who have nothing to fall back on as the indigenous knowledge systems that sustained life before Westernisation have also been destroyed by colonialism.

The challenge of language and literacy educators today is to support teachers, schools, students and communities with intellectual contexts in which multilingualism is seen as practical and beneficial. Such contexts range from personal anecdotes and experiences to research practices and policy imperatives in local and global contexts.

For us in Africa and in formerly colonised parts of the world, Ngugi wa Thiongó (2005) has laid this out as “the challenge of our history.” That challenge is for African intellectuals to “do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs.” It is fitting that in commemorating this year’s International Literacy Day, UNESCO is calling for “Reading the Past, Writing the Future.”