Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Malawi’s education crisis and the use of evidence in policy, planning and practice

When the report of the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census was released in May 2019, there was one statistic that I found astounding. Amongst 14-17 year-old Malawian youths, the official secondary school age bracket, 82 percent of them were not in school. Only 18 percent were. I expected this statistic, which I considered to be a national crisis, to make front page and news headlines. It did not. Perhaps understandably. The focus was on the overall population figure, the percentage of young people, and other equally important findings. The education statistics largely went unnoticed.

Photo credit: © Steve Sharra

On the evening of Monday 7th December this week, President Dr. Lazarus Chakwera hosted representatives from private industry for a state dinner at Sanjika Palace to address this issue. As far as I can recall, this was the first time in living memory that a president convened a key stakeholder constituency to discuss a particular problem facing the education sector. Finally, this national scandal has attracted the attention of the highest political office in the country. I would have missed it, had it not been for a colleague who stumbled upon the event on MBC TV, and alerted us on a professional whatsapp forum. For some reason, there seems to have been very little publicity ahead of the event.

I dropped everything I was doing, went to the TV, and found the Secretary for Education, Ms. Chikondano Mussa, presenting the status of secondary school education in the country. She had new figures. From 82 percent of 14-17 year-olds being out of school as of 2018, the figure was now at 86 percent in 2020. Out of over 1.7 million youths in that age range, only 460,000 are in school. There was one textbook for every five students, and only 24 percent of secondary school students were able to complete four years per cycle. The secondary school sub-sector loses 11 percent of its students every year, and 3 percent repeat. Only 6 percent are able to proceed to university. There was a shortage of science teachers, as well as teaching and learning materials.

Community Day Secondary Schools, originally introduced as distance education centres which have evolved into community secondary schools, bear the brunt of the quality conundrum. There are 753 of them in the country, and 303 of them operate what are known as open secondary schools. Open Secondary Schools accommodate an afternoon school system as a way of extending secondary education access to those who cannot find space in the conventional system. They also take in adults who want to return to school.

Community and open secondary schools take up almost 60 percent of the entire secondary school population. Of the 10,000 or so secondary school students who proceed to university annually, only 15 percent come from community and open secondary schools. The majority, 85 percent, come from better-resourced national and district boarding secondary schools, as well as from prestigious private secondary schools.

When it was her turn to speak, the Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje likened the enrollment bottleneck to a 6-lane highway at the primary level, narrowing down to a single-lane highway at the secondary level, ending up as a dirt road at the tertiary level. The country’s tertiary enrollment rate is less than one percent; to be precise, 0.8 percent. It is the lowest tertiary enrollment rate in the world, according to UNESCO statistics. As I pointed out in a recent blog post, this incredibly low tertiary enrollment rate is the ultimate result of access problems that clog the entire education pipeline, right from early childhood education where only one in three Malawian children has access.

Hon. NyaLonje presented what she termed three key messages to the captains of industry gathered at the presidential dinner. The first key message was the power of data, or evidence, in formulating and implementing education policies. She pointed out how important and powerful it was to know the shocking extent of Malawian youths who were out of the school system. Her second key message was for everyone to recognize how strategically positioned secondary school education was, between primary and tertiary education, in an interconnected education system. The third key message was directed at the captains of industry themselves. Thus far, Malawi had heavily relied upon development partners for investments into the country’s education system. Malawians were now ready, observed the Minister, to take up the lead in investing in the country’s education so that all Malawians have access to quality and inclusive education. “The transformed Malawi that we want is within our grasp”, she said.

Ms. NyaLonje then laid out an immediate vision and a long-term vision for the country’s education sector. The immediate vision was the construction of 34 top quality secondary schools, one in each education district, to be centres of education excellence, in the model of Kamuzu Academy. At a minimum, these schools would cost MK100 billion (approx $133 million) to become operational. The long-term vision was for adequate quality infrastructure at all the levels of the education sector, so that all Malawian children, youths and young adults can go to school and attain a good quality education.  

What did Malawi’s private industry stand to gain by generously investing in the quality of Malawi’s secondary schools? Hon. NyaLonje pointed out at that quality education was a catalyst to achieving Malawi’s dream of becoming a middle-income country. A high quality education would produce high quality graduates who would turn around the fortunes of Malawian companies and industries, enabling them to improve their productivity and expand their growth. And that would also grow the country’s economy and generate more resources to improve the lives of Malawians. Improving the quality of education in the country is therefore in their own interest, as the ultimate beneficiaries of highly educated and skilled graduates, as the Minister exhorted.

It may have taken two years since the National Statistics Office showed the nation the extent of the challenges facing the country’s education system, but the matter has finally drawn the attention of the president. In his speech, the president expressed his own shock at the figures, and used the imagery of a mirror that reflects the true image of how one looks.

In the four or so months she has been Minister of Education, Hon. NyaLonje has used every occasion she has had to stress the role of research and evidence in Malawi’s education policymaking and implementation process. The Ministry of Education has developed a remarkable capacity for collecting and analyzing education data, and has been making this data publicly available for many years. How that data has been used to inform education policymaking has not been very clear.

One month ago today, on 9th November, the Ministry released the 2020 Education Sector Performance Review report. The report revealed some new education data since last year’s report. Secondary school enrollment had increased to 415,000 students, and that there were 13,000 more male students that females. There were 1,494 secondary schools in the country, and 55 percent of them did not have science laboratories. The availability of electricity was quite impressive, with 82 percent of secondary schools connected to either the national grid, or alternative energy sources.

The importance of data and evidence in policy making is crucial not only to education, but to the entire public policy architecture. However, the very idea of data and evidence itself needs a critical perspective. Some of the education statistics presented by the Minister of Education and the Secretary of Education at Sanjika Palace on Monday differ from the statistics presented in the 2020 Education Sector Performance Review report released four weeks ago.

For example, the Secretary for Education presented the total secondary school enrollment as 460,000, yet the 2020 ESPR report puts the figure at 415,000. Even in the 2020 ESPR itself, there are two different figures for the total number of secondary schools. On page 69 of the ESPR the total number of secondary schools in the country is given as 1,494. This shows a slight increase from the number given in the 2018 Education Management Information System (EMIS), which was 1,486.

The 2020 ESPR says the number of public secondary schools in the country stands at 884, but it does not give the total number of private secondary schools. The 2018 EMIS gave the total number of private secondary schools as 353. The 2020 ESPR gives the total primary school enrollment as just under 5.3 million, while the Secretary for Education said the figure was around 6 million.  

Some of the confusion with the numbers arises from the way secondary schools are classified. What are called Open Secondary Schools are not separate, independent schools with their own structures. They are afternoon classes that take place on the premises of existing secondary schools, but are counted as separate schools, for administrative purposes. On Monday the Secretary for Education said there were 303 of these. There has not been another EMIS since the 2018 version, which was released in 2019. The 2020 EMIS, when released, will hopefully present more accurate, harmonized figures.

While using data is important, it is much more important for that data to be accurate. To its credit, the Ministry of Education has a highly developed capacity in data collection and analysis, despite other challenges. These are challenges that will gradually be overcome, especially now that the importance of data will become even more prominent in the policy making and implementation process.

The immediate vision of the Ministry to establish 34 new high quality secondary schools also deserves comment. When the late Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda constructed the Kamuzu Academy, he said it was modelled after Eton College, an exclusive, boys-only boarding school in England. Eton is famous for educating members of the British royal family and ruling class. Critics said the Kamuzu Academy was an ‘Eton in the bush,’ and saw it as a lavish, elitist undertaking. Kamuzu’s idea was for the school to educate future generations of Malawian leaders, based on British standards. He declared, at a public rally, that no mutu biii (impolite term for ‘black person’) could teach at Kamuzu Academy. The school enrolled two students from each of the then-24 districts of the country, one male and one female.

To date, Kamuzu Academy has produced individuals who have gone on to leadership positions in Malawi. When Kamuzu relinquished power in 1994, Kamuzu Academy was fully privatized and started enrolling only those students who could afford the exorbitant fees. When Bingu wa Mutharika was president, he resumed the practice of enrolling top students from the districts and paying for their school fees, but this stopped when he died in 2012.

Constructing 34 such top schools, one in each district, is as ambitious as it is bold. If it would operate on the original model of Kamuzu Academy, enrolling top performing, less privileged students from the districts and offering them scholarships, it would provide a high quality education to a group of young, poor Malawians who would otherwise not be able to afford such an expensive education.

As others have pointed out, the Ministry’s immediate vision as expressed by the Minister stops short of addressing the other glaring problem of education quality in the secondary school sector. Almost 60 percent of the country’s secondary school students attend community and open secondary schools, known to have the worst problems in terms of qualified teachers, infrastructure and teaching and learning materials. This challenge also needs its own immediate vision. It should be part of the national vision that every Malawian has access to education quality of the highest standards, rather than make it the preserve of just a few. Obviously this cannot be achieved overnight; it is a gradual process requiring massive investments and long term planning. As Professor Augustine Musopole has argued, Malawi also needs to develop a home-grown philosophy of education, based on a Malawian and regional worldview.

It is very pleasing to note that on the evening of the presidential dinner, the private sector present pledged MK400 million toward the 34 top schools initiative. Press Trust pledged MK300 million. Other pledges are expected soon, as corporations consult their boards to decide how much they can contribute. We will need to broaden our views on how to finance the education sector so as to raise the MK100 billion. We will need much more than that to achieve the long-term vision of high quality education for every Malawian. 

Speaking when he launched the investor education week earlier on the same Monday, 7th December, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, Dr. Grant Kabango said Malawi's pension assets had reached MK 1 trillion (approx. $1.3 billion) as of 30th September 2020. The Ministry of Education together with the Ministries of Finance and Economic Planning & Development will need to explore how these pension funds, currently lying idle, can be leveraged to finance the much beleaguered education sector.  

Photo credit: © Steve Sharra 

The challenges in our education system ought to be a top priority for us all. Outside private industry and development partners, alumni networks also have the potential of making massive contributions to addressing these challenges. There are countries where alumni take their responsibilities towards their former secondary schools very seriously. In Ghana, for example, alumni form networks that take a direct interest in the state of their former secondary schools. Cabinet ministers, army generals, captains of industries and others who have become influential in society take an active role in the welfare of their former schools, ensuring that they are well managed and adequately resourced, and maintain their national prestige.

Now that the problem of young Malawians who are out of the school system has drawn the attention of the country’s leadership, it is time to have a national conversation on how to address this problem. It must, however, be addressed alongside other equally pressing problems. These include the development of a Malawian philosophy of education, access to inclusive, quality tertiary education, and Malawian adults who never attended school. The Fifth Integrated Household Survey 2020 report, released in November, gives another shocking statistic: 80.7 percent of Malawians aged 5 and above do not have any school qualification.

It will be futile for us to address the problems of the education system, without addressing the broader problem of this large majority who do not have a meaningful education that can help them participate in and contribute to community and national development.  As we gingerly step into the new decade, toward the 2030 agenda, and toward the year 2063 in our long-term national vision and continental aspiration, education, and the teaching profession, will have to take a central role.