The Lamp Magazine interview by Joseph Kayira, May 2021
JK: The results of the retaken 2020 MSCE examination show that 81,017 candidates out of 138,310 have failed representing 41.42 percent, a pass rate said to be the worst in a decade. What is your take on this?
SS: The poor results of the 2020 MSCE examinations were shocking and disappointing, but they cannot be said to have been unforeseen. It would have taken a miracle for the majority of students to have excelled after schools were closed for six months, and then the exams were cancelled midway through due to massive leakages and cheating. As the elders would have put it, this was “muvi woyang’anira”. It was heartwarming to see some students still going ahead to score six points and others with several distinctions, so all is not lost.
JK: What’s your opinion on some experts who think the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB) should take responsibility for this unfortunate situation where these 81,017 candidates find themselves in.
SS: MANEB’s responsibility is to assess students, not to teach them. What these results have done is to hold up a mirror for us to see how our public secondary school system is performing.
JK: Was it not proper for MANEB to consider reducing the passing rate in view of the Covid-19 induced holiday forcing students stay home for some time?
SS: Reducing the passing mark would compromise the quality of education because it would depict a false image of how our public secondary school system is performing. We would end up lulling ourselves into a false sense of satisfaction; sending to universities and into employment people whose educational qualifications would not be congruent with their true level of knowledge and skills. Perhaps MANEB could have asked the Ministry of Education to delay the exams by another month or two, to allow teachers and students a little more time to prepare. But reducing the pass mark would have had undesirable consequences. The solution is to systematically study the conditions in the system, and address them.
JK:Others think MANEB punished MSCE candidates for the examination leakage hence the poor results.
SS: If that were true, it would be unfortunate. An examining authority cannot set an exam whose purpose is to make students fail. It would entail examining students on content that was beyond their level and scope. That would be not only unethical, it would also be irresponsible. I stand to be corrected, but I hope that is not what happened.
JK: How best can MANEB handle similar situations in future to avoid the 2020 examination saga?
SS: There was a promise to carry out investigations, both internal and external. I am not aware of any reports that have been released in that regard. If the investigations were systematic and meticulous, then MANEB and the Ministry must have identified where things went wrong, and why. It was reassuring to see that the re-run happened without leakages and cheating, so one hopes whatever lessons were learned from the investigations were applied. It will take consistent due diligence to ensure that the 2020 scenario does not repeat itself in future. The integrity of our education system hinges on the conduct and credibility of the national examination process.
JK: Do you think MANEB has all the support it needs from its stakeholders to properly prepare and manage examinations?
SS: In recent years MANEB was able to demonstrate professionalism and credibility, which may be taken to mean that it has been getting the support it needs from key stakeholders. The national examination process has many layers of complexity, and requires the support and collaboration of many players. Achieving success in such a complex undertaking takes all the players sharing the ultimate goal, that of improving our education system and upholding its integrity.
JK: For months teachers, through Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), have been fighting government [Ministry of Education] asking for risk allowance in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. Were they justified to go on strike for that reason?
SS: There are two ways of looking at this. First, the teachers’ demands for covid-19 risk allowances were made in a political economy context where “allowances” have come to symbolize benefits and entitlements that have in the end created inequalities that are eating at the core of the country’s social fabric. Thus “allowances” operate in a culture where the elite accumulate for themselves benefits, privileges and power, at the expense of everyone else. That self-accumulation has been blatantly evident in the way covid-19 relief funds have been handled. People who were not at risk to the corona virus because of the nature of their work helped themselves to those funds.
The second way of looking at this question it through the prism of risk itself, real or perceived. Teachers were considered to be at some level of risk, and therefore deserving of allowances, but that decision was changed without explanation. Malawian classrooms in the public schools are so overcrowded it is impossible to achieve the social distance needed to keep away the virus. And young people are known to be carriers of corona virus without exhibiting symptoms. Classrooms are enclosed spaces and epidemiologists have pointed out this as a significant factor in the spread of the virus. Teachers and learners spend long hours inside those enclosed spaces. Teachers were not given PPE; instead, they were made to make their own masks at training sessions where even the money meant for their lunch allowances was swindled.
JK: How should the culture of allowances be handled in this country? Were teachers right or wrong to ask for risk allowance?
SS: When testing for corona virus reached boarding secondary schools, the numbers of students who were found positive were alarming. In some schools the infection rate was fifty percent. Teachers especially in boarding schools were justifiably concerned about their safety from the virus. By the way many teachers use their personal funds to make purchases for their learners and for their classrooms. This happens all over the world. Giving them the allowance would have been a reasonable gesture of appreciation for what teachers do, much of which is thankless. And some would use the money to buy PPE.
The injustice in how the allowances were handled was blatant, and it would have been naïve to expect teachers to just watch and keep quite. That is the context in which we should understand the teachers’ demands for risk allowances.
We all await the report and recommendations from the taskforce that the president announced to look into the issue of allowances, procurement and employment contracts, headed by the Vice President. Hopefully that process will bring sanity to the corrosive culture that the allowances syndrome has created.
JK: Wouldn’t you agree with those who are criticizing teachers for not being sensitive enough to go on strike at a time when the learners needed them most and at a time the country was, and still is in a crisis?
SS: In contexts where injustices are rampant, people tend to be strategic in deciding when to make their demands heard. If Malawi were a society where people were treated with dignity and respect, and people’s pleas for recognition were listened to, the teachers’ demands would have been considered insensitive. But we have created a society where the elite feel entitled to all the privileges and accumulate for themselves benefits and perks. The teachers were trying to make their voices heard in such a context. It is unfortunate that this happened when the education system was at its worst moment due to the covid-19 pandemic, but given everything we have seen, one can understand where the teachers are coming from.
JK: Do you think teachers have better working conditions in this country? How is Malawi ranked when it comes to remuneration of teachers in this region?
SS: When we talk about teachers’ working conditions, we talk about several things. We talk about school and classroom conditions, where teachers spend a lot of their time. The infrastructure alone needs to be appealing, hygienic, and fit for purpose. Teacher-pupil ratios need to be reasonable. Workloads also need to be reasonable so that workers can have a good work-life balance. Education relies on equipment and materials to facilitate teaching and learning. Then there are issues of remuneration and benefits.
In Malawi teachers’ conditions, as defined, are not conducive. Classes are so large it takes a lot of work to manage them. Much of the infrastructure, especially in rural areas, is below standard. Teaching and learning materials are a big problem. In her report on the 2020 MSCE results, the Minister of Education, Hon. Agnes NyaLonje, stated that students in lower secondary classes are sharing one textbook to five students. In the upper secondary classes, that is Forms 3 and 4, the situation is so bad that up to 25 students are sharing one textbook. What that means is that many students are going the whole school year without touching a school book. That is a sure recipe for the disaster unfolding before our eyes.
There is also the important aspect of professional growth and career path, which is a huge bottleneck in our educational system. Many teachers work hard over many years but are never rewarded through promotions or other modes of recognition. Many times promotions are politicized. Many teachers are frustrated, and morale has been low for a very long time, it has become a chronic problem. There are now efforts to institutionalise a performance management system, a teacher management strategy, and a continuous professional development framework that should make career progression systematic and realistic. Once that system is established, it should restore hope in the profession and make it attractive again. It should also help retain teachers.
In terms of remuneration, teachers’ salaries are calibrated within the civil service salary structure, and teachers start at one level higher. However, salaries are just one part of the remuneration and privileges ecosystem, and in this regard teachers have the lowest benefits when compared to other sectors in the civil service. In comparative terms with the region, Malawian teachers’ salaries appear to be at par with the region, as far as power purchasing parity is concerned. But Malawi’s economy is in the lower ranks in the region, which puts Malawian teachers also in the lower ranks. Considering the role teachers play in the development of a nation, it is important to give teachers’ remuneration and benefits special consideration. We need to make the teaching profession attractive and appealing to young people.
JK: How dangerous is the standoff between TUM and government to the welfare of teachers in Malawi?
SS: It is very dangerous. Teaching and learning rely on a lot of factors lining up symmetrically and working in sync. Learners learn best when teachers are motivated, respected and encouraged, and when teachers’ personal welfare and professional aspirations are taken care of. Classrooms are sensitive places that require a teacher who is mentally prepared to teach and is focused on helping students learn. The current atmosphere makes it very difficult for teachers to feel motivated and appreciated. The vitriol coming from certain quarters betrays an ugly underbelly of deep-seated resentment and contempt for teachers. That is very unfortunate.
JK: What should TUM do to puts its house in order for it was apparent during the recent standoff that the centre is no longer holding?
SS: TUM has existed over the decades. It started out as a teachers’ association from the time when schools were run by missionaries, to the time of independence. It has represented the voices of teachers very well over the years. That said, TUM does have issues that it needs to sort out. It needs to be responsive to the needs of its membership, and to be open and transparent. It is the membership that defines an organization, and where it derives its power. It is in listening to and representing the membership that TUM’s significance and influence will grow stronger. There are clear ongoing attempts to weaken and destroy TUM, which shows a lack of understanding of why TUM exists. The leadership of TUM needs to be cautious of attempts to politicize what the organization stands for, and to manipulate how it represents its constituency. These need to be resisted at all costs.
JK: Your final word?
SS: The goals we have set for ourselves for the Malawi we want will not be achieved if we sideline teachers and treat them as second class civil servants. It is teachers who will educate young Malawians and impart to them the skills and mindsets that this country needs to prosper. Teachers have an enormous responsibility in delivering the Malawi we all want. The values with which we treat teachers are the same values teachers will treat learners with. We need to be mindful of this always. I dream of a country that treats the teaching profession, in deed and in action, as the most important profession. I dream of a teaching profession that attracts the best and brightest motivated young Malawians because they understand education as the foundation for building a better Malawi.
Note: A version of this interview appeared in the May 2021 issue of The Lamp magazine.