Overcrowding classroom in Malawi

Author:Elijah Sandram

 The United Nations in March 1990 called upon all countries to universalize adequate primary education and adopt the world Declaration on "Education for All" and a framework for action.

Education for All was a commitment to provide quality primary education to all children, eliminating inequalities in enrolment, building a robust socio-economic base within society, and enhancing civil education on the social and economic benefits of education at the community level.

In Malawi 1994, free primary education was introduced.

One thousand classrooms were constructed, and a new curriculum rolled out to 5,500 schools, and several school feeding programs were introduced to some school-going students.

It is over twenty years since Free Primary Education was introduced in Malawi, and yet it's goals remain elusive.

We believe that the introduction of Free Primary Education created a quantity and quality trade-off, which would bring out school overcrowding, shortage of teachers, scarcity of teaching and learning materials, lack of classroom spaces, and other deficiencies when school enrolment rises. To some extent, free primary education accounts for the current state of primary and secondary education in Malawi.

Quality education in Malawi is compromised within the Free Primary Education programme. Concerns about the quality of primary schools include but not limited to overcrowding, poor teacher qualifications, insufficient teaching and learning materials, high pupil-teacher ratio, classroom shortage, and others.

Firstly, the introduction of Free Primary Education was ill-planned and created an instant overcrowding situation, especially in primary schools that offered all class levels ( from 1st to 8 the grade). As fees were waived, children flooded a school system that was below capacity and lacked the physical facilities to absorb all the newcomers. Between 1994 and 1995, student enrollment surged from 1.9 million to 3.2 million students. In some schools, students were forced to study outdoors under trees.


            Crowd Classroom in Malawi, photo by author

Secondly, Free Primary Education policy pressured the government to recruit large numbers of minimally qualified candidates and subject them to crash training programs. Out of a total of 45,075 primary school teachers, only 24,429 were qualified from official training colleges, leaving almost 21,646 unqualified and under-qualified.

Training programmes for teachers kept changing in design, length of time, and focus. Programmes that required two years of training were slashed to one year to increase the supply of teachers. The majority of teachers and primary schools in Malawi have completed secondary education with either a lower secondary Junior certificate examination or a higher secondary Malawi School Certification Examination.

Thirdly, lack of teaching and learning materials amounts to a severe issue in Malawi and schools. The preparation of the country is still below it's set targets. A scarcity of textbooks means that students are not able to practice reading, writing, and arithmetic or increase their information based beyond classroom note-taking.

A study by Narayan (2012) confirms that students in several developing countries that espoused "Education for All," including Malawi, can not read or write correctly even after completing primary school education. The harm lack of teaching and learning resources does to the learning process cannot be overstated, particularly in an environment in which personal computers are entirely lacking.

Beyond Free primary education, FPE cannot account for all the Malawian public school system problems. Way before introducing FPE, the public education system was already under-resourced and under stress. It was further exacerbated by the introduction of Free Primary Education ( FPE). Prior challenges included access, equity, access to education by special needs students, insufficient funding to education,inefficient use of infrastructure, non-replacement if consumables, widespread poverty, and health issues. All these challenges amount to significant constraints to providing equitable quality education at all levels.

Access remains a severe issue at the secondary and tertiary levels. The gains of increased primary school access have been diminished by the fact that a significant number of enrolled in primary education repeat or drop out of the system. Out of every 100 children entering primary school, only 46 complete standard 8. The overall repetition rate at the fundamental level is 25%. Among girls, it is 16% and 10 among boys. The integrated Household survey indicates that the main reason for dropping out of school for both boys and girls is lack of money(58%), early marriages and pregnancies(15%), and lack of interest(13%).

A second major issue in the education system is equity. There is a problem of unequal access. Girls tend to be under-represented at the secondary and tertiary education levels. The dropout rate is worse among girls due to the impacts of HIV and AIDS that turn them into caregivers and at times, breadwinners. Other problems are poverty, poor school environment, such as poor sanitary facilities. Many primary schools are unable to construct enough pit latrines. Those that are constructed are not of durable material and are poorly maintained. Given the high population of many schools, pit latrines wear down fast.

A third issue is the impact of HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS cause teacher absenteeism, resulting from sickness, taking care of the sick and attending funerals, and mortality. Currently, more than 15% of the population is infected, and the impact on the teachers is severe. Due to the spread of AIDS, many children are orphaned and thus at greater risk of repeating or dropping out of school.

A fourth issue is access to education by special needs students. The lack of proper services remains a challenge to reaching out to these populations. By far this, new approaches are needed to address these challenges facing the education system in Malawi. The strategies are as follows to use multi-grade teaching, especially to small schools that may have small class populations such that it would be expensive to recruit a teacher for each grade. Empowering Girl education through providing school fees and other material needs to poor girls to keep them in school. It is giving preference in admission to girls and school hostels building.

In conclusion, the success of Education for All in Malawi remains intangible. Several reasons explain the crisis of public education, as described and illustrated in this article. The education system requires an overhaul, a radical way of thinking about how we educate and why we educate. Although we all acknowledge the potential benefits of education to development, it is in the classroom where the rubber meets the road. This recognition of the importance of education does not amount to a cliche. School reform in Malawi requires essential commitment from all of us.