July 5, 2005
One of the first things that we noticed about the educational system in Malawi was that it had massive problems. Buildings are dilapidated, non-existent or overcrowded. Teachers are under-trained, underpaid, and overburdened with pupils. Drop out rates are high, and despite the “free” education, there is a high illiteracy rate. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Even Malawi’s Ministry of Education website describes the monumental obstacles facing this country’s school system.
In 1997 the government instituted a “Free Primary Education” program, and all children in the nation could enroll in school. The resulting influx of more than a million students made the existing schools immediately insufficient, and improvements have been slow in coming. The average classroom in Malawi has 119 pupils (although we have visited schools where each teacher has almost 300 students in each class). For every desk in the schools there are 38 pupils. Twenty-four students share each textbook.
The government’s goal is to spend 65% of its budget on education, but currently only 6% of the GNP is spent on education. Each year $14 is spent on the education of each primary (elementary) school student. The government admits that a large percentage of the allocated funds do not make it to the schools and are trying to implement transparent expenditure monitoring systems at all levels of the system. Fraud and misuse of funds is currently rampant.
According to government statistics, only half of the teachers in the country have more than a primary education. Only 25% of them have been to Teacher’s Training College. A trained primary teacher makes about $25 a month. A secondary (high school) teacher makes $51, and a university lecturer earns $155 per month. Is it any wonder that there is a critical shortage of teachers?
Less than one-half of one percent of Malawian pupils make it to the university level of education. Only 20% of the students make it past Standard 8 (eighth grade). The government reports that Malawian girls are more prone to repetition and dropout than boys and women form the majority of the country's illiterates. Only 39% of the students in secondary school are female. Only 28% of university students are female. Educators are working on gender inequity but it is a difficult process.
I think the most discouraging thing about the most recent government report is that it says that one of the biggest problems is that Malawians, especially those in remote areas (and that is most of the country), do not value education. Parents do not encourage their children to go to school, or protest when they drop out at a young age. Until education is given a high priority and value, there is little hope.
Still, everywhere you go, you see children in their brightly colored school uniforms walking to and from school. We have been to remote villages where elders and chiefs pleaded for funds to build better schools for the children.
Another bright spot is the CCAP’s schools. Although these schools charge a fee for enrollment, they are some of the best in the nation. Last week we visited a new educational block at the Chigumula CCAP Church. It was clean and brightly painted. Blackboards in the classrooms in Nsoni had math problems scrawled across them. Adult literacy programs in the Chingale region are very successful.
Students in Malawi take big examinations at the end of Secondary School. Thirty-six percent of them pass, but students at Domasi Mission’s Secondary School had a 98% passing rate last year! HHI Secondary School on the Blantyre Mission grounds now has a computer lab with 20 computers and is training students in information technology. Still, there are a myriad of problems. The Synod just built latrines at a school that it operates for 9000 students. Previously there were no sanitary facilities. Most classrooms lack desks, chairs, books, or maps. One headmaster that I talked to said that lack of qualified teachers is his biggest problem. Funds for building improvements and maintenance are also a constant worry.
Another thing that affects learning is a student’s lack of proper nutrition. In the USA we have free lunch and breakfast programs, but there is no such thing here in Malawi. Even at private boarding schools, pupils usually only get meat at one meal a week. At university level, they get it twice. Studies show that hungry students do not learn as much or as well, so this is a big problem that is largely overlooked, although some CCAP schools do have weekly feeding programs.
As a teacher, I think that education in Malawi should be given the highest priority. Until Malawians are well educated and able to function on par with people from other countries, they will continue to suffer. There is much that others can and are doing to help, but much of the burden rests on the shoulders of the Malawians themselves.