Why Malawi’s education sector is in a mess: Part 2

In the first part of this article I argued that the mess in Malawi’s education sector is not occurring in a vacuum; it is a reflection of the state of the country’s governance and political economy. I also suggested that the internal causes of the problems are tied to external causes. In this concluding part I discuss the external causes, focusing on arguments made by a prominent Malawian development economist and an American educational researcher. I end by calling for more investment in the professionalism of Malawi’s teachers, and in addressing the root causes of the anger that has gripped the country’s teaching profession.

Writing on the discussion forum Nyasanet in October 2012, Malawian development economist Thandika Mkandawire, professor and chair of African Studies at the London School of Economics, helped put into perspective some of these causes. Professor Mkandawire listed mistakes that the IMF and World Bank had admitted to making in the decades that developing countries were forced to adopt prescriptions for which there was no guarantee that they would work. In the decades leading from independence of African countries, international financial institutions had what Professor Mkandawire called an “anti-tertiary education stance.”

This stance led to declines in investments in human capital, whose results are unfolding today. The mistakes these institutions have admitted to have had a “profound impact on African economies,” examples of which include “serious shortages of energy, lack of a skilled labour force, and an absence of long-term financing,” according to Professor Mkandawire.

This board on the outside wall of the school block used as a class at Tsabango in Lilongwe.

The lack of a skilled labour force and the absence of long-term financing have struck at the very heart of African countries’ governance and social service provision. They have crippled the capacity of countries such as Malawi in not only the education system but right across the entire public sector.

Steven J. Klees, professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland in the USA, argues similarly in a September 2012 article, titled “Why Does the World Bank Hate Teachers?” In much of the world, including Malawi, teachers are some of the lowest paid civil servants. Professor Klees traces this phenomenon to World Bank policies that pushed for low salaries for teachers. He also accuses World Bank policies of promoting teachers’ “ignorance,” a result of prescriptions to governments to cut both pre-service and in-service training for teachers, as part of structural adjustment programmes.

Untrained teachers have become a common full time feature of many educational systems around the world, another mistake Professor Klees attributes to the World Bank. When I started teaching in January 1990, it was after a ten-day crash course that introduced us to the basics of the curriculum and lesson planning, after which we were unleashed onto thousands of unsuspecting learners. In the mid-1990s Malawi hired 20,000 thousand school leavers and left them handling full classes on their own for years.

Malawi is still years away from achieving the optimal teacher-pupil ratio. Education policy documents prepared by the Ministry of Education indicate a target teacher-pupil ratio of 1:60, considered the ideal. Professor Klees argues that this ratio prescription came out of a flawed World Bank study.

Anybody who has taught young children knows how demanding it is to handle just a handful. For the World Bank to have prescribed 60 learners in one classroom just shows how out of touch some policies can be. Professor Klees notes, cynically but poignantly, that this prescription could not have been made for children of World Bank staff. We can add to that list children of Malawian cabinet ministers and high ranking government bureaucrats and other elites.

What this means is that countries such as Malawi must never accept policy prescriptions without subjecting them to scrutiny and examining them for suitability to our contexts. Currently many donors are prioritizing early grade literacy, in recognition of the pivotal importance that the ability to read holds for the future of a child. But Malawi’s needs are such that little can be achieved in early literacy as long as classes continue being very large and learners continue having no books to read. Government needs to make its priorities clear to donors, and to take an active role in the formulation of donor projects so as to ensure relevance and efficacy. Pilot projects are helpful, but it is pointless to have pilot project after pilot project without applying the lessons nationally.

We cannot afford to revert to training just a few thousand teachers at a time when school enrollments are at an all-time high. Handled well with resources and commitment, the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) model is the most efficient way of training a large number of teachers at once, using new instructional technologies.

In other parts of the world, the ODL model is being used to upgrade teachers’ minimum professional qualifications from a certificate to advanced degrees. We need to invest in the professionalism of teachers, providing them with resources so they can form professional associations and acquire advanced qualifications.

We must address the root causes of the seething anger that has demoralized teachers. We must motivate them with meaningful career prospects. There are some excellent, highly motivated Malawian teachers out there. We must invest in identifying them and supporting their efforts.

It is high time we started having teacher professional associations and national teaching awards as is the case elsewhere. Only when we have understood the broader context of Malawi’s socio-economic problems and its crossover effect in education, and made the necessary investments as described above, can we begin an earnest attempt at getting it right in education.

Steve Shara, PhD, is a 2012 fellow of the Programme for African Leadership, London School of Economics.

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