At the dawn of multi-party democracy in 1994, government introduced free primary education which doubled enrolment for learners.
However, the increase in enrolment brought with it many challenges, including inadequate qualified teachers, shortage of teaching and learning materials as well as shortage of infrastructure.
At Ezondweni Primary School in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mtwalo in Mzimba, the problems persist to date.
“We do not have enough school blocks,” says Nicholas Mwenebanda, Mtwalo Area Development Committee (ADC) deputy chairperson.
The school has 6 000 learners against four school blocks which he says are not enough.
“The school is forced to host some classes under trees. Some classes take place in the evening, especially during rainy periods when pupils can’t learn under trees,” he says.
Despite such challenges, communities in the area have not sat on their laurels, waiting for government to intervene.
Mwenebanda says communities have launched a project to construct a school block using the school improvement grant (SIG) as well as some funds contributed by parents.
“Parents have also contributed bricks, sand and labour. The school committee has agreed to spend some funds from SIG to support the project,” he says.
Elsewhere, in Gideon Ngulube Village in the same T/A, communities have mobilised themselves to construct a teacher’s house at Emvuyeni Community Day Secondary School.
Gideon Ngulube Village Development Committee (VDC) chairperson Robins Moyo says the school has few teachers’ houses. He says as such, teachers are forced to reside in far flung areas.
Emvuyeni second deputy head teacher Tale Mushani says the school has 11 teachers against four houses.
“Most teachers are operating from Ekwendeni which is over 15 kilometres away. It’s difficult to travel during rainy periods because most of us cycle to school,” she says.
Mushani says, as such, some teachers miss classes when it rains.
It is because of such challenges the communities mobilised themselves, says Moyo.
“All we want is to have teachers reside around the school so that our children get quality education as much as possible,” he says.
The two communities are some of the ADCs and VDCs that have benefited from a project being implemented by Youth and Society (YAS) called Strengthening Citizen Participation in Budget Processes in M’mbelwa District Council.
YAS, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), revamped 48 VDCs in the district and trained them on their roles in public expenditure tracking and management of SIG.
Chikoya VDC chairperson Idah Ngulube says the project has instilled in her committee knowledge on how to manage these funds.
“At first we thought this is in the hands of government. We didn’t know that we also have a role as communities to take part in development. Now we are able to plan together with school committees and agree on what projects to embark on,” she says.
Ngulube, however, says the committees need more support for them to roof the buildings with iron sheets, and ensure that the buildings are of good standards to avert tragedies like in other schools where sub-standard school blocks fall on learners.
A recent study has shown that although primary school education in Malawi is said to be free, technically parents still make contributions for various school development projects.
The report, authored by Susan Watkins and Adam Ashforth, is titled An Analysis of the Political Economy of Schooling in Rural Malawi: Interactions among Parents, Teachers, Students, Chiefs and Primary Education Advisers.
It says contributions are necessitated by government’s insufficient funding to public schools.
It reads: “Since the passage of the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy in the 1990, there are no government-mandated school fees. Yet because the government does not provide enough funding, parents must pay a fee to the school at the beginning of each term, and they also have to contribute to school development, which means making bricks to build classrooms and housing for teachers.”
In 1994, following promises made during the election campaign, former president Bakili Muluzi introduced FPE. The FPE policy was adopted abruptly, with virtually no planning.
Enrolments of primary school children surged from 1.9 million to 2.9 million almost overnight. Ministry staff and donors had advised against such haste on the grounds that Malawi was not yet prepared to vastly increase schooling.
Watkins and Ashforth say the primary school system is still grappling with this expansion, as there are still not enough classrooms, teacher housing is inadequate, and shortages of supplies are the norm.
In its 2016 report on primary education in Malawi, the World Bank describes two channels through which money reaches a school: the Primary School Improvement Programme (PSIP), with its School Improvement Plans (SIP) and School Improvement Grants (SIG).
The SIP can be considered the school’s budget, with the SIG constituting the total amount of eligible funds that the primary school can spend.
The report nowhere mentions, however, the money raised directly from communities, under the rubric chitukuko, or “development funds.”
Watkins and Ashforth observe that in their discussions with parents, teachers, primary education advisers, and district education managers, the demands on communities for money to fund school ‘development’ occupied centre stage.
The two say the issue of contributions has reached at alarming levels such that some schools chase non-paying students, and sometimes they are prohibited from accessing their exam results.
“Like the [Kamuzu] Banda’s thangata, parents are charged with constructing classrooms and houses for the teachers.
“Parents grumble to each other about these impositions, but only rarely to school authorities, for fear of reprisal,” they argue.
Watkins and Ashforth say reforming primary education in Malawi would be a tough task because even if expenditure on non-salary activities can be increased, it is inevitable for such funds to be misused.
YAS project officer Sylvester Kapondera says there is need of strengthening decentralisation structures such as ADCs and VDCs and increase oversight of transparent utilisation of development resources.
But according to Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) 2017/18 report, almost all schools have local committees such as parent teacher associations, school management committees, mother groups and community volunteers as part of their management structures.
“Availability of these groups at school improves transparency by jointly pursuing the school’s vision,” it says.