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A Divided Society: Covid-19 Response and Inequality in Primary Education in Malawi

Published in the author's personal capacity.

Malawi’s learners and students woke up on Saturday, 21 March 2020, to news that schools and colleges had been indefinitely closed as a result of a new government ordinance aimed at stemming the spread of Covid-19. The government offered nothing more beyond this. In fact, there was an information blackout on whether learning would continue, and in what form it would occur if it were to. To many, the announcement meant an early call to Easter holidays. The decision would prove difficult for both public and private schools. However, with the support of parents, private schools were able to quickly initiate online learning and set homeschooling in motion. Immediately, differential inequalities started to emerge as Government only started fumbling after the fact on how to establish remote learning facilities.

It’s no mystery that education can be powerful in breaking the cycle of poverty and socio-economic inequality in Malawi and pretty much anywhere. But Malawi’s history shows how our current system of education in Malawi perpetuates the very inequality it aims to address.

In the wake of multiparty democracy, the Malawi Government introduced the Free Primary Education Policy which eliminated school fees, in turn placing the responsibility to deliver education fully into the hands of the Government of Malawi. While the massive influx of learners into primary schools was deemed a positive result of such policy, the concurrent effects of ad hoc policy proclamations that come with no corresponding planning were just as quick to manifest.

Classrooms are filled beyond capacity and there are insufficient, if qualified, teachers to guarantee quality education. Government’s genius mitigation measure was to liberalize the education system so that private schools would ease the pressure on public education by making necessary changes in the Education Act [2013]. As time passed, high- and middle-class children disappeared from public schools, appropriately attracted by quality teaching and learning, low pupil to classroom ratio (enabling teachers to provide one-on-one support) and quality infrastructure, among others. By 2012, these children would make 89.3% of all kids enrolled in private schools, according to Oxfam.

I dedicate most of my attention in this article to primary education in Malawi, which, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST), has 5.1 million children enrolled who are currently disrupted by the Covid-19 school closures. The children have no idea when they are going back to school or what the future holds. Their low-income profile binds their prospects to explore alternative learning paths to public schooling into a grind. For some of these children, high levels of parent/guardian illiteracy imply that homeschooling remains a distant aspiration were it to be initiated.

Currently, the government in collaboration with multiple stakeholders has developed a remote learning platform across radio, television and internet platforms barely a month since the closure of schools. The remote learning platforms are, however, not fully functional as content on a number of subjects has not been finalized. A visit to the online platform would show and the unfinished content is only covering Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) level at Secondary education, leaving out the senior classes of Form 3 and Form 4. Currently, all primary school curricula are not accessible on the online platform.

Most circulated image on education & Covid-19

The slow adaptability of the public schooling mechanism to Covid-19 widens an already large quality gap between public and private school children. Yet, government must seek innovative ways in which remote learning is delivered in spite of many learners’ limited access to the radio, whereas even fewer are accustomed to television sets and a handful will have the gadgets required to access a class online. Government should be commended however for partnering with the private sector to provide free internet facilities for learners the modalities of which will still need to be very clear. This means solutions must go beyond developing content and making it available. Failure to achieve this Covid-19 crisis response in the education sector is tantamount to Malawi already losing the battle to widening inequality in education as well as the outcomes on income security and class societies. Such headaches are compounded by managing children with disabilities whose intersection with poverty worsens their prospects at success.

But idle time at home for girls will bear different implications compared with boys. With a child marriage rate of 42%, the idleness school closures cause feeds the incidence of increased gender disparities in education through increased drop-out rates, child marriages and early pregnancy among adolescent girls. Government, then, must ensure that remote learning platforms are up and running as a matter of urgency so that learners’ minds are invested in advancement of education rather than in community on goings that could be detrimental. While at it, Life Skills need to be inculcated as a core component of learning, even more during this period so children can learn critical life skills for their well-being.

A makeshift classroom block at Namapanga Primary School in Neno

Despite Malawi’s sizeable share of education in the public purse averaging 21% for the past five years, distance learning will accentuate the costs of education for government in an uncertain world of Covid-19. Government does not have these funds and can only accomplish its mandate to the 5 million learners if well-wishers like the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) among others can support the Covid-19 education sector response. The impact of the pandemic on public revenues as a result of reduced economic activity (the IMF and World Bank project a loss of $10 trillion on the global economy) will almost certainly mean suppressed public spending on public services, including education in many ways, including a further deterioration of education quality and retrogression on the progress made towards achieving SDG4.

The Government, through the Ministry of Health and Population, plans to convert school shelters into temporary isolation centers. The MoEST has already received this notification. Carrying this through means adding more uncertainty to the disruption of the school calendar that public school learners have been subjected. For re-opening to take place, the facilities will have to be disinfected and the infrastructure rehabilitated once the pandemic has been overcome. These costs have not been factored in the National Covid-19 Preparedness and Response Plan. Similarly, there may be need for a lot of sensitization of communities as learners may refuse to go back to school due to any misconceptions about the pandemic that can be rife during such times. It will not be easy to bring learners back to the classroom.

Inasmuch as Covid-19 has widespread and multi-sectoral effects, the pandemic brings opportunities on the future of education worldwide. The crisis has brought forth innovation in order to ensure learning can take place beyond the classroom. As such, the world will have to bridge the divide between classroom and distance learning. At the same time, we could see an emergence of a public-private partnership on education that fosters the use of digital platforms in public schools. For this to happen, however, government authorities must exploit this opportunity and make the necessary investments so that the gap in learning between the rich and poor can effectively close.

Finally, government must start planning beyond the pandemic. Re-aligning the school calendar will be tricky as authorities try to make up for the lost time. The long-term impact of this will be how the disruption will affect the official examination calendar. All the while, children in private schools who sit international examinations that are hardly interrupted will surge on.

The sooner we recover, the better chances of closing the gap and ensuring access to quality education for all children in Malawi.



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