Blantyre, Malawi – A heated debate rages on in Malawi over the government’s plans to implement the new Education Act in the next school calendar (starting September 8) which calls for the use of English language as the medium of instruction for learners from standard one – the point of entry into public primary schools.
The medium of instruction for the first four classes of primary education in Malawi (standard one to four) has long been Chichewa – a widely spoken local language – and other languages familiar to both the teachers and students in the various regions.
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In these classes, English has only been taught as just another subject but it has been used as a medium of instruction in other subjects from standard five upwards.
The new policy, announced in March 2014 by Luscious Kanyumba, the former Education Minister, is in accordance with the Education Act passed in 2013 to replace the 1962 Act. The new act empowers the minister of education to choose any language as a medium of instruction in schools as the minister would deem fit.
Kanyumba said the choice of English was aimed to improve English grammar and language among primary school learners in the former British colony.
“English speaking has been a problem to our pupils even to those who completed secondary school education. It is the wish of government to see most of the pupils write and speak good English while at primary level,” said Kanyumba.
From the word go, the announcement attracted a flurry of divergent views in the local media from various stakeholders, including academics. A few days after the announcement, a group of education students at the University of Malawi petitioned authorities from the ministry of education in the eastern city of Zomba to rescind the decision.
wrongly think development comes with the language of colonial masters”]
Beaton Galafa, Publicity Secretary of Steering Committee of the Chancellor College Education Students, told Al Jazeera that the reasons the government backed the implementation of the policy were out of tune.
“We don’t see any advantage of the policy because speaking fluent English doesn’t translate into one being educated.
“Education’s primary preoccupation [primary purpose] to us is to help learners master actual concepts, not how to talk of the concepts in good English or whatever language,” he said.
He said it was more sensible to start using English as a language of instruction from standard five because this is when learners have mastered the basics of many concepts that they could start translating into whatever new language they want to learn.
Galafa said experience has shown that “only those countries that have been using local languages are the ones progressing” and “no country has developed while using a foreign language as a main means of classroom instruction.”
“Almost all developed countries like France uses French; Portugal uses Portuguese; Spain uses Spanish; Germany uses German and the list goes on. Now look at us and see who is poor. It’s sort of mental slavery, mental colonialism.
“We [Malawians] wrongly think development comes with the language of colonial masters,” he said.
Benedicto Kondowe, Executive Director of Civil Society Education Coalition, a grouping of local NGOs that campaign for quality education, told Al Jazeera that that he sees logic in the government plans “considering that Malawi lags behind most countries in the race of implementing English as a medium of communication.”
He said, however, that besides improving a good command of the English language, the question of what language enables better and more effective learning remains paramount.
Studies have shown that students who are taught in local languages learn faster and understand new concepts better than those taught in a second language.
“Therefore as an organisation, we are urging the government to take its time and do an assessment to establish whether there are some parts of the country whose position would necessitate the appointment of another language other than English as a language of instruction,” he said.
The idea to come up with the new education act dates back to 2002 when the Ministry of Education requested the Malawi Law Commission to review the 1962 Education Act which it deemed outdated. The Commission kick-started the task a year later with consultations among various stakeholders, during which the issue of the need to have a language of instruction in public schools was raised.
The Law Commission finished drafting the new Education Act 2010 with a report in which it recommended the use of English as the language of instruction in schools.
Chekaukutu Ndege, the former deputy headmaster at Bisa primary school in the southern district of Machinga, told Al Jazeera that the plan is long overdue.
“This is how our children and Malawi as a nation could learn English faster. English speaking among students who attended public schools has been terrible largely because five years is a very long time for a learner to start learning a new language. So the policy will really arrest these challenges,” he said.
Ndege cites countries like Zambia, Swaziland and Botswana as those well ahead in English speaking because they introduced a similar policy a long time ago.
Steve Sharra, Programme Director for Link Community Development Malawi, a local education NGO, told Al Jazeera that, although the concern that the education system is not educating students adequately is genuine and well-founded, it is based on an erroneous analysis.
He says education standards are low simply because English is not taught well in primary schools.
“Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2013 there were 1,030,834 students in Standard one, whereas there were only 350,095 English textbooks. That’s a rough average of three students sharing one textbook. But the reality is that many classrooms have far less textbooks due to inefficient distribution at the national level as well as at the school level,” he said.
Whether one likes it or not fluency in English has become one of the job entry qualifications for most employers
A ministry of education official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that most primary school teachers are not fluent in English. He said a minimum qualification of primary school teacher is the Malawi Schools Certificate of Education with a two-year teaching course. These are the ones who were not able to pursue tertiary education.
“Even the best of these teachers are not fluent in English. So we will likely have a situation where teachers will restrict their instructions because of failure to articulate the right vocabulary, hence denying the learner information needed,” he said.
But a member of the Parents and Teachers Association, Gertrude Mandala, said those who are opposing the new education policy are selfish and have a double standard.
“Most of them have their children in private schools where they are taught in English from the nursery schools. You can agree with me that it is such children who are first considered for job offers whenever they do job interviews with those who are less fluent in English,” she said. “Whether one likes it or not, fluency in English has become one of the job entry qualifications for most employers,” she told Al Jazeera.
The spokesperson for the Ministry of Education Rebecca Phwitiko said that despite the continuing debate – in which the voice of dissent seems to be taking the centre stage – the government will still implement the policy.
“Since the policy is contained in the legislation which was passed by the National Assembly after thorough consultations, the ministry cannot do otherwise but implement it.
“But we are not implementing it in the next school calendar as earlier announced. We are currently working on instruction materials like textbooks for learners, syllabus, teachers’ guides and training for teachers for the smooth running of the policy,” she said.