What Happened to Student Participation After Two Rounds of School Closures in Malawi—and How Have Schools Responded?

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national disaster in Malawi, the country’s Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all public and private schools and colleges (Figure 1). Schools reopened five months later, initially for exam classes, before welcoming all students back in October 2020. But because of a major surge of COVID-19 infections, schools and colleges closed again in January 2021. Initially this was for two weeks, which then became five. And then on the day that schools were scheduled to reopen, teacher industrial action added another two week delay. Schools fully reopened for the second time in early March 2021.

These prolonged school closures meant that over 7.7 million Malawian children were out of formal schooling for over seven months. There is little information about the impacts of school closures and the COVID-19 crisis on these individuals. What happened to student participation over the two rounds of school closure in Malawi? And how have schools responded to the pandemic and the interruptions?

The Centre for Education Research and Training (CERT) in collaboration with the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the National Statistical Office of Malawi conducted a nationally representative phone survey to measure the effects of the pandemic in schools and among students. The survey took place between May and June 2021 with 1,085 households and 374 primary schools. This blog summarizes our findings on student participation and school response.

Figure 1: Malawi’s school closures in the context of confirmed COVID-19 infections

Source: Our World in Data for Covid-19 daily cases, dates of school closures and reopening retrieved from online sources (Kaponda,2020; UNICEF,2021; AllAfrica, 2021) Note: schools are fully open for all periods where chart area is not shaded.

Dropout rates tripled during the COVID-19 academic year 

Overall, 4.3 percent of Malawian students dropped out of school between Feb 2020 and March 2021. We can compare this with a rate of just 1.2 to 1.3 percent from the previous academic year, estimated from the recall of respondents to our survey, or from Malawi’s Fifth Integrated Household Survey (IHS5).

There are much higher rates of dropout at the secondary level, which reflects rates shown in the Ministry of Education’s statistical report for 2020 (forthcoming). But there is no real difference between girls and boys. We asked households what the reasons for children dropping out of school were. The leading response for boys was school fees (1 in 3 dropouts) and for girls, marriage or pregnancy (1 in 3 dropouts).

Figure 2: Dropout profile in Malawi

Source: PREPARE Malawi household survey and IHS5. Note: chart shows point estimates and 95 percent confidence intervals. IHS5 2019 is the historical dropout rate for the academic year 2018-19 based on that nationally representative survey which completed in April 2020. PREPARE 2020 is the historical dropout rate for the academic year 2019-20, based on our survey. PREPARE 2021 is the dropout rate over the period of school closures (March 2020 to March 2021) which included one grade transfer and one exam session.

But repetition has fallen – linked to a new ‘automatic promotion’ policy

Conversely—and counter to our PREPARE findings from Ghana and Senegal—we see a fall in repetition rates in the COVID-19 year compared with the previous full academic year. The reduction is particularly large in the early primary grades (Figure 3). It is plausible that this follows a COVID-induced policy reform.

Until 2020, students progressed slowly through early primary grades and were required to meet certain standards before being eligible for promotion to the next level. This generated high rates of grade repetition with enrolments concentrated in grades 1-4. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were required to “decongest” classrooms to prevent the spread of infection. Alongside this, a national policy of automatic promotion between grades 1-4 was put in place and the official class size in primary schools was reduced from 60 learners to 40 learners per teacher. Schools now had the flexibility and incentive to reduce repetition in the early grades and it looks like this is what has happened.

Figure 3: Repetition and dropout rates across grade

Source: PREPARE Malawi household survey and IHS5. Note: we exclude dropout information for students enrolled in the last year of secondary school in February 2020 (grade 12 - secondary form 4) as students might have completed or dropped out. Dropout rates in Grade 8 are ‘artificial’ in the sense that many students are excluded from the next level as spaces are limited. Dropout rates are weighted using post-stratification weights estimated nesting wealth quintiles within each age group.

How have schools responded?

Most children missed out on remote learning…

To mitigate lost learning, the Government of Malawi implemented several distance learning measures. Government distributed radios to some of the poorest households, and setup online learning materials and non-digital learning sets for secondary schools (MoEST, 2020). The Ministry of Education also provided guidelines on how schools and learners could organize themselves and introduced education radio programs for primary school learners. And while there were guidelines on each part of the remote learning strategy, schools had flexibility in what and how they implemented these resources.

More than half of the 374 schools sampled for the head teachers’ survey did not adopt any remote learning strategies during the two periods of school closure (Figure 4). Of the 171 head teachers who said that their schools had adopted remote learning during the first school closure, 75 percent mentioned that their school had planned for radio programs. However, an equally large proportion of head teachers stated that accessing radios was one of the biggest challenges faced by students (a recent National Statistical Office survey shows that only 46 percent of households own a radio). This confirms the widespread consensus in the media that the school closures led to massive loss of learning opportunities for students.

… but it looks like some remote instruction is here to stay

As schools have experimented with providing remote learning, two interesting findings have emerged. First, the number of schools providing remote learning fell between school closures. Perhaps this indicates that getting remote learning up and running for closures of less than a month or two is unrealistic or unlikely in the current context. Or maybe it reflects mounting teacher discontent in early 2021.

Second, since reopening, most schools continue to provide some form of remote learning. Head teachers report that their schools are using remote learning to make up for reduced classroom time resulting from decongestion measures, including shift schooling and staggering of attendance. The continued use of remote strategies has the potential to complement in-person teaching and learning in ways that are yet to be properly understood.

Figure 4: Remote learning provision fell during the second school closure but seems to be a long-term option for schools (% of schools using remote learning at each time point).

Source: PREPARE Malawi head teachers survey.

Remedial learning programs look good on paper but are under-resourced

Remedial learning was one of the strategies promoted by the MoE to compensate for learning loss as a result of the long school closures. Remedial learning comprises individualized teaching of students—especially those who are experiencing difficulties in specific subject areas—and aims to address learning gaps by reteaching basic skills. All teachers in Malawi were expected to be orientated on remedial education strategies, health and hygiene education and psychosocial support for learners

Yet while 92 percent of headteachers reported having implemented remedial learning in their school, our qualitative data show that teachers experience challenges of understaffing and resource constraints. These are compounded with learners’ unwillingness to dedicate additional time outside of school hours to attend remedial lessons.

Work overload was one of the main challenges reported by teachers when schools started implementing mitigation measures against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decongesting measures such as shifting, staggering, and splitting of classes meant more periods of teaching by a single teacher and this compromised effective remedial teaching and learning practices. This aligns with our finding from focus group discussions where 37 percent of learner reported remedial learning was not happening at all in their schools.

Policy vs. practice: what will happen next?

Although repetition rates are lower than in 2019, an increasing number of children have left the education system following school closures in Malawi. The financial impacts of the crisis might be reflected in enrollment decisions and may have played out differently for boys and for girls. While this first round of data collection does not allow us to fully capture the underlying mechanisms behind increased dropout rates compared to 2019, we hope to continue our work to further explore these issues.

Our analysis also shows that the COVID-19 response in schools prioritized the prevention of the spread COVID-19, through closures and decongestion. The full policy on remote learning and remedial education was well-addressed in writing. But schools have received inadequate support to deliver on that policy. Relevant strategies—such as the provision of extra teaching and learning resources in the form of extra learning space, deployment of additional teachers to help school decongest, and resources to implement remedial classes—were reported in less than a third of the schools. When policies are implemented, proper follow-up of necessary materials is needed.

Although schools have now reopened, the COVID-19 crisis is not over in Malawi. While our survey findings provide early insights on the short-term impact of school closures on student participation and learning opportunities, we will continue to gather data on the longer-term consequences for Malawian boys and girls, particularly the most vulnerable.

With thanks to Rita Perakis and Christelle Saintis-Miller for helpful comments.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.