Access to primary education in Madagascar underwent a rapid expansion between 2001 and 2008 with the number of children doubling to over 4 million during this period. The country seemed to be on track to achieving global targets for education by 2015. However since the advent of the political crisis in 2009 there has been an alarming decrease in performance to the point where the system is now struggling just to keep operating on an annual basis, largely due to the fact that the state budget for education has been slashed and many international donors have suspended their support.
The situation for children with regard to education does not start off on the best foundation with less than 10% of the approximately 2 million children aged 3-6 years old having access to public pre-school classes. This often means that children are not prepared at all to enter primary school and as a result many children drop out in the first few years. The situation is compounded by the fact that pre-school services are acutely under-funded by the state and there is barely enough funds to pay its staff, let alone invest in improving access to, and quality of, pre-school facilities.
At primary level, although the picture is better in terms of access, with around 75% of children attending school, this still means that there are approximately 1.5m million children who are out of school, having either never had the chance or dropped out (most of them in the first three years). Out of every 10 children who start in the first grade, only 3 of them make it through all the way to the fifth grade and have a chance to go on into secondary education with the situation being even worse for schools in remote, rural areas.
The reasons for this poor state of affairs are numerous and often inter-connected. The lack of funding means there is limited support for new classroom construction with the vast majority of Malagasy children studying in dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms with few learning materials. The system is not able to recruit or fund properly trained teachers and so more than two thirds of public primary school teachers (over 80,000 in total) are recruited by local parents’ associations and thus have no training whatsoever. Thus overall, issues of access and quality pervade the system at all levels and hinder children’s development and learning.
UNICEF’s objective is to support the national education system to help it realize children’s rights to quality education by responding to needs articulated by central and regional education authorities. UNICEF’s approach, focusing predominantly on primary schools, is a mixture of financial assistance and technical advice (a large part of which is based at regional level), working as much as possible to build the capacity of the national system and ensure its long term sustainability. It is therefore a basic programme responding to essential needs. This includes activities such as school construction (including pre-schools), the provision of school equipment and learning materials, training of teachers and supporting schools to develop action plans to improve the learning environments for children.
UNICEF also assists with basic support to the operation of the system and so, for example, in 2013 will be paying teachers’ salaries for 4 months and providing school kits for all 4 million primary school children nationwide through support from the European Union and Norway. UNICEF also plays a crucial role in sector coordination and strategy development, acting as the lead agency and lobbying for actions for the most disadvantaged children.
UNICEF’s unique advantage is the fact that it has “one foot in the mud and one foot in the door of the decision makers” and is therefore able to help translate policies into real action for children as well as feed these results back into future plans. The overall impact of UNICEF’s support is often difficult to measure given the range of factors affecting children’s education. However, regions that have benefited from UNICEF’s assistance are showing signs of reversing some of the negative trends over the past few years, especially in primary enrollment figures, and UNICEF’s actions have undoubtedly contributed to these gains.