Malawi was the first sub-Saharan African country to take a bold decision and declare free primary education after the Jomtien conference in 1990. Fourteen years after the policy was first implemented no serious attempt has been made to find out what has happened to the influx of pupils joining the system. Using secondary sources of data, this paper provides evidence of how the trends in enrolment have been changing since independence in Malawi and brings to the fore equity issues, as well as an indication of how achievement is changing. Since the introduction of Free Primary Education in 1994/95 many more children have been to school. Malawi has also succeeded in reaching gender parity in enrolments at least at the lower levels. However, these successes come in a system which is failing on many counts. Levels of resource provision are very low and their distribution uneven. The system is still beset with a series of efficiency problems with high dropout rates, especially for girls in higher grades, and only small increases in completion rates. Further, the overall performance of pupils is decreasing significantly. Malawi faces a major task to deliver quality education. A new and more comprehensive approach to planning is needed which goes beyond the quantitative targets that have been set and which have emphasised growth in access at the expense of quality.
Comparative Education (2009) 45 (2) 297-312 [doi: 10.1080/03050060902921003]