Understanding the causes of school drop-out in Malawi

Lead Research Organisation: London Sch of Hygiene and Trop Medicine
Department Name: Epidemiology and Population Health


Education is a major route out of poverty for individuals and nations. In Malawi, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, initial enrolment in school is high, but half the children drop out by the end of year 6, and only a third complete the 8 years of primary school. Drop-out in adolescence is higher in girls than in boys, and often follows early pregnancy and marriage. Using data from a large population-based study with annual surveys in northern Malawi (> 10,000 children), and a study that has followed >2500 adolescents over time in southern Malawi, we propose to explore the pathways to drop-out and their causes.

Important questions that we will address include:

Do girls drop out of school because they are pregnant, or do they get pregnant because they were already disaffected with or failing school?

How far is an adolescent's own school behaviour influenced by the schooling or sexual behaviour of their peers or siblings?

What attributes of the schools, of families and of the community reduce drop-out?

This research is a collaboration between academic researchers and those working in the Ministry of Education in Malawi, at national and district levels, allowing lessons learnt to influence education policy and practice.

Planned Impact

The academic beneficiaries and dissemination are discussed above.

The ultimate beneficiaries of this research are the children and adolescents in Malawi, who will benefit from any changes in policy and practice that are made based on the findings.

The main aim of the project is to work in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) in Malawi and other stakeholders to inform and influence the three priority areas of the MoEST's National Education Sector Plan (NESP) 2007-18. The three priority areas are improving: (i) access and equity; ii) quality; and iii) governance and management of schooling in Malawi. The project will contribute to meeting MDG 2 (universal primary education) and MDG 3 (gender parity in primary and secondary education).

Findings from this study will benefit a wide range of stakeholders within Malawi, in the UK and beyond. The MoEST, who are the non-academic partners in this study, are critical players who are best positioned to influence and establish priorities in education policy, resource allocation and service delivery in Malawi. They have collaborations with a broad spectrum of stakeholders across the board. These include bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors (UN, World Bank, JICA, CIDA, DFID); organisations involved in improving the quality of secondary education and it's delivery through the Private Sector (e.g. PRISM-Private Schools Association of Malawi); non-governmental organisations who are actively involved in bridging the gaps in service delivery and advocating for improving access and delivery of schooling in the country, who are part of larger Civil Society Networks (e.g the CONGO-Coalition of NGOs in Malawi, FAWEMA- Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi, SACMEQ- South African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality). Our collaboration with the MoE and its partners provides an opportunity for the study to reach and disseminate study findings to a large network of education stakeholders which will help influence, engage and jointly shape education interventions and policies in the country.

Study activities include dissemination of project progress, findings and recommendations through District and National level stakeholder platforms (District Executive Meetings, Consultative meetings, Primary Education Advisor meetings and Sector Review meetings), where policies and implementation plans are shaped. Study findings will be disseminated through an end-of-project Dissemination workshop, which will bring together a wider group of education stakeholders and partners who are engaged in the education dialogue; policy briefs, which will be circulated through the MoEST and partners (local, international); open-access publications; and presentation of project findings at public lectures, conferences, poster exhibitions.


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Description Although primary school enrolment is now nearly universal, school drop-out is high. Policy attention has until recently focussed on societal factors influencing drop-out, especially for girls. However, failure to learn while in school may be a bigger problem. Our studies in Malawi highlight:

1) That drop-out occurs at an early stage (often before the end of primary), but NOT generally at a young age, due to frequent repetition of school years.
2) That household-level and school-level factors contribute to repetition and drop-out, and are similar for boys and girls.
3) That becoming sexually active dramatically increases drop-out for girls and less dramatically for boys
4) That not only being out of school, but falling behind in school increases the rate of marriage for both boys and girls, and of pregnancy.

In our studies in northern Malawi few children drop-out before age 15, but because of grade repetition, only 48% of girls and 58% of boys ultimately completed the 8 years of primary school. Being over-age for their grade was a strong risk factor for drop-out for both girls and boys. Other factors that contributed to grade repetition and/or drop-out included lower socio-economic status, lower education of parents, living with only one or neither parent, not having access to water at school, having a high student:teacher ratio, having a low proportion of female teachers, and absenteeism. Absenteeism is common: 15% of girls and 16% of boys missed at least one school day in the previous four weeks. Most reported illness as the reason, but this sometimes masked time spent assisting with farming and income generation. In southern Malawi, school-related sexual violence was associated with poorer subsequent education outcomes for boys and to a lesser extent for girls.

In northern Malawi, sexual debut was associated with five times higher rates of drop-out for girls and two times higher for boys. Among those who remained sexually inactive, girls had similar rates of primary school completion as boys.

In northern Malawi, being out of school greatly increased the rate of pregnancy, of sexual debut (for girls, not boys) and marriage (for girls and boys). In southern Malawi being out of school was associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for girls but not boys.

Among those in school, those who were over-age for their grade were more likely to have early pregnancy and (for boys and girls) marriage, but age-for-grade was not associated with age at sexual debut. In southern Malawi, there was no association between grade attainment or performance and rates of STIs. In the north, the grade reached by girls as young as 10 years was predictive of their subsequent age at pregnancy and marriage.

Taken together the findings suggest that school-level and home-level factors contribute to children becoming increasingly over-age for their grade and to drop-out. Since most are still in school at 15, interventions that improve learning to ensure children move through school at the correct pace would enable them to complete primary education before the pressures of puberty, economics and societal expectation intervene.
Exploitation Route These studies provide support for a change in emphasis from preventing drop-out to also improving learning and school progression. This is in line with a shifting policy focus in Malawi and elsewhere (for example the Global Strategy for Women's Children's and Adolescent's Health includes targets on grades and proficiency levels as well as enrolment). By highlighting poor levels of progression and their impact the results can be used to strengthen the argument for improving education quality, and to convince donors. School-level factors identified that were associated with poor progression and drop-out can be targeted in future education strategies. The District Education officers are co-investigators and all findings are sent to the Malawi Ministry of Education, for discussion. We will also send them to the WHO's Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health Department, with whom we have strong links.

It will be important to know to what extent the findings are specific to Malawi or have parallels elsewhere. The Karonga Health and Demographic Surveillance Site in northern Malawi is a member of the ALPHA (Analysing Longitudinal Population-based HIV/AIDS data on Africa) and INDEPTH networks which aim to facilitate comparative analyses. Methods and results will be shared with the networks to assess the potential for similar analyses in other sites.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description Both Bindu Sunny and Christine Kelly (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) have met informally with representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to discuss our findings in relation to Gates planned funding of education. Stephanie Psaki (Population Council) is a member of the Research Task Force of the Global Working Group to End School-Related Gender Based Violence (SRGBV), organized by the UN Girls' Education Initiative and USAID to develop tools to help build the evidence base on SRGBV. As part of that work, and building on the research in Comparative Education Review, she was invited by UNESCO to represent the Global Working Group at a high-level meeting on school violence and bullying in Seoul in January 2017. The results of the analysis of schooling enrolment and STIs have been shared with Janet Fleischman, senior associate with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in advance of a panel discussion in which she participated entitled: "U.S. Approaches to Preventing HIV in Adolescent Girls and Young Women: Lessons from Malawi." The paper has also been shared with Ambassador Deborah Birx, who is the Coordinator of the U.S. Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. And with Dr Andreas Jahn and colleagues in the Ministry of Health, Malawi, where it is being used to inform the debate about whether or not to introduce oral pre-exposure prophylaxis among adolescent girls and young women.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Title growth and school 
Description Data for paper: Does early linear growth failure influence later school performance? A cohort study in Karonga district, northern Malawi 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have published a paper from this dataset: Sunny, BS, DeStavola B, Dube A, Kondowe S, Crampin AC, Glynn JR (2018) Does early linear growth failure influence later school performance? A cohort study in Karonga district, northern Malawi.PLoS ONE13(11): e0200380.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200380 Since loading the data in October 2018 there have been 46 downloads by February 2019 
URL https://datacompass.lshtm.ac.uk/675/
Title school failure and teenage pregnancy 
Description Data for the paper on "Early school failure predicts teenage pregnancy and marriage: a large population-based cohort study in Northern Malawi" 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have used this data for a paper: Glynn JR, Sunny, BS, DeStavola B, Dube A, Chihana M, Price AJ, et al. (2018) Early school failure predicts teenage pregnancy and marriage: A large population-based cohort study in northern Malawi. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0196041.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196041 
URL https://datacompass.lshtm.ac.uk/687/