The burden of paying for education in Madagascar has shifted to the poor after donor funding was frozen in the wake of a coup on 17 March 2009.
About 70 percent of the education sector had been funded by donor countries, but since Andry Rajoelina seized power from former President Marc Ravalomanana with the backing of the military, state financial support to the education sector has become erratic.
"The question is what we have lost… over these years; how much damage has been done by vulnerable families having to pick up the bill for their children's education," said Margarita Focas Licht, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) head of education in Madagascar.
She said the government had not allocated any cash transfers to the education sector in the 2009/10 academic year, which begins in October, but had begun transfers for 2010/11. However, it had not been established how much the state was paying per learner. In the past, the annual subsidy had been US$1.50 each for the about 4.3 million primary school pupils.
According to 2008 estimates by the Ministry of Education, the average Malagasy has less than five years’ education and only 60 percent of learners completed primary school, which is considered low by regional standards.
The government's failure to pay cash transfers in the 2009/10 school year has led to the effective demise of free primary school education, with public schools demanding registration fees to compensate for the loss of income.
There is no uniformity in the registration fees. Some schools in the capital, Antananarivo, have been asking as much as $13 in a country where about three-quarters of the 20 million population live below the poverty line. An average class has about 50 learners, but some classes have as many as 100 learners.
Marie-Angele Ramanandraitsiory, principal of the Manakambahiny public primary school in Antananarivo, told IRIN the $4 registration fee her school charged was the cheapest of the city's 92 public primary schools.
The money is being used to pay running costs and help pay the salaries of "community teachers", who have no formal training but account for about two-thirds of the country's roughly 70,000 primary school teachers.
The government usually paid them, but it had been intermitent in the previous school year with renumeration occuring for about six months of the year.
The salaries of formally trained teachers had not been affected.
"We ask for things everywhere. We know that we don't have enough money, but we work with the available means as we have to try and get all the kids to study, with or without funding," Ramanandraitsiory said. But the money does not stretch to repairing roof leaks in some classrooms, which have become unusable because of knee-deep water.
"There are many children who can't come to school if there is no subsidized food. If they eat, and if parents receive help and starter packs for their children, they will come. If not, the children will be kept at home, or sent out to the streets to beg or work," she said.
Starter packs include stationery items like pens, notebooks and rulers, but the supply of these has also become inconsistent.
A $730 grant from the education ministry fed the school’s 580 learners beyond the prescribed 60 days and reduced absenteeism, Ramanandraitsiory said. Four of the 12 educators at Manakambahiny primary are community teachers
In 2008 there was a proposal to provide training to all community teachers, but this has yet to materialize. Focas Licht said the ministry of education used to have the capacity to train about 2,800 teachers annually, but the teacher training system was "dysfunctional at the moment".
"The local coping mechanism is to hire community teachers locally and pay them," Focas Licht said, and this was why public schools had instituted registration fees, effectively ending free primary school education. "There would be a serious risk of sector collapse if two-thirds of the primary school teachers were no longer paid," she said.
After donors froze funding in the wake of the 17 March 2009 coup, UNICEF assumed management of the $64 million Education For All - Fast Track Initiative, previously the domain of government under supervision of the World Bank.
In the 2009/10 school year 15$ million was used, in the 2010/11 academic year $22 million will be spent and $26 million remains for the 2011/12 school year, but beyond that no funding has been allocated.
Focas Licht said the money was being used to pay community teachers, maintain school feeding schemes with the assistance of the World Food Programme (WFP) in the food insecure south of the island, fund school construction projects in partnership with the International Labour Organization, and reduce disparities in schools.
Last year the only money that 10,000 schools in 10 regions of Madagascar received was sourced from the Education For All Initiative.
The WFP supports 1,200 school canteens in the southern rural areas of Madagascar, feeding 215,000 beneficiaries in the drought-affected regions of Anosy, Androy and Atsimo Andrefana. UNICEF has a separate $13 million budget for supporting schools in seven other regions.
Although there is no formal data available, Focas Licht said spot checks by UNICEF at schools in October 2010 indicated that enrolments were experiencing a downward trend.
"What we are noticing… on weekly visits to the poorest neighbourhoods, is that the number of families that are no longer in a position to pay enrolment costs for their children in public primary schools is increasing," Céline Guillaud, coordinator of Graines de Bitume (Pavement Seeds), an NGO in Antananarivo supporting poor and homeless children, told IRIN.
The NGO provides day care centres, assists in enrolment of primary school children and helps with school equipment, meals and medical expenses.
Although the NGO usually focused on families living on the streets, she said "non-single parented families, living in proper houses, where both parents work but can't meet the expenses linked to schooling for their children," were now seeking their help.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions