In traditional Madagascar, education was not seen as separate from the other spheres of life. It emphasized the importance of maintaining one's place in a hierarchical society, trained people in the proper observance of ritual and innumerable fady prohibitions, and, above all, taught respect for ancestors. Formal education in the modern sense first appeared when the missionary David Jones of the London Missionary Society established a school in Antananarivo in 1820. It was sponsored by King Radama I, and Jones's first students were children of the royal family. Literacy spread as a result of the schools the Imerina missionaries built; in 1835 an estimated 15,000 persons knew how to read and write the new Malagasy language. Despite significant retrenchment during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I, the missionary school system, including both Protestant and Roman Catholic institutions, continued to grow.
During the colonial period, the French established a system of public schools that was divided into two parts: elite schools, modeled after those of France and reserved for the children of French citizens (a status few Malagasy enjoyed); and indigenous schools for the Malagasy, which offered practical and vocational education but were not designed to train students for positions of leadership or responsibility. Middle-grade Malagasy civil servants and functionaries were trained at the écoles régionales (regional schools), the most important of which was the École le Myre de Villers in Antananarivo. Reforms of the public school system designed to give the Malagasy more educational opportunities were initiated after World War II. At independence in 1960, the country had a system of education almost identical to that of France.
Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and fourteen. The current education system provides primary schooling for five years, from ages six to eleven. Secondary education lasts for seven years and is divided into two parts: a junior secondary level of four years from ages twelve to fifteen, and a senior secondary level of three years from ages sixteen to eighteen. At the end of the junior level, graduates receive a certificate, and at the end of the senior level, graduates receive the baccalauréat (the equivalent of a high school diploma). A vocational secondary school system, the collège professionelle (professional college), is the equivalent of the junior secondary level; the collège technique (technical college), which awards the baccalauréat technique (technical diploma), is the equivalent of the senior level.
The University of Madagascar, established as an Institute for Advanced Studies in 1955 in Antananarivo and renamed in 1961, is the main institute of higher education. It maintains six separate, independent branches in Antananarivo, Antsiranana, Fianarantsoa, Toamasina, Toliara, and Mahajanga. (Prior to 1988, the latter five institutions were provincial extensions of the main university in Antananarivo.) The university system consists of several faculties, including law and economics, sciences, and letters and human sciences, and numerous schools that specialize in public administration, management, medicine, social welfare, public works, and agronomy. Official reports have criticized the excessive number of students at the six universities: a total of 40,000 in 1994, whereas the collective capacity is 26,000. Reform measures are underway to improve the success rate of students-- only 10 percent complete their programs, and the average number of years required to obtain a given degree is eight to ten compared with five years for African countries. The baccalauréat is required for admission to the university. Madagascar also has teacher-training colleges.
The gradual expansion of educational opportunities has had an impressive impact on Malagasy society, most notably in raising the literacy level of the general population. Only 39 percent of the population could be considered literate in 1966, but the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that this number had risen to 50 percent at the beginning of the 1980s and to 80 percent in 1991. Similarly, primary school enrollment is nearly universal, a significant increase from the lower figure of 65 percent enrollment in 1965 (Madagascar had 13,000 public primary schools in 1994); 36 percent of the relevant school-age population attends secondary school (there were 700 general education secondary schools and eighty lycées or classical secondary institutions) and 5 percent of the relevant school-age population attends institutions of higher learning. Despite these statistics, a 1993 UNICEF report considers the education system a "failure," pointing out that in contrast to the early 1980s when education represented approximately 33 percent of the national budget, in 1993 education constituted less than 20 percent of the budget, and 95 percent of this amount was devoted to salaries. The average number of years required for a student to complete primary school was twelve. Girls have equal access with boys to educational institutions.
The national education system often has been at the center of political debate. As is the case throughout Africa, educational credentials provide one of the few opportunities to obtain employment in a country with a limited private sector, and the distribution of educational resources has continued to be an issue with explosive political ramifications.
Historically, the system has been characterized by an unequal distribution of education resources among the different regions of the country. Because the central highlands had a long history of formal education beginning in the early nineteenth century, this region had more schools and higher educational standards than the coastal regions. The disparity continued to be a major divisive factor in national life in the years following independence. The Merina and the Betsileo peoples, having better access to schools, inevitably tended to be overrepresented in administration and the professions, both under French colonialism and after independence in 1960.
Adding to these geographical inequities is the continued lack of educational opportunities for the poorest sectors of society. For example, the riots that led to the fall of the Tsiranana regime in 1972 were initiated by students protesting official education and language policies, including a decision to revoke the newly established competitive examination system that would have allowed access to public secondary schools on the basis of merit rather than the ability to pay. Yet when the Ratsiraka regime attempted in 1978 to correct historical inequalities and make standards for the baccalauréat lower in the disadvantaged provinces outside the capital region, Merina students led riots against what they perceived as an inherently unfair preferential treatment policy.
The lack of access is compounded by an education system that still rewards those who are the most proficient in the French language, despite the fact that the country is officially bilingual. As of 1994, it was estimated that only between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens could be considered truly fluent in the French language and that another 2 million citizens have received, at best, a passive high school-level competence in the language. The vast majority (8 to 9 million) speak only Malagasy and, therefore, potentially find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in terms of future advancement. It is at least partially because of shortcomings in French-language abilities that approximately 90 percent of all first-year university students are refused entry into the second year.
A final challenge revolves around the growing gap between a declining government-sponsored public school system and an increasingly vibrant and growing private school system. The Ratsiraka regime's education policy of Malagachization strengthened this primarily two-tiered education system during the 1980s. The elite and the well-off middle class placed their children in private French-language schools, while the vast majority of the relatively poorer population had little choice but to enroll their children in increasingly disadvantaged public schools. By the 1991-92 academic year, only 5,870 students were enrolled in private French-sponsored grade schools and high schools (the most prestigious of the education system), while another 199,433 students were enrolled in the second tier of private Roman Catholic schools where teaching is also in French. An undetermined small number of students were enrolled in a third tier of private schools considered "mediocre" by French-language standards, but the vast majority (1,534,142) found themselves competing in the public school system.
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