History of Education in Madagascar

Before 1820
Traditionally, education in Madagascar was an informal affair consisting of the transmission of the social norms, practices and knowledge developed and handed down within the community over generations. The hierarchical structure of most traditional Malagasy communities placed elders, parents and other persons of esteem over younger or less distinguished members of the group, and over whom the ancestors (razana) exercised the greatest authority of all. In the context of such a stratified society, traditional education underscored the importance of maintaining one's proper place, trained people in the proper observance of ritual and innumerable fady (taboos) and, above all, taught respect for ancestors.

(Children) learn to respect elders and the ray aman-dreny (authority figures) and to conform to their opinions, speak the appropriate words, follow the rules of traditional wisdom and fear the castigation they can expect in response to their antisocial actions.
-- H. Raharijaona, Le droit de la famille à Madagasikara

Learning one's place in traditional Malagasy society extended beyond the youth-adult-elder-ancestor hierarchy. Among many Malagasy ethnic groups, individuals were identified with particular castes; in traditional Merina society, for example, one of the three main castes had seven sub-castes. These divisions were overlaid by such additional factors as gender roles, with consequences for informal education: boys were expected to behave as befits one who would eventually become a ray aman-dreny, while girls were expected to demonstrate mastery of domestic skills and cultivate the qualities of a good wife and mother.

The earliest formal schooling on Madagascar was introduced by Arab seafarers, whose influence on coastal communities extends at least as far back as the 11th century. These travelers attempted to propagate Islam by establishing a limited number of kuttab (Quranic schools that taught literacy and basic numeracy) and transcribed the Malagasy language using the Arabic alphabet in a script termed sorabe. These schools did not persist, and sorabe literacy passed into the realm of arcane knowledge reserved for astrologers, kings and other privileged elites.

The first formal European-style school was established in 1818 on the east coast of Madagascar at Toamasina by members of the London Missionary Society (LMS). King Radama I (1810-1828), the first sovereign to bring about half the island of Madagascar under his rule, was interested in strengthening ties with European powers; to this end, he invited LMS missionaries to open a school in his capital at Antananarivo within the Rova palace compound to instruct the royal family in literacy, numeracy and basic education. This first school, known as the Palace School, was established by LMS missionary David Jones on December 8, 1820, within the Besakana, a building of great historic and cultural significance. Within months, due to the rapid increase in the number interested in studying there, classes were transferred to a larger, purpose-built structure on the Rova grounds. By 1822, LMS missionaries had successfully transcribed the Merina dialect of the Malagasy language using the Latin alphabet. This dialect, spoken in the central highlands around Antananarivo, was declared the official version of the Malagasy language that year -- a status that the highlands dialect has retained ever since. The Bible, which was incrementally translated into this dialect and printed on a press (a process completed in 1835), was the first book printed in the Malagasy language and became the standard text used to teach literacy, thereby spreading the tenets of Christianity in Imerina.

Convinced that Western schooling was vital to developing Madagascar's political and economic strength, in 1825 Radama declared primary schooling to be compulsory for the andriana (nobles) throughout Imerina. Schools were constructed in larger towns throughout the central highlands and staffed with teachers from the LMS and other missionary organizations. By the end of Radama's reign in 1829, 38 schools were providing basic education to over 4,000 students in addition to the 300 students studying at the Palace School, teaching dual messages of loyalty and obedience to Radama's rule and the fundamentals of Christian theology. These schools also provided Radama with a ready pool of educated conscripts for his military activities; consequently, some andriana families sent slave children to spare their own offspring from the perils of military life, producing an educated minority among the lower classes of Merina society. An additional 600 students received vocational training under Scottish missionary James Cameron. However, Radama's successor and widow, Queen Ranavalona I (1828-1861), grew increasingly wary of foreign influence on the island over the course of her 33-year reign. She forbade the education of slaves in 1834. The following year, all of Radama's schools were ordered closed and their missionary teachers were expelled from the country.

Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (1864-1895), who married Queens Rasoherina (1863-1868), Ranavalona II (1868-1883) and Ranavalona III (1883-1897) in succession, reopened and dramatically expanded the system of schools beginning in 1864. The policy of mandatory schooling among the andriana was reinstated in 1872; by 1881, schooling was declared compulsory for all Malagasy children regardless of ethnicity or class. Two years later, 1,155 mission schools were providing basic education to 133,695 students, establishing the Malagasy school system as the most developed in precolonial Sub-Saharan Africa.

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. Within the first seven years of the colonial period 650 indigenous schools had been established, half of which were dispersed over coastal areas where the schools of the Kingdom of Madagascar had not reached. This initiative expanded the number of students in Madagascar by 50,000, who studied a curriculum focused primarily on French language acquisition and basic knowledge in such areas as hygiene and arithmetic. The long-established mission schools continued to represent a viable education alternative until 1906, when French laws placed stringent restrictions on their operation, forcing thousands of students out of mission schools without adequate capacity to accommodate them within the public system.

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 education opportunities were initiated after World War II. At independence in 1960, the country had a system of education almost identical to that of France.