School absenteeism in Karonga district, northern Malawi: Trends, influences and the impact of cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstoves

Kelly, CA; (2018) School absenteeism in Karonga district, northern Malawi: Trends, influences and the impact of cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstoves. PhD (research paper style) thesis, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. DOI:

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Although Malawi achieved rapid increases in primary school enrolment following the introduction of free primary education in 1994, the country has struggled to deliver access to quality education in a broader sense. In a context marked by high rates of grade repetition and dropout, and consistently poor scores on literacy and numeracy assessments, student absenteeism has been identified as a critical cause for concern both as a symptom of educational exclusion and as a precursor to other adverse educational outcomes. This thesis seeks to deepen understanding of the processes that underpin primary school absenteeism in Karonga district, northern Malawi, and the implications of missing school for students’ future educational trajectories. It additionally capitalises on opportunities offered by a large cluster randomised trial of cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstoves to assess the extent to which cookstoves improve school attendance by decreasing exposure to harmful pollutants and reducing time and resource burdens associated with household fuel consumption. The mixed methods analysis combines secondary quantitative data from a large longitudinal household survey spanning 2008-2016 and the cookstove trial implemented from 2014-2016, with in-depth interviews and focus group discussions conducted with 48 primary school students in 2016. Findings show that students attach value to daily school attendance, but are constrained by a complex interplay of individual-, household-, school-, and community-level factors, including ill health, domestic responsibilities, socioeconomic barriers, and exclusionary practices by teachers and peers. No evidence was found that cleaner burning cookstoves influenced overall school attendance, but qualitative data suggest that they may improve other dimensions of educational access such as timely arrival at school. By harnessing eight years of school attendance data, the thesis also shows that students who miss school in one survey round are consistently more likely to miss school again the following year, as well as to repeat their grade, highlighting the critical role school attendance monitoring can play in identifying students at risk of adverse educational trajectories. Findings from this study have implications for policies and programmes designed to address absenteeism—and in particular the need for a holistic, multi-sectoral approach—as well as for the collection and interpretation of school attendance data.

Item Type: Thesis
Thesis Type: Doctoral
Thesis Name: PhD (research paper style)
Contributors: Glynn, JR (Thesis advisor); Johnston, D (Thesis advisor); Unterhalter, E (Thesis advisor);
Faculty and Department: Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health > Dept of Infectious Disease Epidemiology
Funders: Bloomsbury Colleges Consortium
Copyright Holders: Christine Anne Kelly


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