Prior to the 19th century, all education in Madagascar was informal and typically served to teach practical skills as well as social and cultural values, including respect for ancestors and elders.
The first formal European-style school was established in 1818 at Toamasina by members of the London Missionary Society (LMS).
The LMS was invited by King Radama I (1810–28) to expand its schools throughout Imerina to teach basic literacy and numeracy to aristocratic children.
The schools were closed by Ranavalona I in 1835 but reopened and expanded in the decades after her death.
By the end of the 19th century Madagascar had the most developed and modern school system in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa.
Access to schooling was expanded in coastal areas during the colonial period, with French language and basic work skills becoming the focus of the curriculum.
During the post-colonial First Republic, a continued reliance on French nationals as teachers, and French as the language of instruction, displeased those desiring a complete separation from the former colonial power.
Consequently, under the socialist Second Republic, French instructors and other nationals were expelled, Malagasy was declared the language of instruction and a large cadre of young Malagasy were rapidly trained to teach at remote rural schools under the mandatory two-year national service policy.
This policy, known as malgachization, coincided with a severe economic downturn and a dramatic decline in the quality of education.
Those schooled during this period generally failed to master the French language or many other subjects and struggled to find employment, forcing many to take low-paying jobs in the informal or black market that mired them in deepening poverty.
Excepting the brief presidency of Albert Zafy, from 1992 to 1996, Ratsiraka remained in power from 1975 to 2001 and failed to achieve significant improvements in education throughout his tenure.
Education was prioritized under the Ravalomanana administration (2002–09), and is currently free and compulsory from ages 6 to 13.
The primary schooling cycle is five years, followed by four years at the lower secondary level and three years at the upper secondary level.
During Ravalomanana’s first term, thousands of new primary schools and additional classrooms were constructed, older buildings were renovated, and tens of thousands of new primary teachers were recruited and trained.
Primary school fees were eliminated and kits containing basic school supplies were distributed to primary students.
Government school construction initiatives have ensured at least one primary school per fokontany and one lower secondary school within each commune.
At least one upper secondary school is located in each of the larger urban centers. The three branches of the national public university are located at Antananarivo (founded in 1961), Mahajanga (1977) and Fianarantsoa (1988).
These are complemented by public teacher-training colleges and several private universities and technical colleges.
As a result of increased educational access, enrollment rates more than doubled between 1996 and 2006. However, education quality is weak, producing high rates of grade repetition and dropout.
Education policy in Ravalomanana’s second term focused on quality issues, including an increase in minimum education standards for the recruitment of primary teachers from a middle school leaving certificate (BEPC) to a high school leaving certificate (BAC), and a reformed teacher training program to support the transition from traditional didactic instruction to student-centered teaching methods to boost student learning and participation in the classroom.
Public expenditure on education was 13.4 percent of total government expenditure and 2.9 percent of GDP in 2008. Primary classrooms are crowded, with average pupil to teacher ratios of 47:1 in 2008.