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Back to school: A confusing spectacle

By James Tamba Lebbie

No better starting point for my piece today than with a focus on President Ernest Bai Koroma's vision for education in his "Agenda for Prosperity" project and to juxtapose it with practical attempts at reforming the sector. Below are two excerpts from the Agenda for Prosperity document relating to education:

"Education plays a key role in the achievement of developmental goals and attainment of prosperity, with strong impacts on the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Sierra Leone must continue to invest and reform the educational system, especially basic education, in the next five years, as an essential means to achieving the right development trajectory towards middle income status. A better educated labour force will meet the employment demands resulting from industrial expansion (in agriculture, mining, industry and the private sector) whilst at the same time reducing dependence on foreign experts."

"Since 2007, enrolments and completion rates have improved nationally, especially at post-primary level. However, many children who should be in school do not have access or are not enrolled, and this inequity increases as the education ladder is ascended. In addition many others access school much later than the official age of 6, increasing the likelihood of them dropping out before successfully completing their basic education."

With the above facts and grim realities in mind, I could understand the angle he was coming from when I heard, a couple of days ago, from the former UK Prime Minister and now UN envoy for education Gordon Brown that the world has over 50 million children above school-going age that are unable to go to school largely because of conflict and poverty. And the number could increase, he seemed to have suggested. I could deduce from his responses in that BBC interview that he was downcast and forlorn.

Putting Gordon Brown's statement in the context of Sierra Leone's basic education situation therefore could, perhaps, help one understand his apparent pessimism. In Sierra Leone, schools were supposed to re-open this week but the date has been put off by another week, perhaps an indication of the lack preparedness of the ministry of education to let the school year begin. But even as the date is shifted to September 16, two serious challenges among many others, have already blighted, and will continue to undermine any attempt to make this school year a productive one.

First, this school year marks the beginning of the implementation of senior secondary school level four (commonly called SS IV) in line with the recommendations of the Gbamanja Commission of Inquiry and which the government endorsed in its white paper.

To remind you, the Gbamanja Commission was set up in 2009 by President Ernest Bai Koroma “to investigate and identify the poor performance of pupils in the 2008 Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in Sierra Leone, taking into account the role played by the school and home environments, the curriculum, teachers’ motivation, their attitudes and methodologies; pupils’ preparedness, and class sizes among other things; to ascertain the impact of the 6-3-3-4 education system on the performance of the pupils and how that compares with the experience of other countries that have adopted the same system; to investigate the reasons for indiscipline in secondary schools; to recommend immediate, short, medium and long-term measures to improve and sustain pupils’ performance in the BECE and WASSC Examinations”.

In March 2010, the commission submitted its report to the president with recommendations for “immediate”, "short-term" and "medium-term" implementation many of which were endorsed by the president in July 2010. Two key recommendations to be implemented immediately were the extension of senior secondary schooling from three to four years and the phasing-out of a two-shift system. And while it is not clear what is meant by short and medium terms in the context of the implementation of those recommendations, this school year requires the practical introduction of the fourth year in senior secondary school.

And suffice it to point out that the phasing-out of the two-shift system in schools should have been accomplished by now, even if the recommendation was made with the proviso that additional classrooms will be created by the schools to accommodate all pupils in one shift. According to that same recommendation, pupils should attend school from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily with a 45-minute lunch break.

However, the information I gathered from talking to principals of schools and teachers around the country paints a very grim reality on the ground. The facts are that even with the previous 6-3-3-4 system of education, the infrastructure and facilities in most schools were grossly inadequate at best. And with the introduction of a fourth year at the senior secondary level, which means an increase in the school population, the situation becomes even more despondent.

The second compounding problem that is likely to bedevil the school year is the much-maligned teacher verification process which the ministry of education instituted since the current minister assumed office. According to concerned civil society activists, the ministry is yet to produce a comprehensive census report of its teacher verification exercise which has lasted over five years. And to add insult to injury, the strategic policy unit (SPU) at State House also undertook what could amount to a parallel verification of teachers. The outcome was unacceptable to the teachers’ union and other interest groups on a couple of grounds. First, not only that many existing and genuine teachers could be affected but also it is illogical and contradictory to fire so many teachers when the enrolment rate of pupils in schools across the board is skyrocketing.

In any case, the SPU first indicated that the names of about 7,000 teachers were to be obliterated from the payroll. This number was subsequently reduced to about 4,000. And the reasons for the proposed redundancy of teachers, according to my sources, range from the existence of ghost teachers and ghost schools to the suspicion that many teachers have passed their retirement age. Genuine and legitimate concerns indeed!

However, let's combine these two challenges for the education sector – the gross inadequacy in infrastructure, the insufficient facilities to accommodate the increased number of pupils, the seeming disarray in the teacher verification exercise and news of massive redundancy among teachers – and you can probably grasp the depth of the seriousness of the problem confronting school administrators this year.

The consequences are glaring to speculate: overpopulated schools with very large class sizes and a continuation of the two-shift system, which runs counter to the recommendations of the Gbamanja Commission of Inquiry already sanctioned by government. There is also the high pupil-teacher ratio in schools that undermines effective teaching and learning, and a demoralised teaching workforce many of whom are desirous to leave the classroom because of the lack of incentive. And if this trend continues unchecked, education will nose-dive almost. And clearly, those at the receiving end of this poor service delivery will be our children which by extension, will translate into a poor and incompetent workforce for the country.

What is required therefore at this critical juncture of our declining educational system is the strong political will to undertake radical reforms or perhaps, an overhaul of that sector with an injection of serious capital. Lamentably, what is being done now to address the country's education predicament is a boring joke. It is like the installation of solar lights on the main streets of cities and major towns in an attempt to address the country's energy needs. In other words, it is a shambolic and cosmetic way to respond to the many vexed problems plaguing the education sector.

(C) Politico 12/09/13