The issue of education has taken centre stage in Sierra Leone especially recently, with concerns that there is a free fall in standards. Following is a keynote speech delivered by Umaru Fofana at the Speech Day and Prize-giving ceremony of the Islamic Secondary School in Kenema on 16 April 2016.
Mr Chairman, Chairman and Members of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Secondary School in Kenema, Principal and staff of the school, smartly-uniformed students, parents, other distinguished guests, good afternoon.
I am very heartened to have been invited here by the organisers of this event to give the keynote address for this the very first Foundation Day celebration organised by the school. It is a singular honour I will not forget in a hurry, and I feel very humbled by it.
In four years this school will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In 10 days, our country will turn 55 years since independence. From my findings, this school used to be the envy of this part of the country - like Sierra Leone used to be the envy of the continent of Africa for its educational stature. Today that achievement by both school and country seems alive only in history.
On the continent of Africa south of the Sahara - in other words in Black Africa - modern education started in Sierra Leone. The first girls’ school on the continent was established here - the Annie Walsh. The first boys’ school on the west coast of Africa was set up here - the Grammar School. The first western-style university on the continent was opened here - the Fourah Bay College. And this event today, coinciding as it does with FBC’s graduation ceremony, should serve as an incentive for all these lovely students to aspire to get a university education. That is key, and you must settle for nothing less!
Today, our standing in education is in the doldrums having considerably eroded - among the lowest anywhere in Africa. And by the look of things, it seems things have not got bad enough yet - the downward spiral seems to continue. From poor funding of public and quasi-public schools by the central government, to school authorities stealing from that meagre amount. From examination malpractice including spying but also leakages often aided and abetted by some teachers, to another morally reprehensible and vexed issue of sex for grades. From poorly-trained teachers, to schools with grossly inadequate facilities and materials needed to teach the kids. So much so that you wonder why that ministry is called the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. That, simply put, is a misnomer.
Lack of science and technology:
How many schools have any semblance of science or technology? Science laboratories either do not exist in especially public schools, or where they do they are a mere white elephant. Where are the computers in schools and electricity needed to power them or even the teachers for these computers, to refer to the technology in that ministry? A nation that treats its technology with scorn in part because its leaders are technology illiterate or semiliterate, stagnates or even reverses its growth by generations. Meanwhile the rest of the world is fast moving ahead.
Perhaps the only technology present in the vast majority of the schools across the country is the mobile phone technology which is owned by the learners themselves. And all these kids know and are interested in are Whatsapp and Facebook - largely for fun - rather than Google which is more about education and learning. Interests in entertainment such as football for the boys and Nigerian movies and TV series for the girls have replaced interests in education such as reading and writing. Gone are the days when our young appreciated textbooks and novels as their birthday gifts. Today we all know what they appreciate.
My Chairman, staff and students and ladies and gentlemen, teenage pregnancy is taking over our society. Girls instead of being in school are in maternity wards or at home looking after their babies. Often times some dirty old men impregnate these girls. There is talk by the authorities to curb it but little action is being taken to do so. We promulgate laws, and selectively implement them, where we do at all.
Soft target for blame:
It is not all about the government and the school authorities and the kids for the considerable drop in standards of our education. The parents share a lot of the blame too. And it is not all about poverty. Parental guidance over children is waning - especially by fathers. Often people blame mothers for conniving with their daughters to be exploited by some unconscionable men and money. That may well be true for some, but it will be unfair to not blame the fathers who spend time with concubines instead of with their families, and in bars instead of at home.
It is unfair to not single out for praise those mothers who are becoming increasingly overstretched. They prepare the kids for school, drop them off at school, attend PTA meetings, and where educated, they help teach the kids at night. Fathers, too, must take up their paternal responsibilities. And so must government and school authorities. This will largely inevitably lure the kids to be more driven. A child’s first role models are often the parents.
But no matter what parents do, it is obvious children believe what their teachers tell them more than what their parents tell them; which is why teachers must treat these kids as their own children. I was taking my three year-old daughter through her evening studies recently and she would not agree with my pronunciation of the word PENCIL, insisting that she would rather pronounce it the way her teacher had taught her even though my pronunciation was correct. Or my son’s refusal some time ago to accept my explanation of solar and lunar eclipse. He had apparently misheard what his teacher had taught them but believed it because that was what he remembered the teacher had taught him. This is the power of the teacher - so they must be prepared adequately otherwise they will unlearn the kids instead of teach them. There is the acute need for in-service training of teachers. Methods of teaching change with time, and without such we will be further drifted aback.
Chicken and egg situation:
Often I wonder where to start in fixing the deluge of problems besetting Sierra Leone’s education sector. Do we start from the primary school level and go up - so that today’s children will salvage things in the next 15 years? Or do we start from the tertiary level and train the teachers to come and properly and adequately teach the kids? It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Or, like Liberia is planning to experiment by bringing in Americans to supervise the sector, we call on the British so long after independence and after all what the former colonial master did for our education sector.
Corruption is a word we often use, but we often do not mean it. We shout at those who are in positions today for being corrupt. Fast forward and we are there and we behave in like manner - perhaps even worse. I do not believe that low pay alone is what causes corruption - after all some of the most corrupt in Sierra Leone are those with the best conditions of service. I believe our country is becoming too materialistic, if not already. And interestingly even the men of God - our imams and pastors - are basking in it. In fact in some cases they are aiding and abetting it. So much so that they do not condemn it, at all. How many of these pastors and sheiks will question any of their flock who brings forth huge amounts of money they know was not genuinely earned! Virtually none of them! They will accept the “gift” and praise the donor and even encourage others to follow their example.
And in the case of the teachers, when they become corrupt and take money from a parent for the promotion of a student, then the devil has ensconced properly on the sofa in the room.
That said, I believe that pay and conditions for teachers should be able to take care of their basic needs. The role of teachers is very critical in providing quality schools. A world bank document says being “both knowledgeable and motivated are indispensable prerequisites” for effecting teaching. A survey a few years ago showed that only 30% of primary teachers are satisfied with their jobs.
I have been shocked to learn here from the principal that some of his teachers get a monthly pay of Le 50,000 (fifty thousand leones) because they have spent years without being approved by the ministry of education. This is unacceptable! This is unacceptable not only because the amount of money is obscene, but also because the central government can spend all that time without approving teachers who are badly needed to teach thousands of children who need their services. How else will these teachers survive but through unorthodox means!
The education divide between the urban and rural areas - or richer and poorer communities - is getting starker. This is leaving the majority of children way behind. The idea of introducing a special pay differentia for teachers in more remote areas is perhaps worth considering so the well-trained teachers are enticed or motivated to move to remote areas to teach the mostly less fortunate children whose parents cannot afford to send them to so-called Grade A schools in Freetown and other areas. How about zoning the country along the lines of educational needs. In this case kids are not allowed to move beyond a certain radius within which they live, and key schools are established to cater for them equally at the public school level regardless of where they live. The Parents/Council/School authorities will work collaboratively to ensure standards are maintained. Principals who do exceedingly well are transferred from one zone to another with additional incentives.
But while that central government reaction to or consideration of my suggestions above is being awaited - if it ever comes - school authorities must take the leadership. I attended a so-called Village School, but my school principal at the Jaiama Secondary School in Kono, Kemoh Momodu Sulaimani (of blessed memory) would go from college to college, year-in year-out, looking for some of the brightest graduates to bring to the school to strengthen the staff. I have to admit that, like with most of the schools in the country today, JSS has also dipped considerably.
This brings me to the Islamic Secondary School in Kenema. This is a school that has produced remarkable people who are today serving the country and indeed the rest of the world. It must position itself to be doing this again.
One thing that should be considered to bring this about it a proper oversight. Everybody needs an oversight. One of the reasons our country is going through so many challenges today at the governance level is because of the lack of a proper oversight. At the school level, school inspectors should stop parleying with principals and be stern if only for the betterment of the future generations. Schools must ensure they have proper functioning Boards of Directors who must also ensure they do what is right for the children and not just be interested in sitting fees or even backhanders. The lack of such stern supervision will turn even the best-intentioned principals into dictators and ruiners of schools.
I understand that Kenema Islamic Secondary School has been performing abysmally poorly lately - especially in public exams. I also have learned that there is huge frost between the leadership of the school and the teachers with hardly any staff meeting having been for years. This does not bode well for the leadership of the school.
But I also understand that some teachers in this school are so cavalier over their work that even submitting grades - or in one class even report cards - can be too difficult for them to do. This is where the school administration should take disciplinary action against defaulting teachers. But you cannot be sending your child to light your cigarette and turn around and blame that child for smoking. He will remind you of your smoking perhaps more embarrassingly.
I have spoken about teachers, pupils, parents, school administrators, boards and the government. I have saved one group of stakeholders for last because they are a new factor but by no means less important - the alumni. Old students are increasingly taking a stand in the development of their alma maters these days and they are becoming a phenomenon. This is a watershed.
These old students should be seen as COMPLEMENTING the school authorities - and not COMPETING with them. It is that latter perspective that dampens the situation and ruins collaboration. Here at ISSK, I have seen the tremendous work KISSOSA members have done. From rehabilitating decaying classroom blocks, to even volunteering to teach at certain intervals.
Those KISSOSA members in colleges and universities can even be encouraged to volunteer to help teach the kids during the holidays - especially those preparing for school-leaving exams, BECE and WASSCE. I am pledging Le 5million as seed money if any such is to be embarked upon to facilitate the local transportation needs of the volunteer students. I am sure there are more out there willing and able to help achieve this, so long as the funds are properly accounted for.
Additionally, I hereby make a pledge that the candidate who gets the best result in English Language at the next BECE exams, and the one who gets the best in French - wishing to continue their senior secondary education in this school, will have their fees paid by me until they write their WASSCE exams. In addition to paying their fees, I will give Le 1million to each of them for uniform and books. And if any of the students is a girl, my wife says she will add Le1 million to that amount.
My Last Word:
To parents and to the government, a quality EDUCATION is not the best investment in a child. A quality education is the ONLY investment in a child. It is good for the child and even better for the country. So no child should be left out or behind in attaining this. Therefore, education should be made not only free, but compulsory. So parents who turn their children into their labour campers can be punished. And a government that fails to provide the education needs of any child, can be sued.
It is good to bandy about with those high-flying numbers about school enrolment, but more significant is to keep them in class until they finish school, and not to sacrifice quality for quantity. There has to be a priority shift. Building roads is no doubt a very good thing. But it is a lot better to train your own engineers to do it like Senegal did years ago, and now the Senegalese company CSE is doing great things.
The poor state of our health care delivery system can only be fixed by our own health care workers which requires a good quality education. The list of what a good education can do, goes on. So if you ask me, I would say let there be a priority shift: EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION, before anything else. And whatever it takes to achieve that, let that be achieved.
I thank you all for your attention.
(C) Politico 19/04/16