Education is now top of the agenda as we all discuss the future of our children and the debate is raging on the direction of our education system. If we want to educate our children for the future, and prepare them for future challenges, it requires a persistent debate on its reform and direction all the time.
Unfortunately, in the case of Sierra Leone the debate has been reduced to the number of years children can spend in school, whether free education is causing slackness on kids, whether the Missions can take back their schools. These debates are not bad, because it should be part of any comprehensive conversation based on the challenges facing the nation, but to make the entire debate on free education that causes slackness on our kids is irresponsible and the leaders should be called on it right away before it becomes another fruitless debate.
It is a well known fact that Sierra Leone’s educational system was the envy of many African countries post independence. Many people form Nigeria, Liberia and Gambia will testify to that and many continue to believe that Sierra Leone has one of the best systems in Africa today.
The question then is: what is wrong with the system today that has resulted to the current situation with more drop outs, no more free education, and taking exams at night with lamps that is going on right now?
The government had promised education reforms that would propel our children into quality learning with more facilities to make learning easier, better paid teachers, and a conducive atmosphere of learning.
The previous government idea of free education as well as free payment for international exams were opposed by this government when in opposition and they indeed promised a revamp of the system when they come to office, but today all that talk has been reduced to the of ghost teachers, reducing the number of students with government scholarships in the colleges and universities and politicizing government grants for students in China.
The real problems the country faces in its educational system has nothing to do with free education. It is about how relevant the system is to national development, how accessible it is to every citizen and how sustainable the system is in the long run. It is unfortunate that successive governments have largely failed to heed the advice of the very professionals who have been charged to oversee the education system.
Many technocrats and education consultants have argued that the problem in our system is not the number of years kids attend school or whether the free education cause the children to be slack, but the quality of education offered to them. In fact majority of these scholars and researchers have argued that the shorter duration is the best, provided the resources allocated to education are right.
Others have disputed that the new educational system introduced in the 80s is the cause of all the problems in our educational system and that a reverse to the so-called old system based on the British model is the solution. Some even have reduced the whole debate to how well products of the old system can speak better English than products of the new system forgetting that all the unimpressive leaders we have had through the last three or four decades went through the so-called old system and have almost ruined our nation.
The decay of our education was as a result of political instability with its resulting poor management, corruption and general macroeconomic turmoil as has been pointed out by numerous scholarly works on the issue. The most significant effect of these problems that led to the decay of the system was the exodus of well trained education professionals to other countries. Some of these same problems persist today, together with population growth, unemployment etc that have to be tackled in order to return to the pride of the 60s and 70s.
Our new educational system today I think was copied from some African countries, but this system in a country like Ghana was forced on them by the IMF, maybe it was the same for us. I remember that during the Structural Adjustment Programme our government had no choice but to implement some extreme conditions that is affecting us till today. In lieu of this the government did not think through it much, let alone address the political and socio-economic issues that had led to the failure of the system.
Many people believe that this new system is better than the old system in several ways. First it brings our educational system more in line with the rest of the world and not just the UK. It is the same system implemented in the US, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan and most of Latin America with only slight variations.
Secondly, it is supposed to help the government and parents save on education by reducing the number of years people spend in basic and secondary schools. Numerous research have shown that quality education starts in the formative years and therefore the new educational system was to focus more on basic education, adding life and technical skills to the curriculum to broaden the knowledge of students at the basic level of Primary and JSS before they proceeded to the secondary or technical level where they could specialize in certain elective courses from the beginning.
I want to believe that the loss of our well trained teachers has been the most significant missing link in our education system. There needs to be more emphasis on teacher training and serious effort should be made to improve the conditions of teachers especially at the basic level. Motivated teachers produce good quality students and quality students make better citizens.
In the country today there is an influx of private schools, which provide better conditions for their teachers and demand better results. These schools are producing the most brilliant kids at such an early age than we have even seen in our history.
But these private schools are expensive and largely concentrated in the urban areas. Majority of kids of school going age attend public schools and this is where government has to step in to provide resources that will ensure that teachers are properly trained and their conditions of service improved at the bear minimum to match their counterparts in the private schools.
Teachers should be made accountable when their students fail and there should be a career development program to ensure that teachers receive up to date and relevant training in the subjects they teach. At least they could be made to retake different levels of certification exams to ensure promotion etc.
Many quality teachers are leaving the field because it has become a dead-end job and they are not really appreciated anymore like they used to be in the old days. Whether one spends 3 years, 4 years or 10 years in college will not matter if that person is not taught well.
Also there are so many co-called teachers today who have not had any training whatsoever as teachers. At least people should be made to study and take a teacher certificate exam before they set foot in the classroom to teach. This will ensure that the profession is for people who really want to be teachers and not people who resort to teaching as a last resort.
Teachers’ certificate from the teacher training colleges should be converted to some sort of degree like associate degree programs so that it can provide a basis for further education in the field. These are hard choices, but it has to be taken if we want the system to succeed. Teachers play such a critical role in education and the situation of teaching and teachers must be what the debate is about and not the free education or free exams fees paid by the previous government.
Secondly, review of the education system should be an on-going process where curriculum is reviewed from time to time to reflect the developmental needs of the country. Students’ achievement especially at technical level should be attached to some real life goals so that the business can rely on the system to make good business decision.
Another concern I have is the school management. I think public schools from JSS to the university level should be run by people with both education and business backgrounds. With a well defined set of goals and performance measurement, school Headmasters and Principals should be made to recognize that when company managers fail at their businesses they are removed, when politicians fail to deliver they are voted out and when schools fail to educate properly they too should be booted out.
Finally, I want to say that the education we are seeing in the last two years would continue to send our children to the quarry to work for Le2,000 a day and prostitution would increase four fold because when the parents cannot afford the fees, their children hit the streets.
Treating education as a political tool and on tribal line, will lead to doomsday. In the past, university scholarships have been given across the board regardless of tribe and names, foreign students have been treated fairly whether they belong to the ruling party or not, but the last NPSE should serve as an example of what lies ahead if our Education Minister does not rethink his education policy of tribalism and politics.
By Austin Thomas