As I walked up my road, I caught up with a girl aged 12 or 13 who was in her school uniform minus a hat. I said to her; ‘Don’t you have to wear hats or berets any more?’ Her reply was unbelievable! She said: ‘They ‘ave steal my own’. I took it she meant ‘Den don tif mi yon’. I then automatically said ‘stolen’, and she repeated ‘stolen’ which seemed somehow new to her. I went further and got her to repeat: ‘Mine has been stolen’, which she dutifully did.
Some envious mother in the neighbourhood could be looking at her every day and wishing her own daughter could get into the girl’s famous school where she would be given what is known in Sierra Leone as ‘quality education’. Ministers, ministry staff, broadcasters, phone-in listeners, all love the term and use it frequently without having a clue as to its meaning in today’s Sierra Leone. The truth is that quality education went out of the window even before the 11-year war, and once the 6334 system was imposed by government, its fate was sealed and settled.
First of all, do we have, or have we ever had a state system of secondary education- one that encourages good teaching, high standards of discipline, a refined atmosphere where learning can be a joy? All the state has done for secondary education in Sierra Leone from colonial times has been to build a handful of token secondary schools. One thinks of the POW, Bo, Magburaka and Koyeima – all exclusively for boys in the early days, and later Magburaka Girls School and the Government Secondary Technical School. Beyond that, what government has done is to climb on the backs of schools founded by missions and private bodies. Successive governments have felt happy to give what they called ‘Assistance’ to such schools which have borne the brunt of responsibility for secondary education in the country. After the introduction (after, not before) of the 6334 and 2-shift systems, only then was there a flurry of activity to open government secondary schools country wide. It is probably true now that some kind of state system is beginning to emerge.
Two questions arise: what is now the position of the Assisted Schools, and what has the 6334 system done to enhance their ability to offer ‘quality education’ to the nation’s children? The answer to the first is simple. Government has never owned them. These schools were all built on land lawfully acquired by the proprietors. If some of them have benefited from Colonial Development and Welfare Funds, or the IDA, that still does not entitle our government to ownership. The ignorance of the public on this score is quite amazing. ‘Assisted school’ does not mean ‘Government owned school’. Assistance consists mostly these days, of staff salaries – a substantial contribution, while everyone knows that it takes far more than that to run and maintain a school. If government took upon itself to put up buildings in various school compounds, to whom do the buildings subsequently belong according to the law of the land? Can government claim them? Of course not. Nor can it claim compensation.
The answer to the second question: what has the 6334 system done for these schools, is the prime reason for the disappearance of any form of quality education in its real sense. These schools have been under constant pressure to increase their intake over the past 3 decades. Facilities that were designed for 700 children now have to serve 2,000 and the addition of the odd one-flat classroom block has made no difference. The point is that greater numbers mean less physical space and more overcrowding in classrooms. Whereas, in the days of positive quality education no class reached 40, today we are talking about 50 to 60 or more. The 2-shift/2 school system, far from alleviating the problem has compounded it in the sense that the length of the school day and therefore contact hours with teachers have been drastically reduced, extra-curricular activities are almost extinct, and the moral and psychological ill-effects on the pupils and teachers have intensified.
So it is really ironical that the Ministry of Education is totally unaware of all this and finds it necessary to spend money on an enquiry process to discover the reasons for the drop in standards and poor exam results in 15 schools. What a waste of time! The reasons are all too obvious. The government has itself overseen the dismantling of our cherished educational values and structures by crowding too many children into too few schools. The fall in standards is clearly self-explanatory. There is no need for expensive enquires involving per diem allowances etc.
You want to cook delicious cassava leaves. You know you want the dish to have ‘quality taste’. You have a dried snapper, a couple of bongas, a pint of palm oil, 1 onion, 6 or 7 peppers, a good dollop of groundnut paste, salt and one bunch of leaves. Could the sauce taste the same if you used 3 bunches of leaves with the same quantity of other ingredients? What quality would be left? The logic of this is also relatively simple.
The government is in a dilemma of its own making. I mean every government we have had until now. What it should do is to plan conscientiously and take pride in climbing down from the backs of the Assisted Schools. The easy ride is over. Say a big ‘THANK YOU’ to them for doing government’s work of providing secondary education in the country at a fraction of what it would have cost to set up a state system. The Assisted Schools have done a wonderful job assisting government after government to provide secondary education. They should now be free to leave the new system if they so desire, and turn their attention to regaining the quality they have lost in the years of mutual assistance.
One school has already succeeded in going independent again, and, from all reports, standards are rising fast. I have a feeling that the JSS boys already have a better command of English than their sisters and brothers in the struggling Assisted Schools and that there is probably less stealing. Also, they do not wear their belts halfway down their hips! But more on this anon.