Among the numerous problems facing our beloved Sierra Leone in this post war period, the nose dive in educational standards is the most serious. This is so because education is the key to development. The national economy, the health system, tourism, and agriculture would all be pulled into the abyss upon the crash of the educational system which happens to be the center of gravity of national development. The tumour eating into this system is reaching its vital organs with lightening speed, while we play politics -fiddling while Rome burns.
The signs of this imminent collapse in the educational standards are now very conspicuous. National results in public examinations say it all. They are appalling! This is because very little learning is going on in public schools (which happen to be in the vast majority). With the prohibitive cost of accessing the few private schools in operation in the country, these ailing public schools remain the sole option for more than 90% of students to access any form of education at all. These students are going to be at the helm of this nation’s affairs in a few years to come. Is this short cut to national disaster not all too familiar?
In looking for the causes of this serious problem we often blame the spot where we happened to fall instead of searching for the obstacle upon which we stumbled. The educational system has been on this slippery slope for decades when the financial support from the state, which serves as the oxygen of state sponsored schools, dwindled dramatically. Teachers’ salaries took a direct hit from this crisis as payment became irregular and when the overdue cheques were finally issued they were ridiculously out of tune with the cost of living. This unfortunate situation de-motivated these vital foot soldiers while the society which they served at great sacrifice insensibly turned them into a laughing stock, little realizing that the teachers had the last laugh.
When government finally started to address the salary problems of teachers by affecting a significant increase in their salaries and ensuring prompt payment at the end of every month, the problem of ghost teachers emerged. The staff lists presented by some unscrupulous heads of schools running these ghost schemes far exceeded the governments’ budget for teachers’ monthly salaries. Besides, the actual number of genuine teachers being recruited by schools to meet the growing rolls of students was becoming too much for government to handle. In an absurd attempt to tackle this intractable problem, government continued to approve a large number of teachers that they could not pay. Such teachers languished in classrooms sometimes for up to two years without pay. Thus, feeling hard done by, these zombie teachers either resorted to an ‘operation pay yourself’ (by extorting the poor students) or took to rationing their services.
While this unhealthy situation prevailed, students’ discipline crumbled with the standard of education. Drug abuse, gangster and cult activities became favourite pastimes of a significant percentage of students. The electronic revolution transported their newly discovered icons into television, computer or even mobile phone screens within their easy reach. African American and Jamaican gangster Hip-Hop artists entertained them with real life violent scenes which they, in some instances, never did hesitate to imitate. Heroes with any form of intellectual credentials ceased to capture their admiration. Student cults of varied shades sprang up like mushrooms in schools and colleges to worsen an already bad situation. Unbelievable and thrilling accounts of students recruited into some voodoo cults started to surface right in our neighbourhoods.
However, in the midst of this state of decay, some healthy seeds of focused and diligent students survived and made it to university within Sierra Leone, while a few lucky ones even went overseas for further studies. The latter were considered lucky because the arduous academic and economic conditions that university enrolment exposed local students to made them wonder often whether the game was worth the candle at all. Depression and frustration ironically pushed a large number of them into the same abhorrent lifestyle of drug abuse and other vices that had wrecked the educational journeys of their former schoolmates.
The university itself, established during the colonial era to train missionaries and teachers, had a stunted growth that failed to fulfil the developmental needs of a young nation being pulled along an orbit of a rapidly moving world. University education did not automatically guarantee a graduate a job of his choice. Moreover, graduates’ fields of study were far removed from the skills that the country was starving for to fuel its development. Hiring expatriates as a stop gap measure proved costly and foolish. But like the proverbial crow, we flattered ourselves with the conceited title of the ‘Athens of West Africa’. The classroom became the dumping site of most of this nuclear waste of ill motivated and badly paid graduates.
In 1996, Sierra Leone switched over to a new system of education known as the 6-3-3-4 system which replaced the 7-5/7-4/5 system. This new system recommended that the student spend six years in Primary school, three years in junior secondary school, another three years in senior secondary school and four years in university. To move from one stage to the other the student must successfully go through a public examination conducted by the West African Examination Council (WAEC). After the first six years the student takes the National Primary School Examination (NPSE). Successful students move on to junior secondary school where they take the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) after completing three years. This examination was meant to distinguish between academically inclined students and vocationally inclined ones. Successful students in this examination were to proceed to senior secondary school while non successful ones were to enrol in vocational schools.
Sierra Leone was a late passenger on the 6-3-3-4 train. Her counterparts in the West African Examinations Council (Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia and Liberia) were all comfortably seated by the time Sierra Leone boarded the train in 1996. Isolated and facing the option of either jumping on board or sticking to the old system at her own expense, in the heat of a raging rebel war, she inadvertently and prudently joined the others. However, in the haste to keep pace with the others some crucial prerequisites of the new system were ignored. Vocational institutions tailored to the practical needs of the nation’s development were not set up to absorb unsuccessful BECE candidates as prescribed by this system.
Haphazard institutions offering such preposterous courses like ‘soap making’ and ‘gara tie-dying’ served as the sole option for these candidates to further their education beyond the Basic Education level. Being all too familiar with the folly and futility of going down this short route to ruin, they, in league with their parents/guardians resorted to cutting corners in the system and enrolling in senior secondary schools originally meant only for successful BECE candidates. This massive malpractice never raised any eyebrows in the society in which it operated. Instead it was shrugged off with the ‘How for do?’ cliché. These doomed students went on to take the West African Senior School Certificate Exams (WASSCE) and performed in the all too predictable way- they failed with fuming colours. Ironically, we now pretend to be alarmed by this miserable performance.
With the persistent erosion of discipline in schools a very destructive culture developed within the school system across the country where by students take French leave a week or two before the official date for the end – of – term closure of schools. Likewise, they stay away from school for another week or two after the reopening of schools with the popular excuse that ‘Betteh school nor dae’, meaning: No effective learning is taking place at the moment. With one month effectively squandered off the school calendar each term by collective truancy, the equivalent period of a whole term is recklessly wasted instead of being judiciously used to covering the oceanic syllabus.
Furthermore, the examination calendar of the West African Examinations Council has receded over the years by almost one month. So the May/June Examinations for students now commences in April. Added to the fact that effective learning for successful BECE candidates promoted to Senior Secondary One actually starts during the second term, leaving them with two terms (instead of three) to start preparing for the WASSCE, the rational mind would start to wonder which magic would schools conjure to make impressive grades at the end of three misused years.
The final nail in this coffin is the focus of students’ attention which is generally light years away from their academic objectives. The principal focus of most students today is cruising from one entertainment spot to the other seeking the pleasure of their peers of the opposite gender. Even the golden opportunity for learning offered by the Internet is substituted with the endless entertainment that it offers.
To cap it all, where are the bookshops? Where can teachers and students find the text books to cover the syllabus? But for the pirated copies of textbooks photocopied and sold by ingenious book peddlers, one wonders what students offering a subject like literature in English would read for the exams. Even after managing to lay hands on the prescribed texts the accompanying books recommended in the syllabus to enhance the understanding of both the teacher and the student are never available. Incidentally, these books are available in Ghana, Nigeria and The Gambia. Yet we never stop contrasting our dismal performance in the public exams that we take in common with that of these countries. This is the magic recipe for the massive failure of our candidates in the WASSCE. ‘The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings’.
The tertiary institutions joined this orchestra by admitting such failures into universities and colleges to offer access (maybe abscess?) courses. These Dead on Arrival (DOA) casualties, upon graduation are dumped in the job market, most times as teachers to serve the nation ‘to the best of their abilities’. As this sore festered, its odour galvanized the authorities into belated action. Setting up a commission of enquiry to proffer a solution to this problem was like pretending to search for a needle that one is consciously hiding under his foot.
In a desperate attempt to find a quick-fix solution to this problem, the 6-3-3-4 system itself has come in for a lot of bashing as the principal culprit for the collapsing standard of education. There have even been suggestions for its complete overhaul and a return to the old General Certificate of Education (GCE) system. This would only complicate matters further as we would be forced to make a u-turn to the 6-3-3-4 system when we encounter the old problems of the GCE system that made us ditch it in the first place.
For effective measure to get us out of these dire straits we should go back to the drawing board and do some damage control. We need to develop a very effective pre-primary school system to lay a solid educational foundation for the kids. This should be followed by a thorough scrutiny of our public primary school system which is in a virtual state of collapse. Statistics of recent NPSE results say it all.
The quality of pupils that manage to pass this exam falls alarmingly short of expectations. This shaky foundation syndrome is a common symptom of most pupils enrolled in our Junior Secondary schools. Once the foundation is solidified serious attention should be focused on setting up well equipped and appropriate vocational schools to cater for those students that are not academically inclined enough to pass the BECE. Such students can go on to earn the equivalent of university degrees in higher vocational institutions like polytechnics.
This would not only boost the morale of such students by making them feel as important as their counterparts in the academic field but would make them completely disinclined to pursue academic courses by fraudulent means when they are ill equipped for them. This would be a win-win situation for both the students, who would excel in vocations that suit them, and for the state, which would have set up a very solid foundation on which to build its middle level manpower.
However stringent measures should be taken by the Ministry of Education to prevent rogue students from enrolling in institutions that they do not qualify for. Obliging them to comply with the sanitized system would make them pursue careers that suit their talents. Learning will then become rewarding and interesting for them. This would drastically reduce the rate of indiscipline, crime and unemployment among the youth in the country.
Regular bookshops should be set up across the country to provide easy access to books. The private sector, including those already engaged in the informal bookshop business should be encouraged and supported in establishing and running normal bookshops. With the advent of ultra-modern printing and duplicating technology, copy right permission should be obtained from big publishing houses like Heinemann to even print textbooks locally. This would not only make books affordable but would create jobs and put the plagiarizers out of business jobs.
Above all, premium should be put on teacher training. Well trained and highly professional teachers would deliver an enviable quality of education to tomorrow’s leaders. But this remarkable quality would never be achieved unless there is a commensurate improvement in teacher remuneration. Although Government had taken some commendable steps in that direction in the past, its failure to attune this achievement to the rapid rate of inflation has proved very counter productive.
Teachers must be paid well and promptly. The classroom has been suffering a steady brain drain of brilliant graduates seeking greener pastures elsewhere. The disparity in salaries between a graduate teacher and his counterpart working for any given non governmental organization within Sierra Leone kills all passion for the job in even the most patriotic citizen.
While their counterparts earn enough and to spare and live lavish lives, teachers can only hope for miracles to take care of themselves and their families. This lures the less resilient ones into engaging in the extortion of students that we are all too familiar with these days. Whenever these admittedly unscrupulous acts make headline news, the stereotypical reaction of the public is to ignore the cause and tar all teachers (good and bad) with the same negative and demoralizing brush. A disgruntled teacher delivers a lousy lesson!
Government should consult with stakeholders (proprietors, Head teachers, principals and donor partners) and come up with a realistic policy of recruiting and paying teachers’ salaries. Government should face it; it has bitten more than it can chew. Apart from the handful of government schools, the vast majority of schools in the country are owned by religious missions. While these missions call the shots when it comes to day to day running of these schools, they stopped funding them ages ago. Shouldn’t these proprietors be made to shoulder part of the burden of paying teachers’ salaries in their schools? After all, the daily cost of running these schools and their maintenance is paid for from school fees and government subsidies.
Populist and ill-motivated measures by successive governments to pay examination fees for all candidates taking public examinations were apparently taken at the detriment of teachers’ welfare. This explains why this policy failed to make any positive impact on education in the country.
The economic dimension of the challenges facing our beloved country on its path towards development is frightening and should not be downplayed. The education sector is screaming as loudly as the other starving sectors like health and agriculture for the allocation of funds. Government’s internal revenue generation measures should therefore be intensified and treated with utmost seriousness in order to garner enough resources to adequately pay our teachers adequately if we are serious about crossing this trying period of our history.
The Ministry of Education should make approval and prompt payment of newly recruited teachers an urgent priority. An effective yearly teacher recruitment system that matches the yearly increase in school enrolment should be put in place. Above all, recruitment should translate into automatic inclusion
in to the pay voucher. Keeping such teachers in limbo for up to two years is not only dehumanizing but a blatant violation of their right to dignity. After paying the piper, government would then be in a strong position to call the tune by reigning in on lethargic, extorting and grade-fixing teachers.
Education should always be at the top of the nations priorities. The rest of our developmental puzzle will fall into place once this is done. However until this towering problem is addressed all other so called developmental strides taken in other areas of nation building would only lead us to a land of regret.
By Yusuf Jalloh