I have just returned to the country after two weeks away, to find that the results of the Basic Education Certificate Examinations are out. With two siblings, a nephew and two cousins having sat to the exams on me, the calls and representations have been overwhelming. And I can imagine how it must be for others who have a lot more to care for and a lot less to earn.
Let me stick to the one that has really incensed me the most. My younger sister schools in Makeni. Her composite fee, as dictated by Government which is subsidising, is Le 75,000. But if you think that is help enough, well… yes… it is but only just.
My sister’s school obliges her to buy at least two pairs of “uniform” and she must buy it from the school. Le 70,000! In case you are wondering why I put uniform in inverted commas, well wonder no more. The word is derived from Latin to mean “uni” (one) and “forme” (form). Essentially it means to be in one form. So if uniform, according to that school does not include the following, I wonder what does.
The school in question, not comfortable to name it because of implications for the girl and of course because the same prevails in many other schools, requires the purchase of a belt costing Le 25,000, a school cap costing Le 35,000 and a shirt, a tie and a badge costing Le 35,000. And if the uniform paid for does not include any of these, then you must be wondering what the uniform consists of. These, as you may have noticed, do not include exercise books, text books, a school bag, shoes and the all-too-obvious daily lunch and if she was living in Freetown, transport, etc, etc.
For my sister’s school, like for most others’, and for me like for other parents and guardians, that is not all at all. Extra classes are an extra headache altogether. Never mind the pamphlets that are a facsimile of someone else’s work plagiarised by teachers who force parents to buy them for their children or fail their pupils.
Add all of that up and ask yourself how many families can afford it; in a country where those with jobs are mostly underemployed and find it difficult to save anything at all, and a lot more without a job.
I remember as if it were yesterday, the then Minister of Education, Dr Alpha Wurie, sounding very frustrated, saying that Government Ministers or senior officials should not be expected to police the schools and classrooms to ensure compliance by the school authorities not to make life uncomfortable for parents by charging extra fees. I thought then like I still do now, that that was a mea culpa by the minister for his ministry’s inability to streamline the ills in the education sector, despite the huge cash injected into it both from the consolidated fund and from donors.
It seems to be getting worse today, because of the prevailing financial situation hitting almost every home. And it all seems as normal. One old lady that I shared my frustration with simply just dismissed it, assuring that if elections were around the corner somebody would be pretending to care. But with almost four more years to go, “we should be ready to slug it out all by ourselves.”
Such is the problem facing parents across the country that some decide to let their kids drop out. And who needs telling what the ramifications are of having too many dropouts. Rebelliousness in all its forms! Armed robbery, envy for those who have genuinely acquired something in their life and are not responsible in any way for the predicament of these dropouts. And most crucially perhaps, losing our potential brains who can no longer realise it.
If the education sector cannot be put under surveillance, what else can be? In this day and age of global priority on education, in a nation coming just after its worst showing at the school-leaving West African School Certificate Examinations, if more effective and efficient action cannot be taken to ward off unscrupulous school authorities to stop ripping off parents, what else can prompt us to act!
Public education all over the world is a problem, no doubt. I recall the US president-elect Barack Obama lamenting over the unsatisfactory state of public education in his nation’s capital Washington. But his emphasis to address it head on makes poor families sanguine.
In Britain, some senior government officials are sending their children to public schools so as to force them to address their plight more seriously. I am looking forward to those in authority sending their children to public schools. As a part of it, by virtue of their children being in it, not only will the authorities stop the rip off; they will also pay much attention to going after good teachers and providing the next generation with the quality of education they deserve.
In the last few months I have visited several public schools that barely have anything to call a laboratory. How can we produce our next generation of scientists when scores of pupils have to share a few cylinders, beakers and thermometers; that is, where they exist at all! And despite a huge injection into our education sector of huge cash, apparently starched into individual bank accounts, year-in has been worse off than year-out.
There are buildings especially for primary schools still standing, yes; thanks to the National Commission for Social Action. But what is being done to make them more useful? Some barely have furniture. And even when they do, the teaching staff can at best be said to be inadequate or even lacking.
One of the reasons this is so is because educated people generally, but teachers in particular, are not attracted to remote parts of the country. Therefore, an incentive from Government for those teachers in remote areas should be considered.
Of course I attended a village school in Kono – the Supreme Islamic Council Primary School in Bumpeh and Jaiama Secondary School in Jaiama – but our teachers were committed because the headmaster and the principal were up to the task of goading and encouraging them. Besides, the remoteness in our villages today, was not as palpable. Equally important was the frequency with which uncompromising School Inspectors visited our schools.
Hardly any of those exist today. So that as I and several other parents and guardians struggle to look after our children and wards – and pay exorbitantly in the process – we stand the risk of doing so at a great risk. The kids will end up not having the academic worth of the expenditure we make though our nose; that is if we can afford it at all. So the headache is free and almost for nothing. But at whose cost? The nation’s. By Umaru Fofana