FREE EDUCATION: A LOT DONE, YET MUCH MORE TO DO

FREE EDUCATION: A LOT DONE, YET MUCH MORE TO DO

By: Andrew Keili

The Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education must be commended for its most recent Annual school census report, which is considerably more revealing than for previous years.

The SLPP government initiated its flagship Free Quality School Education (FQSE) programme in September, 2018. Although some results of this census are encouraging, some aspects make for depressing news-the good news is very good, the bad news very bad, the surprising news, quite surprising.

The FQSE programme has resulted in a tremendous increase in student enrolment. The number of learners enrolled in schools increased tremendously by almost 700,000 due mainly to the commencement of the FQSE. The data collected also reveals a significant increase in the number of schools approved for Government support. 53.4% of pre-primary, 78.7% of primary, 76.7% of junior secondary and 80.4% of senior secondary schools are now approved. In 2018 less than half of schools across basic and senior secondary were approved to receive government support.

With more than one generation streaming into primary, the gross enrolment rate (GER) has increased by 30 and 34 percentage points for boys and girls respectively between 2018 and 2019. The 2019 census revealed that schools in Sierra Leone are serviced by a total of 83,054 teachers, 66,501 (83.7%) of whom practise in approved schools. In primary, growth averages 29.2%, ranging from 18.4% in Moyamba to 48.1% in Pujehun. Growth in JSS averages 43.2%, ranging from 24.5% in Moyamba to 96.8% in Falaba. In senior secondary, there has been growth across all districts ranging from 19.8% in Moyamba to 78.6% in Kailahun.  Considerably more students are learning and hitherto unreached areas have now been brought into the educational system.

The Pupil-Teachers Ratio (PTR) results show quite commendable results at all levels and districts; most districts are below the recommended respective PTR values.  Schools are by no means out of the woods with availability of textbooks but results are encouraging. Further analysis of the Pupil textbook ratio for core subjects in Government assisted primary schools indicates that most of the districts across the country have ideal pupil to text book ratios.

Despite challenges with infrastructure generally, there is now a higher percentage of primary schools with play areas (80%) which makes the school environment friendlier.

There are also some surprising facts revealed (surprising to me but perhaps not to veteran educationists).

Who would have thought that government really owns only a small percentage of our schools? We should really thank our lucky stars for the missionaries who made great inroads into the educational sphere. At each school level, mission schools are in the majority. Out of 11,168 schools recorded, 56% are owned by Missions, 16.2% by Private providers, 14.1% by Communities and 13.8% by the government. The much maligned private providers, providing 16.2% of the schools produce much better educational outcomes (not germane for this report).

Also surprising is the high number of unqualified teachers. Overall, 48,761 teachers representing 58.7% have the required minimum qualification to teach at the various school levels, which means that there are so many unqualified and untrained teachers in the schools.

The results show that apart from the resources flowing to schools from the Government, households still contribute significantly to schools. More than one fifth of the resources flowing into schools came from households. Parents paid to schools a total of Le. 9,763 million out of the Le. 14,000 million collected in all pre-schools, accounting for 70% of the resources flowing into schools. In primary, despite the FQSE, parents’ contribution accounted for 24% of the total resources, indicating that even with FQSE; some schools are still charging some levies. Only two thirds to three quarters of the resources flowing into junior and senior secondary schools come from the government. Overall, salaries & wages accounts for the highest spending item for schools at 45.4% followed by rehabilitation at 30% and acquisition of learning materials at 20% which are the key inputs to any functional school.

The bad news about the school census should give us all cause for reflection.

The first bad news is that the expansion in school infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in student population. The number of schools increased from 10,747 to 11,180, an overall increase of only 4%.

Although completion rates have improved, many children before the age of 12 still drop out of the school system; more females drop out. A good number of pupils find it difficult to graduate from the last grade (JSS 3) of junior secondary school. Similarly, the Senior Secondary Completion rate (CR) of 43.5 % for both sexes, indicates that CR decreases as we proceed to higher level of schooling.

School infrastructure is still of poor quality. Only 52.3%, 53.2%, 64.6% respectively of classrooms in pre-primary, junior secondary and senior secondary are solid and in good condition.  6.7% of the classrooms in basic and senior secondary are makeshifts (the materials used in making the classrooms being of temporary nature including twigs and grass).

Although the average class size with all classrooms considered for approved schools are 25, 34, 38 and 46 in pre-primary, primary, junior and senior secondary respectively, further analysis reveals that the average class size in more than 40% of approved pre-primary schools is 50 if only solid classrooms are considered. In primary, JSS and SSS, the average class size in more than 60% of approved schools is more than 50.

A considerable number of basic and senior secondary schools do not have access to any source of water and a majority does not have access to piped water. 1 in 3 pre-primary schools, 4 in 10 primary schools, 3 in 10 junior secondary schools and 2 in 10 senior secondary schools do not have access to any source of water. A significant share of schools (58% in preprimary, 54% in primary, 45% in junior secondary and 42% in senior secondary) rely on boreholes and wells. Some Districts fare abysmally with water provision. In Koinadugu District only 7.7% of the schools in primary and 18% in secondary have access to safe water (piped and borehole).

In approved schools, the results show that the toilet ratios when considering only toilets in good conditions are unbearably high (47 learners for every toilet in pre-primary, 124 in primary, 108 in Junior secondary and 157in senior secondary). It is disconcerting to note that the practice of hand washing is decreasing in schools (59%) since the end of Ebola. 

About 47,965 pupils/pupils in the four levels of education are children with special needs (67.4% of them in primary, 22,2% in Junior secondary and 6.2% in senior secondary). A majority of these children, accounting for 27.6% suffer from learning disability, followed by visual, hearing, speech and physical disability (19.4%, 18.0%, 17.8% and 17.2% respectively). Despite this state of affairs, only 1 in 10 schools reported having ramp and special latrine for pupils with disabilities, and only 6% of schools said they provide special cubicles for girls during menstruation.

It is surprising to know that nationally, only 2% of the schools have a functional science laboratory, while 6% have a functioning library. A majority of these are in senior secondary schools.

Access to electricity, computers and internet services is challenging with only 22%, 4% and 1% of schools respectively having access to these facilities. Further analysis by levels shows that 2%, 16% and 9% respectively of primary, senior and junior secondary schools have access to computer services. Only 7%, 3%, 1% and 1% respectively of Senior, Junior, primary and preprimary schools are connected to the internet.

There are many other issues related to education that the Ministry is grappling with apart from data collection on schools and education facilities, including facilities assessment and teacher deployment handled in this report. What this report does is to give the Ministry enough ammunition to adopt a line of action to address these issues and improve on the performance of the sector.

Whatever the case, this report is sobering. One must not be tempted to do any “Monday morning quarterbacking” about whether the FQSE should have been phased in by government, as the problems seem insurmountable. The FQSE has been introduced and one must commend its successes, whilst being mindful of its considerable challenges. The government already spends some 21% of the national budget on Education, so the solution is surely not to raise this further. It is clear that the government and the Ministry must think outside the box to address these problems.

Many questions could be asked. Should the government encourage missions to have more of a say in the running of mission schools and probably help garner some external funding? Should the government actively court the assistance of Alumni Associations, perhaps granting them duty free and other concessions in the running of their schools?  Should other MDAs and the private sector be enticed to address the woeful infrastructure problems in schools in their various programmes, including CSR programmes? Could the private sector be courted to help out with science and technology issues? The questions are endless!

We should not close our minds to solutions. The Sierra Leone Grammar School (SLGS) is a stellar example of how an alumni association semi-privatized an institution of learning. Today the SLGS can give any private school a run for its money. Private schools which have 16.2% of the schools should also be encouraged by the Ministry as true partners-there are many issues that can be sorted out together, whilst regulating them better.

The situation is serious and urgent. Fortunately, the new Minister, Dr. David Sengeh provides hope. With his dependence on data based evidence to make decisions, his quick understanding of the issues, consultative nature, blunt honesty and willingness to share any credits with his staff, there is hope that solutions will be sought, even if outside the box.

It behooves all of us to help seek solutions together if we are not to confine our children to a life of ignorance and unpreparedness to meet the huge challenges of the modern workplace.

Indeed, a lot has been done, but much more remains to be done in the education arena.

Ponder my thoughts.

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