Early childhood education in Sierra Leone: Back to school – for some

Dr Eleni Athinodorou

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 September 2017

As parents and guardians begin the most financially challenging month of the year in readiness for their children to either start or go back to school, public entitlements such as education for all (to which all children belong as citizens) have yet to reach the foundational and most important stage of education, that of early childhood.

Despite its importance in creating social solidarity and future prosperity for nation states, despite the strong neuro-scientific research on how the brain develops in the first five years of life, and the long term social and emotional benefits for investing in early childhood programs, preschool learning in Sierra Leone  remains the most neglected phase of child education.

Relegated to the back bench of political priorities, it has become nothing more than a voice – crying out in the wilderness.

Whilst early childhood experts have been professing the benefits of early education for decades in developed countries, it was not until economists began discovering the financial gains of investing in the early years that policy makers and business leaders paid heed.

James Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, argues that high economic returns are a strong argument for early education because the gains can be quantified.

Longitudinal studies such as the Perry Preschool Project conducted over a period of forty years weighed the cost benefit analysis and rate of return calculations which became a driving force for early childhood policy implementations, with many countries offering free preschool education.

Findings from this project concluded that; putting money into early education programs not only fosters human development but saves government money in the long term. Early interventions were found to have lasting effects on learning and motivation, resulting in less money spent on remediation programs and training later (Carneiro & Heckman, 2003).

Data collected from police records from children that began their education in the early years, showed that juvenile delinquency was significantly lower for the target group, including fewer arrests and juvenile court petitions, thus saving society money in the long run.

Heckman’s analysis further corroborated that early interventions result in school retention, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency (Heckman, 2006).

Currently, preschool education in Sierra Leone is mostly exclusive and private. Unless families can afford the fees or have the right connections with those in positions of power, their children must wait for the compulsory age of 6 years before they begin formal learning.

The realities for most families in the country are harsh and young children are neither separated or protected from the hardships of poverty. Parents/guardians raising children face daily challenges to provide basic food, shelter, let alone pay for preschool education.

As more and more `mushroom’ preschools pop up (thanks to free market forces and unregulated service provision) one-room parlors have become day care centres and crowded classrooms are devoid of the play based approaches to learning (that young children need). Preschool is becoming a money-making venture with little or no accountability. Recent early childhood research in Sierra Leone (Athinodorou 2016) conducted over a period of four years, highlights the need for rapid transformation to assist the country’s development of formal early childhood education. It raises systemic and socio-political issues for consideration.

As the country continues to transfer control of economic priorities to the private sector, this will have implications for preschool provision. Out of 644 pre-primary schools operating in the country only 7% are publicly operated (World Bank, 2013).

Such statistics demonstrate government priorities which will impact on families who cannot afford to pay for preschool. The paradox for Sierra Leone, a country with the highest under five mortality rate in the world (UNICEF 2015) whose low and no tax rates attract over US $1 billion in foreign investment annually (McDermott 2016) the poor have yet to reap any dividends from neoliberal capitalism (Baxter 2013).

Like any country, there is competition in the field of politics. Getting government to financially support the delayed nature of benefits of early childhood education when there are so many other priorities, has its challenges. Investing in preschool is not immediately visible in the way a new hospital or road is visible, and the long term economic and social benefits usually surpass the term of office for most politicians.

Whilst policy makers should be willing to invest in early childhood programs with delayed benefits, it is not the way government policy makers view the world.

Many politicians do not remain in office long enough to see the returns of such policy investments and this makes early education a less attractive option when deciding where, what, and how much to allocate for school funding and resources.

As economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, “development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies” (Stiglitz, 2006, p. 50). The shift from a peace building post war recovery agenda (An Agenda for Change, 2008) to a neo liberal business model, with an emphasis on economic growth and international competitiveness (The Agenda for Prosperity, 2013) will have a bearing on the transformational shape of education, especially as the privatization of schools increases.

There is a need for the country to begin prioritizing the provision of preschool and increase the perception of its value as a nation building tool for the future.

Children are powerful social agents of change and the provision of preschools is a timely addition to modern discourses surrounding the rights of the child and their education.  Bearing in mind that educational privilege begins early in a child’s life, if preschool is relegated to the for-profit sector, it is in danger of inculcating into the higher class (or those with money) a sense of entitlement to higher educational outcomes.

This will result in preschool becoming a field where the reproduction of the current status quo creates homogenous spaces just for children whose parents have the right amount and type of social and economic capital.

About the author

Dr Eleni Athinodorou is currently working for the Orthodox Mission in Sierra Leone (a non- profit charitable service) where she is a Lecturer and Head of Department at the Early Childhood Teacher Training college. She is also the  School Director of one of the only- no school fee/ free medical/free lunch schools operating by the Mission at Waterloo, Freetown.

For a copy of the full article “Recognizing the different faces of early childhood development and education in Sierra Leone: Potential for nation building” By Dr Eleni Athinodorou and Dr Joseph Agbenyega email Dr Eleni Athinodorou directly:  athinodorou.eleni@gmail.com  or contact her on mobile +232078870085 to offer any support you can.

Editor’s Note

kindly donate to our Freetown Flood Disaster Emergency Appeal. We’re raising £50000 to help victims of the massive flooding in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which took the lives of over one thousand people, with thousands now homeless.

Please go to our JustGiving Crowdfunding Page and help make it happen:



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