Sierra Leone Telegraph: 15 March 2022:
Yesterday, Sierra Leone’s minister of basic education, David Sengeh made several unannounced visits to schools in the capital Freetown, to gain first-hand experience of teacher and pupil absenteeism, and was shocked to find that most of the schools visited recorded high levels of pupil and teacher absenteeism. And these are some of the best schools in the country.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the government’s Free Quality Education programme, paid for largely by the international community, there is still massive resistance to the culture change needed, if the government is to turn around poor standards of education across the country.
And if what the minister saw yesterday is representative of schools across the country, then Sierra Leone is in deep trouble with regards the government’s promise to develop the country’s human resource for sustained economic growth.
This is what the minister wrote on Facebook after his visits yesterday:
“This is not an angry post. It’s a very sad post. Today, I dropped in at 4 schools: FAWE Girls School in Grafton, Prince of Wales, Freetown Secondary School for Girls and Methodist Girls High School to understand the reported high levels of absenteeism in our schools by both teachers and pupils (particularly those in SSS3). The irony is that we have 206,000 candidates who are supposedly in SSS 3 (including repeaters) registered to take the WASSCE Exams starting in a month or so.
“At my alma mater Prince of Wales, I was sad to learn that the students in Arts haven’t had more than a handful of math lessons for 2 terms. In this second term, no one has shown up. Their Agricultural Science teacher had also never showed up. I called him in the class, and he had nothing to say but that he’ll show up in the future. The Principal was with me on the tour, and he said he’s issued this teacher a query already. I am surprised – what happened after that? What did they Board do? Are they aware? How did we give up on these kids before they even had a chance?
“At FSSG, the Principal showed me the teachers’ attendance list, and several are often absent. To my dismay, she said she’d given them query letters approved by the Board, and those same teachers had been transferred to other schools by TSC. What?!! FSSG is one of our schools that moved to a single shift, and I learned that most pupils and teachers (less than a third) make it before 8:30 am to school.
“At Methodist Girls, I was told by pupils in Arts again that their teachers, including Math and Health Science, do not show up. In another stream, the English teacher does not or hasn’t shown up for this term. How do we expect the pupils to pass?
“As for pupils, attendance was dismal. The SSS2 and SSS1 classes are well attended, but SSS3 classes are empty. What are parents doing? What is the PTA doing? What are Principals doing? What are Boards doing? If we said only those who attend 80% of the time can take exams, what would happen?
“We are not going to transform our country until everyone plays their own part at home, in schools, in classrooms, etc.
“While I was sad, I was also hopeful. There were teachers who taught multiple classes every period every day. There’s the workshop teacher at POW working with an alumni pupil to invent new products. There were the Principal and Vice Principal at FSSG who stayed late working on fixing issues in their school. And there are pupils at POW and Girls’ School who were teaching each other when teachers don’t show up. There was that one pupil who had on a mask in a class of 40 without. Those people give us hope. We need everyone to be like them.
“I asked the pupils to write a letter to their Principals complaining teachers who dont show up. I asked Principals to write more query letters. And I thanked those teachers who I met in class even when their colleagues are awol.
“We have provided those Principals computers to submit attendance of teachers but they dont use it. We have trained teachers on Code of Conduct but they don’t listen. We have trained all Boards of Governors about their roles, but they don’t act.
“We will go back to the drawing board. At my senior management meeting today, we set up a sub committee including our Directors and Chief Education Officer to bring us ideas for intervention. We love system challenges and we are determined to address this.
“We will stop at nothing…” (End of the minister’s statement).
But is there a correlation between the worsening economic crisis in the country and low teacher and pupil morale and absenteeism?
Although the government increased teachers’ salary a few years ago and most teachers do get paid every month, there is widespread feeling of discontent across households, with the rising inflation and crippling cost of living which many in Sierra Leone say are causing serious economic hardship for families.
Also, the issue of low morale across Sierra Leone’s education system is the result of decades of underfunding and politicisation of education provision, in a country where most people do not believe that education is a passport to improved standard of living as millions of people with some form of education qualification languish in unemployment and poverty.