Sierra Leone free education programme – ‘my scholars need quality education’

Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 August 2018:

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. (John Dewey).

I grew up in a household where my parents had tremendous respect for the value of education. Some of my relatives were beneficiaries of their altruism. We grew up together and attended various schools.

My dad was very meticulous about keeping educational records and had one particular file marked “My Scholars”. Examination results, disciplinary reports, school fees information-everything on everybody was in “My Scholars”.

Being curious about how everyone was doing at school, especially those sent to far away schools who only came home for holidays, I would peer into “My Scholars” every so often. That was how I found out my uncle who burnt the midnight candle, putting his feet in cold water to keep awake, covering his head with a soaked towel and eating several cups of garri to keep his energy level up at night was always close to the bottom of the class.

That is how I also found out one of my cousins was always in one woman palaver or another, losing sight of why he was in school. That is why I found out why another cousin changed schools every other year-expulsion! It wasn’t as bad as I seem to infer-most of the “scholars” did well and have continued to do well in life.

Well true to this tradition, I have my own “My Scholars” file of sorts. One good thing about us in Sierra Leone-there is hardly any dispute that education is beneficial, and some people try to give a leg up to the less fortunate to darken the walls of a school and hopefully prepare themselves for later life.

Being true to this tradition, two of the recent beneficiaries of my altruism in my neighbourhood, whose educational needs I meet have convinced me that the government is right to add the word “quality” to the free education programme. Their parents gave me their results, if only to prove to me my money was not being wasted. These results and examination answer papers have been very instructive.

“My scholar V” attends a community preschool and “My scholar G” a government assisted school. Let me analyse the results for my readership.

“My scholar V’s” result shows his marks were the same for all 7 subjects for the first and second term. He had improved from an average of 34 percent in the first term to 73.7 percent in the third term. I thought to myself-what an astounding improvement.

On closer examination I noticed the remark from his “Aunty M” for the 34 % mark was “keep it up!”. The averages also looked suspicious. “Aunty M”, not knowing how to work out averages just got the total number and found somewhere to place a dot to give him an average (how ingenious!).

“Aunty M” had obviously got involved in a massive forgery process. I then looked at the answer sheet. Even when “Scholar V” stated in his objective paper in which he was given options of Friday, Saturday and Sunday that Muslims go to Church on Sundays, “Aunty V” marked it correct.

To cap it all “My Scholar V” was asked in one of his subjects to draw appropriate arrows linking letters to animals – (A for ant, C for cat, D for dog etc.). “My scholar V” pointed arrows all over the place-C was linked not only to cat but dog and any other animals he could find but “Aunty V “ marked him correct.

Being surprised that in spite of all this performance V came 9th in class, I was at least temporarily consoled that he had beaten so many people until I noted there were only 10 people in class!.

Then came the turn of “My scholar G” in the government assisted school. The headteacher did not even bother to sign the report. The marks for the second and third term for all subjects were identical.

Also he had the same marks for all terms in number work, spelling, key situation (what is that?) and English activities. “Aunty U” also had  a problem calculating averages, although she did not use the “place the dot method” of Aunty M, but her formula could not be discerned by even a NASA mathematician. I turned the report card over-the second verse of the school hymn was emblazoned at the back of the report:

“Our aim is high and true. Our school is on a hill. We pray for Aunties too. And promise to do our best”.

They are right. They need to pray for their Aunties! I have gone through the reports with my better half and she remarked to me – “I always knew this. Some teachers cannot even read well or comprehend a simple paragraph of writing”.

As for “My scholar V” and “My scholar G” we obviously have to remedy the situation but certainly not in these schools. His mum asks me every day when I drive to work “You Boboh try eh? I have told her we need to sit down and talk about the report and also talk about “My scholar V’s” elder brother who he says goes to “Rabbit school”-yes “rabbit school”.

Let me explain. I recently noticed “My scholar V’s)” elder brother is often at home during school hours. On asking “My scholar V” he said it is because his brother goes to “Rabbit school”.

On further enquiring from the mother I understood “Rabbit” was actually “Arabic” – as in going to a Karamoko and learning on “wala”. I have told her of the need for V’s brother to also go to a proper school (“rabbit” can be thought on the side). This is not funny-it is downright sad!

It is good to see that the government’s free education programme is receiving plaudits from all quarters. Whatever the reservations, everyone seems to agree education should be given priority.

After the war, the education system achieved an extraordinary recovery, reflected in the doubling of student enrolments in nearly all levels, from primary to tertiary.

There has however always been this lingering problem about quality of education.

A recent study indicated that 78% of Sierra Leonean pupils at primary level could not read for meaning. Even at the university level, some students struggle to discern meaning from academic writings and materials.

Indeed, the quality of education is poor at all levels. The recent beauty pageant as with the previous one exposed the parlous state of our educational system with most participants assassinating the Queen’s language and many social media critics criticizing them with equally bad grammar.

The government has obviously not been oblivious of this fact especially after critics have opined that the emphasis should have been on quality education rather than free education. The renaming of the programme as the Free Quality Education Programme (FQEP) is therefore a smart move.

It is noted that the programme itself is gradual and the contents for the first year have been clearly laid out.

Whatever the case, the reality of the situation is that it will take a long time before we start getting the benefits from these efforts. Access to knowledge is measured by (i)  mean years of schooling for the adult population, which is the average number of years of education received in a lifetime by people aged 25 years and older; and ii) expected years of schooling for children of school-entrance age, which is the total number of years of schooling a child of school-entrance age can expect to receive if prevailing patterns of age-specific enrolment rates stay the same throughout the child’s life.

Short term gains can be measured by the performance of these students in school and in public examinations but as a nation we must look at education as a means of better meeting the needs of society and of growing investment opportunities.

Current figures, indicate that only 9.5 percent of adult women have reached a secondary or higher level of education. For their male counterparts, the figure is 20.4 percent-both dismal figures but considerably worse for women.

The march to prosperity will require that the country improves basic, secondary, technical and tertiary education systems, with wide access across the population and especially for girls to change this situation.

One concern often expressed by critics of our educational system is the inimical role of our public examining bodies like WAEC play. Examination leakages have become a public matter – creating doubt on the quality of products, even the good ones.

It has been obvious for some time that results do not necessarily reflect performance and we are pushing a host of unsuitable people forward in the educational process or churning out some who may be grossly unsuitable for the job market.

As an example in the Nov/Dec 2012 WASCE (West African School Certificate Examinations) exams which were taken by nineteen thousand three hundred and twenty-seven students, a total of one thousand nine hundred and seventy-three students had their results withheld for serious breaches. Two hundred and seven people were caught with exam scripts.

Four hundred and fifty-nine colluded with others. One hundred and fifty-nine had different handwritings on various subject scripts. One hundred and nine wrote down their phone numbers on the scripts requesting assistance.

Some candidates did not go to the hall, but their exam scripts materialised with the examiners. WAEC’s woes continue as there are complaints by some schools of unsavoury practices within the institution and about the performance of invigilators with the connivance of some school authorities in schools in which examinations are held.

Another worrying aspect of our educational system is that many of our graduates and school leavers are both unemployable and unemployed. Only 6 percent of youth have ever served apprenticeships. What is also needed is a responsive education system, particularly TVET that caters to the changing needs of employers, encourages entrepreneurship and focuses its efforts on providing practical on-the-job training.

It must provide knowledge and skills that can stand the test of time and provide quality products for the development of the nation.

Our educational system must “lay good eggs. In the final analysis, we will be judged largely by the eggs we lay with these children to be good citizens and contribute to the socio-economic development of the country.

Our current education crisis carries high costs. It is consigning a whole generation of Sierra Leonean children and youth to a future of poverty, insecurity and unemployment. We must continue the fight for quality education.

On a personal note I will continue fighting for quality education for “my scholars”. But first I have a date with “Aunty M” and “Aunty U” and their Headteachers to have some “friendly” discussions. Whatever the outcome, “my scholars” will probably include the one in “Rabbit school” and be sent to greener pastures so that they have a chance of surviving in this blessed land in which they need quality education.

Ponder my thoughts.

2 Comments

  1. What an impressive piece! I could hardly read to finish, I did laugh out my guts with amusement – the introductory story of “My scholars”, Aunty M and Aunty U and their scholars. Very interesting!

    Education in Sierra Leone took a downturn following the 1967 general elections which ushered in Siaka Stevens and the APC in government.

    I can vividly remember when an APC parliamentarian who happened to be a relative of a friend with whom we shared a flat visited us just after the elections, he threatened Fourah Bay College students with hostile action for staging a demonstration against the APC government.

    A statement he uttered still stands out in my memory, to quote him – “these Fourah Bay College students, we will curtail their facilities in the college”. To be honest, it was the very first time I heard the word – curtail, but was easy to understand, especially with the gesture that accompanied the expression. Within a couple of years, Sierra Leone’s educational system began falling apart.

    And successive governments had not done much to prioritize education in their governance policies – the reason for Sierra Leone’s backwardness today in the sub-region, comparatively.

    The statistics on our scholars’ educational performance shown here is rather appalling. The system is in utter shambles, and it is not going to be an easy fix. It urges the need for all educationist and professionals alike from all areas of work, to get involved in the government’s educational programme for the country.

    Educationist, professionals, civil society activists, etc, should contribute immensely in an altruistic manner, to play the role of voluntary tutors and tutoresses to complement the work of the schools, by giving a helping hand in educating our children and youths.

    We should encourage students in any way possible and offer to help with their school work, when time permits in our leisure time, to help prepare young people to access the labour market better prepared. This is the key to propel our national development.

    Honourable Kandeh Yumkellah in his campaign trail as presidential candidate for the NGC, addressed education as an issue of concern, and that as a priority policy, he will declare education a national emergency if he happens to win the presidential election. It was the mantra in his campaign in the March 2018 elections.

    Thanks to the astuteness of the SLPP new direction government for adopting the issue of education as a priority policy in its governance programme. We are heading towards the right direction to usher in social development in the country.

  2. Wow! It feels great to read a touching message…! The only regret after reading this story, is that it makes someone(who truly loves and cares about the future of the young children of this nation) cry.

    God will surely give power and whatever it takes to anyone that wants to take the education of the nation forwards, to where it belongs. amen.

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