Sierra Leone’s broken education system – ten ways to fix it

Dr. Alfred Mbeteh: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 3 October 2019:

Education for many especially in developing countries , is a clear route out of the acute poverty they find themselves. It has been a great tool for developing the intellectual capabilities of citizens and countries alike.

However, there has been a considerable rise in the level of dropouts/failures  particularly within the secondary and university education system. In the recent West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE) results for instance, it is estimated that 95 percent of students in Sierra Leone failed to obtain the necessary grades needed to successfully enrol on a university programme.

This has stirred a huge debate among citizens as to the root cause(s) of such a poor performance when compared with other countries within the sub-region. One side of the debate blames the students with specific reference to their cheating culture and lackadaisical approach to their studies whilst others blame the staff and institutions.

As a part of the remedy, we have seen the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission publicly naming and shaming some of the teachers involved in exams malpractices.

Meanwhile, to understand the root cause of our failing educational system, we will need to dive a little down into history.

Precolonial days, there was no formalised form of education system; people learnt through apprenticeships with storytelling and observations being the most form of pedagogical methods. Rituals and festivals were also used to teach the younger folks about taking responsibilities for themselves and community.

In this informal setting, people mostly learnt practical skills like cooking, dancing, carving of masks and stools, wine making, farming etc. Dipo which is a famous ritual was for instance used to teach young girls about cooking and general skills that will help them through womanhood.

Then came the colonial period which officially ended the informal nature of African’s education system. The colonists came with one agenda: to extort the natural resources of its colonies. As such there was no need to educate and train members of its colonies as the primary focus was on using labour to do the hard core jobs that met their agendas.

Providing a formal education training to members of its colonies would have given them access to a wide range of information that may have led to an early surge. Some colonial masters openly barred the teaching of formal education whilst others did provide vocational trainings limiting them to certain skills, language of instruction and strict curriculums.

Thus, even after independence, the African education system still has a semblance of the bespoke colonial educational system that primarily limited them to certain curriculums which contents are currently way out of date with the ever changing triple I (Ideas, Information and Intelligence) era.

It is thus, evidently clear that the main cause of the high failure rate is with our entire educational system and how we fix it will require us to lay bare the key components which together makes up the whole.

Firstly, in my view the problem with our educational system is that it is still using rudimentary pedagogical (teaching) approaches, formative/summative assessments and curriculum to impart and assess knowledge that will be outdated by the time our students graduate.

The most common and prominent pedagogical approach for instance is the use of lectures where learners hardly participate in their learning journey. The method of assessment is primarily exams which has its own huge limitations especially when singularly used.

Secondly, the system also makes it harder for students to fail and learn. Andrew Yang, the founder of Venture for America, a renowned fellowship programme that empowers smart college graduates to start companies perfectly summarised it by stating:

“the biggest problem with our existing education system is that it doesn’t allow young people to fail and experiment. An ‘F’ would cripple most students and stain their records forever. We need to push our students to have the kind of experiences that will allow them to stumble, fall and then pick themselves up.”

Thirdly, our trainers hardly engage in kaizen (a Japanese word for continuous improvement) after their formal education/training. The culture of publishing journals or books that will allow them to stay in touch with major debates or themes in their chosen fields, is not prevalent within the sector.

Fourthly, there is not much incentive given to attract and keep the best trainers/lectures/tutors that will help drive the cutting edge degrees we need as a country. Most institutions lose their staff to non-governmental institutions who offer attractive remuneration packages.

Lastly, vocational schools that primarily focus on developing and sharpening practical skills are normally frowned upon. The society on the whole looks down on young people who end up enrolling on vocational programmes. We stigmatise/label them as  “dropouts” when in actual fact the skills learnt in those settings are vital to both personal and country development.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to overhaul our educational system to match one that is in congruent with the demand of the marketplace. In order to attract, retain, sustain and produce better learners, the following strategies will be necessary to adopt:

1. The universities’ curriculums  need to be completely revamped. As hitherto stated, we adopted curriculums which contents are not in congruence with modern day knowledge and skills. Thus, our youths finish school learning skills that will have little or no use to the marketplace.

The revamping of our curriculums can be done in collaboration with students, experts and specific organisations where each of the disciplines are being practised. This holistic approach will help prepare learners to compete not only locally but globally too.

2. Lecturers/teachers/tutors need to encourage self-directed learning where students take the centre stage. The role of a lecturer/teacher/tutor is to facilitate learning and not to take absolute control of it.

It is important to note that learning is primarily for the students, thus they should be  encouraged to take an active part.

Using the Pareto principle, 80% of all activities should be done by learners through group work and independent research whilst only 20% should be done by the lectures by for instance giving clear instructions and relevant books/journals to consult.

3. Problem-based Pedagogical Approaches (PPA as I call them) should be introduced at all levels. It is evident that people learn best by solving practical problems. PPA can be introduced by the use of real-life case studies and apprenticeship opportunities.

4. Traditional lecture methods should only be used to for instance instruct learners on the relevant learning outcomes, key frameworks/theories to consult and a brief explanation of the assessment vehicles.

Students should be encouraged to be independent learners. The majority of our young people spend a considerable time on their phones. They can therefore, be encouraged to explore concepts outside of the classroom using this tool.

The effective use of Google to search for validated contents (videos and articles) could help in this direction. The job of the lecturer/teacher/trainer is to direct students to the relevant websites/portals.

Schools can also create mobile friendly online libraries and encourage students to do their research/independent learning from the comfort of their homes.

5. Our parents and community should not coerce our young people into doing what they (parents and community) want them to necessarily do. They should rather encourage them to pursue disciplines that are in line with their God given talents. Simply put, students should be encouraged to do what they are talented at and/or love doing. The role of mentorship is key in this aspect.

6. There is an urgent need for our institutions to actively involve and train their current and future staff in the design and delivery of programmes and regular publication of articles in their chosen fields. Webinars could be organised with industry experts to train all staff.

The Sierra Leone academic Diaspora community presents a huge opportunity to tap from. Institutions could make a national call for them to volunteer their expertise in building their staff capabilities.

7. The future recruitment of staff should include people who have passion for education and have gone through some sort of teachers’ training in addition to the right qualification for the subject being delivered. These staff should be in return rewarded with a remuneration package that is line with industry standards.

8. We need to embrace a range of assessment methods. Exams are not the only methods to test for the knowledge and understanding of the subject being taught. Students can for instance be assessed through the following assessment vehicles in addition to exams: written literature reviews, portfolios, attendance, feedback from mentors, written reflective reports on apprenticeship opportunities etc.

9. Learners should be encouraged to apply knowledge gained at every given stage of their learning experience. Schools can for instance require them to work in teams and develop projects that aim to solve a community problem. As an example, the health and engineering students can pair up to write reports on how to effectively recycle our wastes and develop a practical and lasting solution.

10. Lastly, there is a need to strengthen our vocational education. Vocational education plays a key role in providing the requisite skills that university education won’t cover. Practical skills such as carpentering, tailoring, cooking, plumbing and general entrepreneurship skills could be best honed in a vocational setting.

Research has shown that students who go on to hone  practical skills for a specific job are normally more confident and perform better in interviews than the students with general university/academic background.

In a nutshell, acquiring knowledge through the formal education system is not the problem; the problem is the way in which the system is organised to create, disseminate and assess knowledge. The curricula and methods need to be revised in line with the marketplace and educators need to take the centre stage in educating our young people about the significance of having and utilising a good secondary, vocational and university education.

About the Author

Dr Alfred Mbeteh is a researcher, entrepreneur, author and lecturer (REAL). He currently resides in the UK, lectures at Roehampton University, University of West London and Nelson College London. He is also the founder and CEO of De VICTORS; a UK based success company which helps to Discover, Develop and Deploy (3D) the talents of our youths.

He has worked with the UK National Citizen Service (NCS) as a Youth Programme Leader facilitating the personal development of the youths in the UK. Alfred has published and co-published several books, articles and book chapters with reputable journals and publishers.

His current book which is  to be published by Emeralds Publication by April 2020 is titled: Entrepreneurship Education in Africa. A Contextual model for Competencies and Pedagogy in developing countries. He is also a director and shareholder of various businesses he has helped create. Dr Mbeteh is also a business consultant and a motivational speaker.

6 Comments

  1. As much as I agree with certain aspects and the well meaning sentiment of this article, it is unfortunate that it’s basis is mired in inaccuracy. Sierra Leone was once justifiably known as the seat of learning in Africa, the ‘Athens’. In the so called colonial era and after the country produced a disproportionately large number of highly qualified professionals who formed much of the diaspora before Africans emigrated to the West in their droves. The number of African ‘firsts’ emanating from Sierra Leone is a testament to these facts. And as hard as it is to swallow, this culture of education was largely fostered through western style education and the encouragement for self betterment during late colonial times from the very same ‘self-serving’ system denigrated in this article.

    Sierra Leone was completely unique in this sense and enjoyed favour denied black people the world over, most notably the US. Put plain and simply, the agenda of our leadership post independence, (notwithstanding intentional underdevelopment from the UK) was not education. At worst it bore no foresight, at worst it was a blind power grab with little to no appreciation of the enviable position which we once enjoyed. This truth needs to be accepted so that in any analysis we can start to take responsibility for our collective memory of the past so that we can make objective and therefore effective decisions as a nation and realise that we must go from child like mental dependance to adult autonomy to even think about surviving in the digital age much less a global economy.

    The Athens of Africa…how did we go from that to only now realising that our curriculum, based on decades old practice would be completely and utterly redundant now. This is such a rudimentary fact.. Is it any real surprise that our rate of failure in schools is so pitiful? It is the worst shame!!! Our entire mindset needs to change; and the way that we value ourselves needs to be reflected by the emphasis from the government on The Best type of education, methods and facilities all the way to the least child.. Otherwise such low expectations will not, I am afraid be sufficed to incentivise anyone that futures are worth fighting for. Peace and love.

  2. Long ago, we use to have bookshops such as the CMS bookshop. We had Libraries and all the rest of it. We need to rebuild the schools with toilet facilities and tables and chairs for the students; canteens where they can have meals. We need to think about all these things – the teachers, police and all the sectors need to be working.

  3. One day Sierra Leone will get back to its feet. When Siaka Stevens died, Sierra Leone lost a chuck of the education themes that were put in to place and then came the wars – 2 consecutive wars that wiped everything. Since then nothing good has happened. People have lost so much, to think about good education. The system had broken, poverty is all over the place, scroungers and thieves are not giving a chance to rebuild the country. This is why we have ended up in this situation.

    To turn this situation around, we need to talk and start a new quality education system to benefit all. Mr president needs help to fix everything in the country. Sierra Leone elders that are still alive that are retired overseas, need to be invited to give their contribution so that we can come up with ideas and solutions to help Sierra Leone back to its feet to rise again.

    War is not good. It breeds setbacks and deaths of good citizens. We have to do this fast. lf people care about Sierra Leone and want to be proud of the country, we must do this together to put Sierra Leone back on the map.

    • The last time I checked, Siaka Stevens destroyed everything in Sierra Leone, including education. Education was in a complete mess way before the war. The rot in salone did not start today or after the war.

  4. These recommendations should be passed on to the government of Sierra Leone. The only concern is the resources to deliver. The technology aspects is one of the ways forward to educate the youths of Sierra Leone. You are absolutely right; bring back vocational education to the table, this will create jobs and boost the economy. I hope this is seen by the education minister.

  5. A very good article. It shows the right way of change. I believe this way of education has to start in the primary school. It will need engaged and better paid teachers, and a better equipped school environment with possibilities to create exciting projects in groups or as individuals.

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