Sierra Leone’s dismal performance in the WAEC school exams needs fixing fast

John Mannah: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 November 2020:

Sierra Leone’s performance in the recently released 2020 WAEC examination results with a 4.5% Pass Rate in 5 Subjects, when compared to our sister competing countries namely, Ghana with 68.5%, Nigeria- 65.8%, and The Gambia – 64.8%, is not only catastrophic and disappointing to the New Direction Government in Freetown, but to Sierra Leoneans generally, and presents an opportunity for private sector involvement and collaboration with government to fix it.

Additionally, fixing this calamity will also be beneficial to the student’s whose academic careers are in jeopardy because of lost opportunity to enroll in higher learning institutions and adequately prepare for the competitive, dynamic and complex global environment that lay ahead.

Importantly, leaders of the New Direction Government in Freetown must be reminded that the 2018 general elections that ushered them into governance was a hard fought battle on ideas, and they succeeded in winning the elections because of their promise to among other things, concentrate on developing the Human Capital of the country. This was the winning theme in their platform which attracted voters leading to their success in the elections.

Moreover, the idea of focusing on developing the Human Capital of Sierra Leone was also a bold one whose time had arrived, especially in a global and technology driven economy where economic growth and development does not only depend on technical progress as a contributing factor as postulated by Nobel Laureate Robert Solow’s 1956 research paper, but human resource development has become an additional factor, as reasoned by another Nobel Laureate David Romer.

Romer whose 1990 research paper introduced Human Resource or Capital “Endogenous Technical Change” as a new technology that has added people, ideas, and things as factors of production in achieving economic and social progress. Human Capital is no longer an exogenous (external or outside the model) factor of production but endogenous (within the model).

Interestingly, Nobel Laureate David Romer’s research captured the practicality of encouraging economic development in places like Sierra Leone where it had failed to occur in the past, and a role has been figured out for the entrepreneur to participate in the productive process.

By using human capital to increase productivity, increasing returns on productivity is no longer restricted to the use of machines such as the steam engines, the printing press, etc., but increasing returns is now a feature of adding a customer to a network, electricity to a village through solar, develop agriculture, or do farm fishing, among others. It is a new era in economic activity and the leaders in the SLPP government were strategic to capture this reality, thereby marking a new dawn that will change the economic space in Sierra Leone.

Against this backdrop, the New Direction Government has done an excellent job in delivering on their promise to develop the Human Capital of the country by actualizing the bold and audacious program called The Free Quality Education, currently in progress to improve the foundation of the educational system across the board under very strenuous and difficult circumstances.

Fortunately, the hard work of the new government has won the admiration of international partners, multilateral finance institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union, the United Nations, bilateral partners, and even the managers of the Millennium Challenge Accounts have taken notice as the effort by the government to invest in the citizens of Sierra Leone is legendary and transformational.

Given these impressive performance and achievements by the government in developing its human resource that will inject a paradigm shift into the fortunes of Sierra Leone, the failure of almost 135, 000 students to gain credits in 5 subjects in the WAEC exams so as to gain entrance into university is a shock to the system.

The question then becomes – how do we fix this?

The answer to this question should go through leadership not just from the government but in partnership with the private sector. The government should continue with the ongoing transformational reforms being introduced by the dynamic Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Dr. Moinina Sengeh, to create the enabling environment for the private sector to get into the education business and complement their effort to get the job done.

Furthermore, the government and other key stakeholders should investigate the type of private sector innovation and leadership that the former principal of the Ahmadiyah Muslim Secondary School Mr. Kamara provided in the late 1970s and 1980s through tactical and strategic thinking, that facilitated students who did not pass the WAEC exams with credits at their first try to repeat  fifth form in the school. These students were offered extraordinary help through the fortitude of formidable Science, Mathematics and English teachers.

Moreover, students who were offered second chances went on to retake the WAEC exams, passed with flying colors and headed to universities and earned their degrees with aplomb. Similar models were replicated in other places around the country with great success.

There are however, going to be contrary views to this idea from practitioners and stakeholders such as members of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) who may offer counter arguments that the reason why these students failed the WAEC exams is because the teachers are not teaching in the schools but rather devote most of their time to running their private syndicates for private gain.

Also, the Ministry of Education may argue that the government is paying tuition for students, salaries of teachers, supplying books and other logistics to run the schools and the problem lies with the students.

This is where economic theories and concepts can come to the rescue to help conceptualize the problem and offer robust measures to address it.

Two economic concepts will therefore be used to examine the reasons why students in Sierra Leone failed the WAEC exams at such an alarming rate and offer reasons why involving the private sector will complement the effort of government to eliminate and reverse this trend. The two concepts are the marginal utility theory of value or the free market theory of value, and the Nash Equilibrium theory.

The concept of the free market theory of value explains why private syndicates as businesses work. It is based on Adam Smith’s “invincible hand doctrine” which states that people are motivated by self-interest, and that there is harmony between self-interest and public interest.

Smith went on to proffer that ‘the baker is not baking bread out of altruism, nor is the butcher herding cattle to provide diner for the public, but out of self-interest, and in the process, he ends up satisfying his own personal interest more effectually than he intended’.

It is by exchanging in the marketplace through the values proposition that this happens. Hence, the value of a good or service in this sense is determined not objectively by the cost of production but subjectively by what others are willing to exchange for it. Therefore, the government can invest all the money it can garner to pay teachers, tuition and supply books in the schools, but if the teaching is not up to standard, it will not make the difference because the students will not value the service and therefore not consume it as they should, leading to the dismal outcome we have in the exams.

Conversely, complementing school lessons with innovative models such as syndicates will create the environment for teachers to offer teaching services that students can purchase with subjective insight to the satisfaction of all the parties. It is how jobs are created in a capitalist economy and the role of government is to create the environment by organizing and regulating it accordingly so that it can collect taxes and manage the economy efficiently.

In general, through competition, teachers and students will offer their best selves to consume the goods in the marketplace to the benefit of all parties and stakeholders.

The other economic concept I will use to conceptualize this problem is the Nash equilibrium game theory developed by Nobel Laureate John Nash which conceptualizes the behavior between game participants to determine the best outcome in a game. I will apply this theory to the context of the teachers offering classes in a syndicate and the government agreeing to regulate it.

Using the Nash equilibrium concept, if the Sierra Leone government is rigid about not allowing teachers to conduct syndicates to earn extra income while simultaneously doing their best to teach their normal classes in their designated schools, then they will pretend to be teaching while performing sub-optimally in their classrooms, and at the same time concentrate on selling pamphlets to earn extra income to take care of their welfare because their take home salaries are insufficient. (Photo: John Mannah).

On the contrary, if both parties (government and teachers) agree to work together and allow teachers to conduct their syndicates under the supervision and regulation of government, where the syndicates are registered and pay taxes to government, then they will arrive at a Nash equilibrium situation and a win-win for all the parties involved – teachers, students, and government.

Thus, Nash equilibrium will facilitate a situation where each party will pursue their own self-interest while simultaneously satisfying the interest of the group to which they belong.

To sum up, the New Direction Government should learn some lessons from this situation and reduce the imprint of the government from the marketplace as there is too much government in the current dispensation crowding out the ingenuity of the engine of the ‘invincible hand’ to perform its magic and grow the economy for the benefit of all the parties in the economy.

Creating the right environment for the private sector to engage and help the students who have failed these exams with a lifeline, will go a long way to help Sierra Leone’s educational system bounce back and regain parity within the West African Examination Council.


  1. In my personal opinion, this WAEC results should shock the conscience of all Sierra Leoneans. These results are a complete testament that most of the students that finally took this examination built their educational foundation on sand 11 or twelve years ago when they started their primary education. Unfortunately, it is an open secret that corruption was a systematic problem for the past 11 years of the APC misrule, and there is credible evidence in the just concluded COI, that the most corrupt institution was the ministry of education under the leadership of our late so-called Professor Minkailu Bah, who worked hand and glove with former President Koroma, to run our educational institution as their major corruption enterprise, by encouraging money transactions between parents, teachers and students.

    Fortunately under the New Direction government, the ACC commissioner Mr. Ben Kaifala decided to draw a line on the sand by shocking the whole world when he displayed some corrupt teachers at the Cotton Tree roundabout. The unexpected raids he conducted in some corrupt examination centres and schools also angered most of those cheating students, who even verbally insulted President Bio that “ He should keep his free quality education to himself and allow them to continue spying” because that was the only system they understood.

    I personally believe that the quantum leap that Sierra Leone took within two years and six months in the fight against corruption from 49% to 81% is as a result of the fight against examination malpractices. Hopefully, the current students that have enrolled under the free quality education has built their foundation on solid rock (which is Integrity and Credibility), and I personally believe that within the next 5-10 years we will start getting positive results.

  2. If it is not broken why fix it? This is where all our troubles can be traced in Sierra Leone. Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the way our educational system was structured, it was running in a straight line and sign posted. There is no cutting of corners, or run into any uncharted territory, as this present generation of students are learning the hard way. Whoever thought of dismantling the old ways of acquiring education in Sierra Leone and indtroducing something completely alien to the education system, or the school curriculum, without giving it much thought, never sat down with the experts to analyse the effects the changes will have on students.

    The fact that majority of the so called freedom fighters in the form of the RUF leadership, Foday Sankoh, and Sam Bockarie, were ordering the destruction of schools, and colleges,and killing of qualified teachers, and academics would have given anyone food for thought about the impact it will have on our educational system. By and large the first casualty of the war, was our educational system. One wonders in the aftermath of that senseless war, what serious considerations was given by the reformist, as they embark on dismantling the old ways of doing things. The problem now is, this present generation of students are paying the high prize of the war, and its legacy. Unfortunately they have the double whammy of dealing with decisions made on their behalf without any expert imput.

    The problem in Sierra Leone is, those in position of power do not like to consult the experts in the field, of changes they want to embark on, that affect communities across the country. There is too much power in the hands of the president. Changes that can be made in the ministry of education have to wait for the presidential approval. And sometimes the president does not know all the answers to the myriad of problems in the country. Certainly not Bio, and the ones before him. Lets start all over again. Keep the things that are working, and ditch the things that never worked. Listen to the experts, you will never go wrong.

  3. John, and please just refer to me as Santhkie, I clearly understand your logical argument. I know you mean well and must be hurting to see Sierra being so down and out in examination performance. I still believe that corporate participation in education should be limited to helping to finance anything that has to do with education. This does not imply that if a corporation wishes to start a school it should not be allowed, it can parallel itself with government run schools. This may even ease the pressure on government finances to enable it to adequately finance schools in its care. My only hope is that if this becomes a reality, all instructions should be in English because I can see foreigners jumping in to push their language and culture down our throats – introducing another era of recolonisation.

    If I know us well, opening syndicates run by both the government and private sectors will be seen by those put in charge as a fertile ground for corruption,; they will resurrect the dead and give them a teaching job and tell them they will give them their salary when they (the administrators) join them on the other side. They will be doing all this, while charging students phenomenal fees. What we need John, are well motivated teachers and administrators, minus the ministers responsible for education who should be sacked. They all have PhDs but are useless. I am ready to bet anything that we have Sierra Leoneans (not necessarily PhD holders) who can transform our educational system if given the resources. Believe me when I tell you that you have a good heart for mother Sierra Leone.

  4. I had to come back to ask Mr Mannah a question : Mr Mannah, can you please elaborate on what role the corporate sector should play in our educational system? If I understand you correctly you are advocating for the privatisation of our schools – if you have money you can go to school, otherwise you can fall through the cracks for all anybody cares. I believe a move in this capitalist direction embraces insurmountable social ills. Society will now have young people without basic education and no skills; thus they become misfits and cursed to a life of being a liability to society.

    I must also add that while it is helpful to understand what some experts have written on a subject, we should always try to carve something out it that is uniquely our own, based on who we are as a people. What works in Europe or North America cannot always be transplanted in Sierra Leone or Africa because we are different. We have the ability to bend any evidence-based theory to suit us; we just lack the tenacity.

    • Thanks for your comment and insight Mr. Santhkie Sorie. The simple answer to your question is no. I am not suggesting that the private sector or corporations take over the running of the school system in Sierra Leone. My hypothesis is that the private sector can play a strategic role to develop an educational production function that is more competitive than the one produced by the public school system, that led to the mass student failure in the WAEC 2020 exams. A private sector led educational production function will allow ordinary Sierra Leoneans, maybe even teachers with some entrepreneurial mindset to seize the opportunity that has presented itself to assemble factors of production and offer syndicate classes in subjects like Mathematics, English Language, Science subjects like Biology, Chemistry and Physics in a more efficient manner.

      If several syndicates can offer these services to the 135,000 students who need this service to prepare for the 2021 WAEC exams, it will engender competition that can only lead to “the best” allocation of resources to the benefit of all the parties concerned. The obverse will be even worse, because these students are not capable of preparing themselves to retake the exams and succeed. A worst case scenario will be to allow them drop out as High School graduates with very limited opportunities to join the labor market with their limited education.

      The odds we all know is stacked against poorly educated folks even in the developed world, not to talk about Sierra Leone with youth unemployment hovering around 70 percent. Creating the enabling environment therefore, even through a public-private partnership to help these students retake these exams and gain the requisite credits will be an effective and efficient allocation of government funds.

    • As we grapple with the challenges facing our education system, the worst case scenario is, if this reckless government under Bio, decides to invite private companies to bid to run our education system, It will not only deal a mortal blow to access free quality education in Sierra Leone, but it will set us back a generation in trying to educate our future leaders of tomorrow. Indeed, private providers, or independent organisations are independent of government oversight, both financially, and in some cases operationally.

      Although they will argue otherwise, boasting about how transparent they are and they are just trying to help out in the local communities they live, the reality speaks for itself. The Lebanese schools, Cardinal educational Enterprise in Campbell Street Freetown and the all white American missionary school in Kabala. These institutions operated a mini apartheid system in Sierra Leone. Their students never mixed with the locals. Unless you are born an American, there is no fat chance of you attending these educational institutions.

      They make their own rules and are answerable to no one, but themselves. It is like any other business, looking to make quick profit, and watching their profit margins. They are the root cause of inequality, and certainly against the advancement of social mobility in our country. They only cater for the rich in society, in this case our corrupt politicians, and anyone else that happens to have deep pockets and money to burn. If you are lucky enough to be born with a silver spoon dangling from your mouth, as opposed to the rest of us, which is the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans, surely it will be like putting the last nail on the coffin, or extinguishing any future educational aspirations you may have.

  5. Whoever contrived the idea that Krio should be the language of instruction in schools, should be taken outside and shot; it underlines Sierra Leone’s continued decline and very soon we shall find ourselves the scum of not just Africa but the world. Whether one likes it or not, English has become the lingua franca of the world. As a people we have trouble thinking through anything we want to do before adopting and adapting it. It used to be that children started school in class 1 at age 5. In class 7 they took the Selective Entrance Examination and went to Form 1. In the fifth form they took their O’Levels. Now in their early teenage years students would decide whether they wanted to carry on to do their A’Levels. In any case, they were now knocking on the doors of colleges and universities at home and abroad. What was wrong with such a straightforward and simple system?

    The most interesting thing was that right from age five we were taught in English. Some of us started off without knowing how to construct a single sentence in English but we had dedicated teachers. This marks the difference between now and then. All this talk about human capital development, free education and so on will never take off until we go back to the drawing board to see where we tripped that has made us to perform badly in WAEC exams. Again one has to give the example of Rwanda. To cut a long story short, President Paul Kagame switched from French to English upon taking power in 1994 mainly because of how he perceived Paris in the genocide of that year. He did not completely abolish French, it has just taken second place to English while not forgetting the local language which all Rwandans speak. Is this not what is called leadership?

    With modern technology, teaching in general has become much easier. Singapore is majority Chinese but there are also Malays, Indians and other ethnic groups but English is the official language. Our leaders should pay more attention to how Singapore did it and less on stealing the nation’s resources. Using Krio as the language of instruction in any school subject, leads students to an ill-fated future. No wonder they perform so disastrously in WAEC exams.

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