The Sierra Leone education debate: Quality versus Quantity?

Elkass Sannoh: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 14 September 2019:

The most topical issue in Sierra Leone today, arguably, is the West Africa Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) results which have exposed the rottenness of the country’s education system.

I am premising my article on a speech delivered by the 46th Governor of Texas who later became the 43rd President of the United States of America, George Walker Bush. In his address to the nation on 17th January, 2001, former President of the United States, George W. Bush said, “We cannot move ahead without education. The first order of business is education reform, and we have started strong. On Tuesday, I sent to Congress a package of reforms to turn last year’s pledges into this year’s laws. Our country must offer every child, no matter what his or her background or accent, a fair start in life with a quality education. No one is content with the status quo. Most are open to new ideas. Everyone agrees at least that the problems are serious and action is urgently needed. We must go back to the fundamentals of compulsory early reading and regular testing, better incentives for excellence, and rigid consequences for failure.”

The George Bush Approach

President Bush’s approach can be applied to Sierra Leone, if we are to reverse the rottenness in our education. Firstly though, Bush admitted that US cannot progress without education. And by order of priority, he said education reform was urgently needed.

To demonstrate his intention into action, he lobbied the US Congress to turn his pledges on reforming education into law. He said in as much as everyone admitted that the problems were serious, the status quo must be reversed with new innovative ideas to revive the educational standard. The former President provided a lasting solution, “We must go back to the fundamentals of compulsory early reading and regular testing, better incentives for excellence, and rigid consequences for failure.”

The George Bush approach means, making education compulsory and ensure quality service delivery. Provide better incentives that will attract qualified teachers. Create conducive learning environment for the pupils. Institute effective monitoring in schools and punish defaulters or state saboteurs. Lobby Parliament to legislate a law on education and ensure rigid enforcement.

Athens of British West Africa

The standard of education in Sierra Leone before and immediately after independence was excellent – one of the best around the world. With the University of Sierra Leone established in 1827, Sierra Leone was called the “Athens of West Africa.” Unfortunately, that educational system fell on a granite rock. Over a long period of neglect by the successive Governments, Sierra Leone witnessed an erosion of standards in its educational system.

Primary school children started class 1 at age 5 and finished class 7 at age 12. It was a seven-year program at the end of which the pupil was to take an external examination called the Common Entrance, later renamed the Selective Entrance Examination.

At the end of the first five years of secondary school, the student was to take the General Certificate of Education Examination (GCE Ordinary Level). Those who failed, depending on the grades would repeat the exams or enter primary teacher college or technical/vocational institution. Those who passed the exam would either enter the Sixth Form, where they would spend two years preparing for university, or enter university at the preliminary level.

At the end of the Sixth Form, students were to take the Advanced Level Examination. Those who passed this exam would enter university at the intermediate level, skipping the preliminary level. Those who failed would enter university at the preliminary level. This system was largely corrupt free and the foundation was solid.

The 6-3-3-4 System of Education

I am proud to be among the first products of the new system of education, 6-3-3-4. The system came during the decade long civil war which saw the destruction of the foundation for our education system. Some schools were burnt down; and the learning environment was not only hostile but also not attractive.

The 6-3-3-4 system was meant to encourage pupils or young people to have basic education but even when the war came to an end in 2002, successive Governments failed to prioritize education.

The first six years consist of primary education followed by three years of junior secondary education. At the end of junior secondary school, pupils take the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) which, together with their continuous assessment, determines whether they will continue their education at the Senior Secondary Schools (SSS) or proceed to technical and vocational institute to pursue courses in Plumbing, Bricklaying, Architecture, Carpentry, Auto-mechanics, Catering or Secretariat studies, among a host of other technical and vocational education programmes.

For pupils in the SSS, at the end take the WASSCE, which is conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) in readiness for University. But this system failed because the Government undermined the 6-3-3-4 system by ignoring the quality aspect.

Attitudes of Pupils and Parents

A Board member of the National Revenue Authority, Lawyer Jusu Kallon said, “We have a younger generation with no passion for education and hard work generally. Theirs is a lost one. If they can demonstrate for latitude in the exam hall, why are we surprised at this outcome?”  He said the poor attitude of our young boys and girls towards education is a contributing factor for the massive failure we are witnessing today.

He said, “Our brothers and sisters are not self-motivated. Self-motivation is key to jumping the academic hurdle. There is clearly misplaced priority with students these days. This crop of boys and girls has no appetite for knowledge acquisition.” He claimed that the current generation of young boys and girls are lazy and therefore described them as a “disgrace.”

I could not agree with Lawyer Kallon much more. What is the responsibility of the parents? The positive upbringing of the child rests on the head of the parents. This is why the parent is being blamed on poor performance (be it on education or moral behaviour) of the child. Majority of us hailed from a poor family background, but our parents forced us to be respectful to elders, teach us good moral values and behaviour and taught us about the importance of education.

We could have become victims of a failed system if our parents were not around to guide and guard our steps. Bad parenting has affected the education of many children today.

WAEC & Operation Pay Yourself

WAEC is the devil in town that has undermined the core values of education in the country. They used to pay examiners six hundred Leones (Le600) to mark one examination script.

In 2014, I was fortunate to be an examiner, to mark “Government”. All examiners were to be paid nine hundred Leones (Le. 900) per script and a night allowance of fifteen thousand Leones (Le.15, 000) for only provincial examiners. The night allowance was a mocking sum for accommodation for provincial examiners. All examiners received five thousand Leones (Le.5000) for Lunch during the one week Coordination. Internal transportation was by zones and those examiners coming from Shell/Kissy only received three thousand Leones (Le.300) per day.

As an examiner in 2014, I marked 630 examination scripts, amounting to five hundred and sixty seven thousand Leones (Le.567, 000); WAEC still owes me and several other examiners. Ask WAEC if they have paid those examiners for 2014 WASSCE.

From the analysis above, you will agree with me that examiners take up marking with the intention of ‘paying themselves’ rather than the WAEC pittance which was not forthcoming. In connivance with senior WAEC officials, some examiners are/were given their scripts to travel to the provinces or take it elsewhere where pupils are being coordinated to redo their scripts.

If WAEC officials received cash (bribes) from pupils even before the commencement of the exams, do we expect pupils to study? So WAEC is a cartel that advertises itself to undermine quality in education.

Ban (out of school) Extra Lessons 

Teachers are unwilling to teach during normal school hours. They prefer instead to concentrate on providing out of school lessons. Government should ban all teachers in Government assisted/supported schools from conducting extra (out of school) lessons.

Emphasis should be paid on additional teaching time in school, effective monitoring of teachers and review of the school curriculum. Teachers are undermining quality and therefore decongestion of classes will maximize quality. Above all, ban all camping of pupils for public exams.

National Security Risk

The Government should take a bold step and allow the current crop of pupils who massively failed to rewrite their WASSCE with the same facility accorded them to sit the 2019 WASSCE.

The Government will incur a huge financial burden but must give them a second chance to resit, in order to reduce the number of dropouts. Our youth are at risk. And, allowing our pupils to become dropouts will be a national security risk which is more of a threat than the financial burden. Youth unemployment is alarming and to abandon those who didn’t pass will be risky for the country.

Government of Sierra Leone

The people elect their Government to provide basic social services needed for their growth and the development of the country. The Government of Sierra Leone got it wrong from the inception of introducing the 6-3-3-4 system of education.

The Ernest Bai Koroma led APC Government wasted tax payers’ money by setting up the Gbamanja Commission. The Commission made fanciful recommendations but they were swept under the carpet. This is why the previous APC Government is a culprit of the massive examination failure.

According to the 6-3-3-4 policy, those who were/are not fortunate to pass the BECE after two or three attempts were to be enrolled at the technical and vocational schools. This was why not all schools were approved as senior secondary schools. (Photo: Author – Elkass Sannoh).

The blatant failure of previous Governments to prioritize education has got a rippling dastardly effect on the current foundation of our educational system. Indeed President Julius Maada Bio inherited one of the worst educational systems within the sub-region.

The good thing though, is that Bio is determined to ensure a speedy revival in regaining the lost glory.

We cannot achieve quality if the enabling learning environment is not provided. We cannot achieve quality if stringent monitoring is not put in place.

We cannot achieve quality if our teachers are not qualified. We cannot achieve quality if examiners are paid pittance by WAEC. We cannot achieve quality if teachers are demotivated and underpaid. It is now time to fix the system!

The Minister of Basic and Secondary Education, Alpha Timbo should now move from his comfort zone and ensure the George Bush approach is instituted.


  1. We do not need to copy the education structure from the west. The 6-3-3-4 structure in Sierra Leone is suitable for us. The most important thing above everything else is to invest in qualified, trained and experienced staff in the ministry, schools, universities and examination council. Make the conditions of service as well as continuous professional development a priority and hold them accountable. Every house or project needs a good foundation. For education, there is no greater foundation than the staff, especially the teachers, BEHIND EVERY SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONAL IS A TEACHER, BE IT FORMAL OR INFORMAL!

  2. The gentleman working hard to fight curruption in Sierra Leone is doing well. He has shown that he knows his job. My only concern in Sierra Leone is the govt needs to do things right to actually show that people know exactly what they are doing. You have to acquire certain skills to be able to do certain jobs or lead. Invest on people to train as professionals in every skills to ensure you are employing the right people to do the job; and job benefits to attract employees with the right qualification, and a reasonable pay rate,for a start.

  3. Former President Bush’s approach was a CAMPAIGN RHETORIC for his AMERICAN AUDIENCE. We don’t need his approach. Thanks and GOD BLESS YOU.

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