Why has Sierra Leone performed so badly in the 2019 WASSCE examinations?

Yusuf Bangura: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 7 September 2019:

Sierra Leoneans have been shocked by the outrageously poor results of the recently released West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE).

It has been reported that more than 95 percent of students who took the examination failed or did not obtain the five credits required for admission into universities.

This is not the first time that Sierra Leone’s students have performed poorly in WASSCE. Reports indicate that in 2017, about 40 percent of students did not obtain a single credit and only 5 percent had five credits.

This year’s lowest ever recorded pass rate of less than 5 percent may be due to the vigorous efforts by the authorities to clamp down on cheating during the examinations period. But the increase in the failure rate seems marginal.

The rot in Sierra Leone’s education system goes well beyond cheating.

In a comparative analysis of student performance in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Gambia covering the period 2008-10 (See www.natinpassadvantage.com), Nigeria outperformed Sierra Leone by extraordinarily wide margins (mostly more than 10 fold margins) in all 15 subjects listed.

Shockingly, in 2010, whereas the pass rates of Nigerian students for Biology, Chemistry, English, Maths and Physics were 49.65 percent, 50.7 percent, 35.1 percent, 41.9 percent and 51.2 percent respectively, those of Sierra Leone were 5.9 percent, 3.8 percent, 13.7 percent, 5.1 percent and 4 percent.

Even The Gambia that was a late developer in the field of education, outperformed Sierra Leone in most subjects between 2008 and2010.

The unacceptably poor performance of our students in such an important examination calls for serious reflection. I do not think that Sierra Leone’s education problem has been well conceptualised, despite the attention it has received in the last year and half as the new government rolls out its free education programme.

Is the Free Quality Education Programme tackling standards of performance?

School fees are clearly a strong barrier to education. The literacy rate for those aged 15 years or older is a mere 32 percent; despite a high enrolment rate, only 47 percent survive to the last grade of primary school; and 219,207 adolescents were reported to be out of school in 2017.

Fees and cost of books, uniforms, school lunch and transportation may account for much of the low participation rates in our school system.

The introduction of the free quality education programme, which abolished fees in government-supported schools and provided basic reading materials and transport services to students, has unquestionably removed some of the key barriers to participation.

However, a bigger problem in Sierra Leone is the collapse of standards or quality at all levels of our education system, including our universities.

So what are the underlying issues?

A large number of teachers are not qualified to teach, classrooms are overcrowded, teaching methods and curricula seem outdated.

Basic infrastructure for a healthy and productive learning environment is in a state of decay in many schools, and quality control measures are inadequate or non-existent.

Much of the problem can be traced to the 1980s when the economy experienced a massive contraction. A series of ineffective economic stabilization measures simply depressed incomes further, especially those of teachers; school supplies became erratic; moonlighting by teachers to make ends meet became common; and capacity to monitor and enforce standards sharply declined.

The war of the 1990s aggravated these problems. Many teachers left the profession for other countries or better opportunities in other local sectors. The first generation of highly qualified post-independence teachers retired; class sizes ballooned; and quality control took a nosedive.

Cheating, involving the participation of some teachers as a survival strategy, became the new normal.

Providing free education – thus opening up wider access, may be laudable. But in such an environment, and without a strong emphasis on quality, the free education programme is likely to lead to a waste of human capital, as the majority of our young people may become unemployable and unable to function in a modern economy.

A failure rate of 95 percent in WASSCE is bound to impact adversely, not only on the aspirations and careers of the affected students but also on society at large.

Thus, ninety-five percent of the potential human capital from this year’s cohort of young people is already being degraded or wasted.

Because of Sierra Leone’s resource and capacity constraints, it would have been useful for government to have adopted an incremental approach to rolling out its Free Quality Education Programme, by targeting the primary school level first.

The aim will be to ensure that all those who are supposed to be in school at that level are in school, and getting the right type and quality of education.

This would have involved providing at the primary level, more trained teachers and teaching materials, building more schools, upgrading the infrastructure of existing schools, and implementing quality control measures.

This process could take three to five years before moving on to the delivery of the next stage of the free quality education programme at the first three years of secondary school, which could be accomplished in a similar time period.

The final rolling out stage, could then focus on the last three years of secondary school education, with significant continuous emphasis on quality control, monitoring and improvement.

What is suggested here is similar to Rwanda’s route to free education. Rwanda introduced universal free primary education in 2003. It took the bold step of extending the programme of universality to the first three years of secondary school in 2009, after a major revamp of the education system and curricula. And in 2012, students in the last three years of secondary school were added to the programme.

In Rwanda’s case, despite the many challenges that remain (such as the financial unsustainability of the school feeding programme; gaps in the primary school completion rate, reckoned to have greatly improved but still at 69 percent in 2014; the persistence of double shift systems; and the need to further reduce failure rates in public exams), today there is migration of students from private to public schools. (Photo: President Paul Kagame of Rwanda).

This is because public schools are not only free, their quality is comparable to that of private schools.

It has been reported that some of Rwanda’s private schools have stopped operating because of lack of students (https://www.relocationafrica.com/private-schools-in-rwanda-close-down-as-public-schools-become-more-attractive-to-parents/).

In contrast, Sierra Leone’s free education programme can be described as a political project that seeks high visibility and quick wins.

The government wants to be seen to be delivering free education at all levels simultaneously. The quality part of the programme seems to have been added as an afterthought.

With limited resources and a long history of weak state capacity, we spread ourselves thinly by trying to implement free quality education across the 12-year span of our school system immediately. (Photo: President Bio of Sierra Leone).

It may not be advisable to reverse the free part of the programme, but the development of quality can be spaced out, with greater attention given to the primary school level at the start, before moving on to other levels.

When standards have collapsed, a systematic, bottom-up approach is likely to yield better results than doing everything at once haphazardly.

An incremental or a stage by stage approach to the delivery of the free quality education programme is obviously out of sync with the electoral cycle. But quality takes time to develop, especially after more than three decades of erosion of national standards.

A stage by stage programme delivery approach may not be appealing to politicians with short-term horizons, who want to demonstrate quick results and win the confidence of voters for mandate renewal. But it seems to me the appropriate thing to do.

5 Comments

  1. Am seriously sad for the government of sierra leone concerning the massive terrible wasce result, but how about those people whose results were withheld in 2018?

  2. Mr Exam Board huh? (lmao) Or should I say the 419 Board? Which do you prefer? How many students have you tutored not knowing how to construct simple sentences, not knowing how to use words in their correct places, not even remotely aware how to improve upon your tense in writing? If what you are doing is genuine, and you were robbed, why didn’t you just replace that same number? Why get a new one,and trouble yourself trying to reach people again by sending suspicious messages like this one?

    Sincerely, your story just doesn’t add up – First you said you were robbed, and lost a number in the process, then you insisted that you came to “angrily drop this note” because people were calling, and complaining to you that they have been ripped off.(lmao) So which number have they been calling to complain to you about being cheated? I thought you said it was no longer active? How many numbers do you have, and why weren’t students using them to contact you directly until they were screwed over? Hey Mister, your story just doesn’t ring true.

    Again, I find it strange to hear you say that, “You are the only reliable exam official in Nigeria,” a country with about a population of over 200 million people.(lol) How realistic does that sound to you? And why didn’t you give us your full name for the sake of credibility,and transparency? Why didn’t you Sir? Well, I have heard of people having tricks up the sleeve, but this is different, it looks more like a SCAM hidden up the sleeve – my regards to President Buhari, I truly appreciate him keeping you guys in check.(lol)…Rising Sun Will Rise Again.

  3. It pains me to my born marrow that all this people that claim to be exam officials has duplicated my write up online. Anyway am back again to the students that did not do well in there exams with my new phone number which is 07058236867 as my previous phone number is no longer active as I was robbed.

    I bring notification to you all again writing the on going and the finished following exams of any year WAEC,JAMB,NECO,WAEC GCE AND NECO GCE to be very wise not to call the wrong person for help in terms of fixing your bad results. I am james, The only and reliable exam official in Nigeria that can help you solve any problem you might be having with your result.

    Why is it that YOU STUDENTS CANT EVEN READ TO KNOW THE DIFFERENT AND REAL WAEC,JAMB,NECO,WAEC GCE AND NECO GCE OFFICIAL. Stop wasting your money by sending it to those that can not help you fix your result. Those testimony you read from all this people are fake as I am the only WAEC,JAMB,NECO,WAEC GCE AND NECO GCE official that can help you get your result problem solved without any problem.

    I don’t lie as all I do here is real as I felt I should help those that did not do well on there result with my power here. Note: My services is not free at all, As it cost some money. But I bet you all that I will be considerate to an extent. Here is my direct number: 07058236867 now, as I was robbed and the other number is no longer going through.

    Don’t bother calling me to disturb my peace if you know you are not serious at all. I am Mr JAMES by name and I work from 8am till 8:30pm, As I angrily came to drop this note myself because of the complains I get from the people that call me that they have been ripped off without help.

    +2347058236867

  4. There is no denying and no hiding from the fact! What happened to the [THOUSANDS] of young people who failed the 2019 WASSCE exams is unacceptable and should sound a wakeup call for the Government and for ALL Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad. This mass failure is symptomatic of a failed system and a chronic problem as highlighted by Yusuf, and reported in some of the articles on SL I have been reviewing for my current MA in Education at IoE in London (refer, for e.g. to Bentacourt, 2008; Wang, 2007 if interested).

    While well-meaning Sierra Leoneans continue to ponder and debate the underlying issues, my heart goes out to the VICTIMS: the thousands of our young people and their families whose dreams and efforts to climb the ladder of social mobility have been unfairly derailed.

    Urgent action is now needed to address the rot but, firstly, we must start with an intervention that will address the current situation of these students to prevent a loss of their human capital and the social returns. I take my heart off to Yusuf for providing this story with his insightful context, and I look forward to having this discussion with him when I arrive in Freetown next week to interview some teachers for my dissertation, interestingly, on inclusive education.

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