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.

11 Comments

  1. The public outrage over cheating in WASSCE is legitimate and understandable. However, it is important to understand that cheating is a function of the breakdown of standards in our educational system. More than 95 percent of students failed or did not get the right grades for university education in 2019.

    Students will want to take risks or cheat if they believe that their chances of success through legitimate means are a mere 5 percent or less. While there should be no compromise on the fight against cheating, we can only fully tackle this problem when the quality of education improves and students believe the chances of passing using legitimate methods are higher than the risks of cheating.

  2. Can we leave politics in our respective party headquarters and allow those who are qualified in this field to discuss with the current administration and stakeholders as to how to move forward in improving the educational standards of the country? Blaming this and that group does not solve the problem. We owe it to the children and the nation to come up with concrete solutions to this problem.

    It is going to take serious and rigorous discussions across all political and regional spectrum to provide meaningful solutions. We should avoid name calling and try to adhere to some semblance of decorum and human decency when we disagree with one another. We should all agree our beloved Sierra Leone has been saddled with bad governments, eleven years of civil war, Ebola disease, Mudslides and above all an unabated endemic corruption.

    Our natural resources meant to benefit us are stolen with the help of our fellow citizens. We solve our problems not by shouting at each other but by listening and coherently debating the important points. Let’s not disappoint Mama Salone!

  3. Apologies to the forum. I was not aware of the rules limiting the length of replies. Nevertheless, I hope my points are well taken. Thank you.

  4. The free education in Sierra Leone has not picked up traction, yet some were acting like they are anti private schools. Why? It will be a big mistake to undermine private schools. They bring diversity to the education system; and that is great. Also, free education means scholarship for all by the government. So, the government should subsidize the educstion of those who chose to attend private schools. After all, their parents work in Sierra Leone and they also pay taxes. Children who attend private schools have a lot to offer their country when they grow up. So, they should not be treated by anyone like they do not belong.

  5. Saidu Conteh, you are again exposing your bias. You do no good to help improve education standards by again blaming the SLPP administration. At the last count, I thought it takes five years of rigorous academic work at high school level to sit to the WASSCE and to pass in most subjects. I attended CKC in Bo and I know what it takes. The government has been in power less than two years. Also, you have erased from your mind the dismal results in 2017 and before, during the previous administration of Ernest Koroma. Please always state the truth and do not be offended brother.

  6. Interesting and soul searching article Yusuf. Thank you for letting me read your thoughts. A few years ago when someone said our parliamentarians are visionless it caused an uproar. I think it can now be said majority of our politicians are visionless. They only get into politics to take advantage of weak judiciary and endemic corruption.

    Of course you stated the lack of values and standards. Sierra Leone needs selfless and committed leaders with passionate interest to move the country from its morass.

  7. This should not be made into a political issue so we should stop casting stones lest some fall on us. 95% failure rate is not the result of one year whether the education is free or not. Do people really not understand that to improve quality, standards have to be set, and those who fall short will fail? Casting blame helps no one – when you point a finger at someone, four point back at you.

    Being apolitical and loving my country as I do, I will briefly cite a few facts for those who want to plot a way forward. (I know it is easy for any Tom, Dick or Sally to spout off on the internet but this is my area of expertise and I was involved in some of the projects I cite below).

    – In 2014 a new curriculum was in the pipeline. Unfortunately, Ebola and subsequent upheaval of the school system, prevented it from being implemented. It was a comprehensive policy which was intended to introduce a 21st century curriculum, methods of teaching and learning (T&L), and a school structure for primary and junior secondary which would have created a foundation on which quality education would have been built. The last government could not implement it, but it must surely be somewhere in the education ministry archives waiting for review, update and possible implementation.

    – The quick fix of the last govt of writing lesson plans for teachers (primary and secondary), supported by teacher and pupil handbooks (senior secondary) is unsustainable. You cannot build a house on shaky foundations. Many teachers cannot properly use these T&L materials as they possess neither the subject knowledge nor the pedagogical skills. In other words they often do not know the subject matter, and cannot teach it even if they did. Note I do not mention possession of teaching qualifications – let’s not even go there.

    My own slash and burn solution is to implement a 3-5 year teacher improvement plan with clearly stated areas of improvement and timelines for achievement. These could include, amongst others, planning lessons which show both knowledge of subject matter as well as how to transmit such knowledge, incorporating a variety of teaching methods, engaging pupils in active learning strategies, using assessment for learning, classroom management, and so on. Success will not be dependent on longevity of service but on meeting stated milestones. Failure to adequately improve will result in dismissal. This might have the teaching unions up in arms, but drastic times call for drastic measures.

    – The success of such a proposal relies heavily on teachers’ conditions of service. I am sure the ministry together with the Teaching Service Commission and the teaching unions are working on these. The remuneration for teachers has to be such that it removes all incentives for them to sell ‘acheke’, pamphlets, examination papers or promotion favours. Otherwise, ‘Oosai cow tie na day e go eat grass’.

    – The learning environment also plays a part. Poor classroom infrastructure and high teacher-pupil ratio both hinder the learning outcomes for pupils. Heavy investment in building classrooms for existing schools, approving new schools and hiring more (well trained and qualified) teachers will be required for the foreseeable future. Neither of themselves will solve quality issues and learning outcomes but they will go a long way to improve them.

    The above is not exhaustive by any means – for example, I have not mentioned the role of teacher training institutions. It is just to show that in as much as it is easy to criticise or decry a system, or even crow at perceived failures, it is much better to proffer solutions.

    By the way, even though progress can be monitored at NPSE and BECE, true success will not be known till pupils who start school at the start of the improvement cycle have sat to their WASSCE exams. Adjustments can be made along the way but this is at the least a 12 year project, so people wanting quick fixes need not apply.

    • ORDER, Mr.Olu Shanu. ORDER. Problem with the rules here. I reckon, we have been told by the EDITOR, to limit the number of paragraphs and sentences on our comments. But, it seems to me, you did not follow the rules or you simply forgot, which is possible.

      Your comment is brilliant and I respect your views. Also, I hope you will not feel offended by my observation. By the way, you are a star. Frankly, you are on a PLATFORM where FORUMITES are very vigilant and sometimes remind colleagues not to forget the rules. Sounds INQUISITIVE EH? Thanks Mr. Olu Shanu for your contribution. GOD BLESS YOU.

  8. WICKED to President Bio’s FREE QUALITY EDUCATION but, there is something WONKY to our educational system. DISCUSS.
    I will visit this article for further comment.

  9. Absolutely well written,Mr Yusuf Bangura. The candid, unbiased, pragmatic observations you have displayed in this comprehensive article of yours on our nations performance in the WASSCE 2019 examinations, are very rare and unmatched. Bravo!

    Now, if only this inept SLPP government can muster enough courage and humility, to put pride and arrogance aside, this priceless article of yours can be used as a manual,a flawless blueprint, that could easily help them reexamine, reorganise,and transform their Free Quality Education programme, making it invaluable for decades to come. 95 percent failure? Not surprised at all!

    This is what happens when you embark on ill advised projects, without laying a steady and proper foundation – the end result is DISGRACE! Adequate feasibility studies focusing on efficiency, cost management and sustainability, were waved off and brushed aside by the Bio government, because their aim was not to help the children of Sierra Leone, but to score high political marks instead. This government is a catastrophic disaster in the making, slowly unfolding and revealing itself like a snail, reluctantly coming out of its slimy shell.

    A 95 percent failure rate by students clearly speaks volumes about the government in power. It highlights the irrefutable truth no one wants to speak – that this SLPP government is full and overcrowded with fraudsters and con artists with fake or substandard degrees, that care very little about improvement in education or the standards of living of the struggling, poor masses. True.

    Since day one, I knew their Free Quality Education was a SHAM, intent on deceiving naive and gullible citizens and scoring high political points. But a lie will always remain what it is – even when disguised in robes of truth, it will eventually strip itself stark naked and reveal its truer self.

    95 percent failure are clearly, symbolic pointers, emphasizing the nakedness and vulnerabilities of our nation’s Education institutions. Give them your article sir and let it serve as a manual to be studied, by their disingenuous, armchair professors, being paid lots of dough, for doing absolutely nothing….Rising Sun Will Rise Again.

  10. Yes, that is a bad result. But for me, a former teacher, it was predictable. When I visited some schools in Sierra Leone, full packed classrooms, few learning materials, mostly frontal educatiom, seldom learning by doing, but learning by heart. External shine is more important than the meaning – for example the school uniform had to be always in proper condition.

    Another aspect is the qualification of some of the teachers. There has to be more further education. Teachers should earn more money! Perhaps the MPs should give up a little bit from their salaries.

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