Why schools are central to economic recovery in developing countries like Sierra Leone

Dr. David Moinina Sengeh & Jacob Jusu Saffa: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 April 2021:

Just over a year ago, Covid-19 drove the world into lockdown, leaving more than one billion children and students in developing countries shut out of school.

Many countries cut short the academic year, hundreds of thousands of teachers stayed at home, and governments froze education budgets or redirected funds to health programmes.

That left us needing to take swift action to avoid setting back progress towards access to universal education, and to ensure quality learning for all.

In low and middle-income countries, the dangers of lost learning are particularly high for girls, who face greater risks of early marriage and teenage pregnancy.

So, as the world slowly reopens, now is the time to double down on our commitments to equitable education by increasing our budgets. This is not just prudent; it is just and cost effective — both for our countries’ broader development and to better prepare for future pandemics.

In Sierra Leone, President Julius Maada Bio has been pivotal in placing human capital at the centre of the government’s agenda, spreading a vision of inclusive national development through education. He made this a priority for Ministers and officials in education and finance through regular, high-level meetings. This engagement has cemented strong relations with teachers.

As someone who grew up in a rural community, he will have seen the importance of schooling and the damage inflicted during the civil war of the 1990s. Conflict undermined the education system, and its heavy legacy today is reflected in low levels of adult literacy, which have constrained the country’s progress.

If we delay because we think funding education today is expensive, it will only become more costly.

The government’s flagship project is the Free Quality School Education programme, launched in 2018, which has expanded universal access to public education to all pre-primary, primary and secondary school students. The State pays for all examinations, and for textbooks, exercise books and other learning materials including sports equipment in government and government-assisted schools. The government has also expanded school meal programmes in the most vulnerable chiefdoms across the country.

Sierra Leone is a low-income country with a significant debt burden and high needs for funding in every sector. Yet, since 2018, we have increased investment in education, which receives about 22 per cent of the annual discretionary budget. We have expanded the number of approved schools eligible for public financial support to three-fifths of the total, notably in rural areas.

We recruited more than 5,000 new teachers in 2019, raised all teaching salaries by 30 per cent in 2020 and, in March this year, completed the promotion and reassessment of more than 4,000 members of the teaching profession. Support for their wages, coupled with investment in continuing professional development, enhances essential human capital in the education sector. (Photo: Basic education minister – David Sengeh).

We have already reaped returns, with more permanent classrooms built and enrolment up by a third in the past three years. We have achieved gender parity in primary and junior secondary schools, a greater focus on science and technology and improved outcomes as more students pass examinations and progress through secondary and into tertiary education.

Every government should take the lead in funding and strengthening its own national education system. Support from other countries, charities and the private sector has also played an important role by adding resources and has proved invaluable in Sierra Leone.

However, it is essential that — in all countries — these partners align their support with government programmes and priorities. To ensure the best results, they should offer complementary support to fill gaps while avoiding duplication or distraction, and demonstrate flexibility in their projects as our needs evolve.

For example, while the State has paid teachers, supported school meals and purchased teaching and learning materials, donors have helped with capital expenditure to build new classrooms and buy furniture. Local and international non-governmental partners and the private sector have supported community teachers.

During the pandemic, Sierra Leone paid the highest sum ever to support more than 400,000 candidates taking transitional examinations to continue to the next stage of their education. (Photo: Finance minister – Jacob Jusu Saffa). 

With our development partners, we have explored the use of technology, such as radio-based teaching, by distributing solar-powered handsets to children — especially girls. We closed schools in March 2020 when the first case of Covid-19 was recorded.

While building our programme to support remote learning, our primary objective was the safe return to school. We provided face masks for all pupils, thermometers for each school and trained teachers in emergency response in preparation for reopening in early October 2020.

We have used the lockdown to introduce and promote a policy on radical inclusion in schools for girls, prioritising the poorest, those in rural areas, who are pregnant or who have disabilities. We will invest in girls’ boarding homes and hostels for vulnerable youths in cities.

When the entire school year has been cancelled in so many countries, it is important to consider the most vulnerable. We highlight these small positive steps to underscore that — now more than ever — we must invest in education and place equity at the centre of our recovery and development.

At a time when the entire school year has been cancelled in so many countries, it is important to consider the most vulnerable — for example, the poor rural girl with a disability. When we do this, our economies will be better off, human capacity enhanced and our countries more equipped to fight this scourge.

There are currently many demands on resources. But, if we delay because we think funding education today is expensive, it will only become more costly to tackle in two years’ time and still more so in a decade. Governments must realise that investing in education is the best way to sustain our countries now and better prepare for health and development in the future.

About the authors:

Dr. David Moinina Sengeh is Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Mr. Jacob Jusu Saffa is Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance.

5 Comments

  1. This rush to copy cat the rich industrial west’s tech progress is silly and absurd. By 1969 and early seventies when the Americans and Russians were landing on the moon, the Chinese were still laying the foundation for what they are today. The mandarins didn’t rush to copy neither the Russians nor the Americans in their technical surge, but focused on their needs with eyes on the ball. Why are we running all over the place trying to do everything at the same time. Building good schools, teachers training, and telecommunication infrastructures is fundamental to any development goal. Where is the pipe borne water for healthy living, where is the uninterrupted electricity for the very digital age thing we continue to throw monies at.

    How many in sierra Leone has access to computers, and just how many can afford the cost of data to maintain a healthy stay on the internet. As long as we refuse to walk before running, nothing is going to come out of the superfluous development programs we continue to sing. The Chinese developed their own way and at their own time. Provide reliable water supply , uninterrupted electricity and affordable telecommunication services first before you talk about ‘digital’ this and that. Placing the horse before the cart is all we love doing and do at best.

  2. Well so far so good. The lyrics and the hymns are being sang from the same dais, repeating the same untruths verging to the absurdity.Bio and his Ministers are sounding little bit like broken records.This is their desperate attempt to justify their lackluster performance since taking office three years ago. They are seeking out to reach two audiences. Their SLPP diehard supporters, and the international financial institutions that keep giving them free money. More like this ministers are preaching to the converted. The vast majority of the population that is struggling to feed their families have stop listening to your flimsy excuses. As the all aphorism goes, if you keep repeating the same lie, people will tend to believe you. So when you hear these two Ministers repeat the same message about the president flagship free education, its nothing short of telling the voting public, that was the only election promise made, and the only one that was honoured.

    As for the rest, like corruption, creating a secure environment to attract foreign investors, to bring the country together, is still working progress. The reality of course, Sierra Leoneans are sick to the teeth about these excuses. Bio and his government have failed the people of Sierra Leone. A man like Dr David M Sengeh should know better. Instead of being the solution he is becoming part of the problem. The best you could have done is to lead by example, by staying clear of all corruption allegations. Whether you are guilty of corruption and nepotism as alleged in the Africanist Press or not, those allegations should not be associated with your name peiod.

    We know corruption is the main problem in our country. Its nothing new. Otherwise, other politicians with inclination of wanting to be corrupt, will see you as their poster boy they want to emulate. If we have at least one government minister that is not tainted with corruption allegations, then at some point that will filter through to the others. Right now every one seems to be at it.

  3. Ministers Sengeh and Saffa,two of President Bio’s blue-eyed boys, are simply echoing here what their master was singing about just a couple of days ago on national television: the tremendous success their government has achieved through its flagship programme of ‘Free Quality Education’ from primary right through to senior secondary schools in every corner of our country. To hear the President and his Ministers waxing lyrical in quick succession about education and its centrality to development in our country has an unmistakable and uncomfortable edge of stridency, iterativeness and predictability to it, bordering on redundancy and pointlessness. A tune played from a monochord, monotonous, lacking complexity and variety. In short, a cliche, something worn out, outmoded, clearly irritating to say the least.

    Indeed one cannot help feeling that the President and his Ministers are desperate in their search for an argument justifying their claim to the offices they continue to hold, as evidence of their government’s incompetence and corruptness keeps stacking up thanks among other things, to the series of increasingly indisputable revelations by the Africanist Press of gross financial imppropriety in high places. The sense that a government that is drowning in sleaze and its own incompetence is desperate to clutch for dear life at a ‘free quality education’ straw as the year of reckoning 2023 inexorably approaches, is reinforced by the two Minister’s dubious assertion that in just three short years their administration has already reaped big rewards, in the form of increases in the number of permanent classrooms being built and of students being enrolled, not to speak of the achievement of gender parity and of the growing number of students making it through senior secondary schools to institutions of further and higher learning.

    Where, one must ask, are the figures supporting such grand claims; real figures, not simply figures plucked out of thin air, or referenced in glib, broad, vague terms of little significance? It is perhaps instructive of the two Minister’s and their government’s penchant for lying through their teeth when one considers that in two or so years running students in the country have been failing in numbers catastrophic a key stage school exam, to the great embarrassment of the nation as their counterparts in say the Gambia. Ghana and Nigeria seem to have been doing rather well. As 2023 approaches, reader, expect more of the same from our President and his Ministers: EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION. A mere slogan, as useless as that other high sounding but no less vacuous mantra: NEW DIRECTION.

  4. Education colleges must be fundamental to better industrial return. There is no hesitation that 2020 has presented challenges the world never expected or imagined. Unfortunately, we lost many lives, and many livelihoods were negatively affected. Despite ongoing challenges and restrictions which are in place, it is important to look forward hoping better days are ahead. In recent weeks, positive news about successful vaccines has been encouraging with a potential end to this pandemic finally in sight. While the pandemic will eventually pass – the economic recovery will be incredibly challenging and could leave a mark on society for many years to come. With the proper support and acknowledgment, an opportunity exists for further education colleges to play a crucial role in this recovery, not least by providing a skilled workforce. For many years, it has overshadowed the further education sector. However, because of significant investment by the Government for the Economy in innovative facilities, it is in a powerful position moving forward to support communities across Sierra Leone.

    We ultimately owe it to future generations to develop an educational pathway that is fit for purpose. For too long, the importance of technical qualifications gets overlooked and undervalued. Despite this, it is the case that the further education sector facilitates is through a Higher National Diploma, Foundation Degree or Higher Level Apprenticeship, the solid foundation on which Sierra Leone’s recovery can recover – can be and will facilitate further. We cannot underestimate the task at hand. The economic challenges which lie ahead of Sierra Leone are exceptional and unfortunately, a severe recession is likely in 2021. The fear of unemployment will frighten many and indeed, may have already become a reality in Sierra Leone. Re-skilling the workforce to meet the developing economic landscape remains challenging, but it is the case that regardless of the individuals’ past background or strengths, the further education colleges are best placed to re-skill many in Sierra Leone.

    It is also unfortunately true that those who are poorest in society remain disproportionately affected and will continue to be so, therefore; it is important to highlight that across the further education sector in 2018/19 show no statistics of regulated enrolments equating enrolments were from the most deprived quintiles in Sierra Leone. The economic recovery must include every part of Sierra Leone and again the further education sector will help to ensure economic development. Collectively, the government must focus on building the skills which both the economy and businesses require for the future. Productivity and new skills will become even more important soon, and employers will look for innovative skills to meet the challenges they face. With over 900 existing partnerships already established with employers and community organizations, our further education colleges are at the heart of communities and can acknowledge the fast pace of change in industry while effectively equipping those it educates for the workplace in the private industries in Sierra Leone. It is only by working together and in tandem that we can reinvigorate our society and economy in the time ahead. For too long our further education sector has remained overshadowed and devalued, it is now time to bring it out of the dims once and for all.

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