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Does Vocational Education Count?

May 29, 2915 By Ann Marie Dumbuya

Imagine you having to use your meager resources to send your child to school to help him or her attain the necessary knowledge to break the cycle of poverty in your family. Now imagine this child who symbolizes all your hopes and dreams for the future having to drop out of school and not being able to attend university because you could not afford to pay the required fees. Is it a waste of time to have sent that child to school in the first place? This was the raging debate in Gbomsamba last weekend between a concerned parent and the NRA boss. While advocating for educational support for children in the village to NRA’s Commissioner-General, Madam Haja Kallah-Kamara, one man argues passionately that being unable to fund one’s child’s higher education is a waste of scarce resources since without university education, children cannot aim for higher heights. Taking the opposite view, Madam Kallah-Kamara explains that just being able to read or write is an accomplishment in itself. She argues that during the course of their schooling, very bright children may benefit from scholarships which they would otherwise not have enjoyed if they were illiterate. Furthermore, she went on, children and youth can use their education to acquire further livelihoods skills.

In remote communities like Gbomsamba, children drop out of school for a number of reasons. According to Michael Sesay, the head teacher of the primary school at Gbomsamba, some children are needed at their parents’ farms to help boost farm labour while others, especially girls, spend more time at home doing household chores like fetching water for their families’ use than they do at school. Others are engaged in petty trading whilst some live too far from the nearest school to attend classes on time. He said many parents of mostly primary school-aged children in the village cannot afford to buy school uniforms or the necessary learning materials for their children. Many girls missed out on formal education due to early marriage and teenage pregnancy, or discriminating cultural practices. He however stressed that with the advent of NRA’s development intervention in the community, things are gradually improving.

“NRA’s interest in the community extends far beyond refurbishing and furnishing school buildings. The NRA Commissioner-General has taken an intense interest on attitudes about education and schooling. I have to say I am really impressed to see the NRA using a child-focused development approach to bring prosperity and sustainable development to Gbomsamba. It is like looking towards the future. Parents are continuously being motivated to send their children to school and they are so in awed with the Commissioner-General that they believe sending their kids to school will help them be like the NRA boss, which is good indeed. Haja-Kallah is always imploring parents to take advantage of education for individual, family, community and national development while encouraging girls to emulate the examples of role models. We hope this will reduce absenteeism, improve academic performance and both primary and secondary school graduation rates.”

The NRA has been partnering with the Kids and Girls Advocacy Networks—local non-governmental organizations—in implementing a ‘Children’s Mentorship Programme’. Alimatu Bangura, a student from the Kids Advocacy Network said that they have had their work cut out for them. “The children of Gbomsamba having met many successful people from the NRA have big dreams, which is pretty amazing. We no longer have to teach them how to dream and believe in those dreams. Our collaborative approach together with the Girls Advocacy Network is to nurture their confidence and self‐esteem to maximize potentials. We empower children and young people in the village, especially girls, with the tools, knowledge and assurance they need to achieve their dreams, while serving as mentors to help set goals, keep them motivated and focused on their schoolwork, introduce them to new ideas and opportunities that would better prepare them for college or other livelihood training.

“Definitely, the construction of a library and computer school would help them learn how to type and use a computer and hopefully other technologies, which will expand their career possibilities. It is my belief that with our guidance, they would learn how to apply for college tuition assistance to obtain higher education. Certainly, you will agree with me that having a variety of people positively involved in children’s lives in a remote community like this would provide them with new opportunities and experiences that would help them grow and gain self‐confidence. We are gradually developing a positive relationship with the children here and building awareness of their basic human rights and helping them understand how to protect these rights,” Ms Bangura explained.

Research has shown that without access to education, children in poor households would remain in the vicious cycle of poverty. It has been argued that with education, children, families, communities and even nations can break the cycle of poverty for themselves and for future generations. However, when children drop out of school, is their education useful? To answer this question, one must understand the relationship between skills development and access to livelihoods. Skills development equips individuals with trade skills required to make a living, meet basic needs and improve personal well-being. The ultimate aim is for such skills to contribute to poverty reduction and economic growth. Skills development is a broad concept that goes beyond skills acquired in formal education to other forms of skills that prepare youth and adults for the world of work ranging from practical occupational skills, informal learning on the job, apprenticeship and enterprise-based training.

Educational structure in Sierra Leone

Many educational systems in West Africa including Sierra Leone divide secondary education into vocational and academic paths. The 6-3-3-4 (now 6-3-4-4) system, which was introduced in 1993, stipulates six-year primary education, three-year junior and senior secondary schooling, and four-year university education. Clearly, vocational education was initially designed to be provided within the formal school system as part of secondary education. Based on this system, basic education can be obtained after nine-years of schooling, after which depending on grades, pupils can either continue their education in an academic track, or pursue technical vocational education which aims at producing lower and middle level workforce.

If low levels of accumulated human capital will result to corresponding low educational outcomes such as productivity and earning, then one would argue that vocational education, which is designed for the less academically able, will limit career options and create income inequality. While well performing students will proceed onto higher education, obtain quality educational qualifications, and enjoy improved access to labour markets and higher incomes, vocational education on the other hand rather seems like a dead end and last resort. Some may argue that this form of education has a lower socio-economic value in society and creates or reproduces social hierarchy, inequalities and exclusion.

Nevertheless, to be productive, a country needs to create a workforce that will service all sectors of its economy. The importance of skills development in integrating illiterates and school drop-outs to improve productive capacities for poverty reduction, and overcoming social disadvantages, cannot be overemphasized. Since the end of the 11 years civil conflict in the country in 2002, the structure of vocational education was significantly altered from being mainly part of the formal school system to be provided through training centers operated outside the formal education system to reintegrate ex-combatants, school dropouts and rape victims into society, and rebuild livelihoods to boost economic recovery. Entry requirement, training curriculum, and the duration of training programmes were all altered to fit the objectives and budget of implementing non-profit organisations. Most skills training schools offer courses in carpentry, masonry, metalwork, and auto-mechanic (mainly offered to men); hairdressing, catering, sewing, and gara tie dying (mainly to women). This is perhaps why many people look down on vocational education.

The Way Forward

For skills training to be widely accepted as a viable alternative education, it must be seen to be meeting its desired development outcomes in improving labour force participation and income generation. This implies that skepticism about the nature, value, quality and labour market relevance of trade skills must be addressed. Despite these expressed concerns, it must be stated that any form of education regardless of level of attainment is crucial. This is why government and development partners have increased efforts to improve school enrolment and retention rates at all levels of education, particularly at the primary level. It is my opinion that NRA’s Commissioner-General was right to send a message that being able to read or write is an accomplishment for any child. How to create a balance between basic, vocational and higher educational is a question for the Ministry of education.