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EDUCATION IN SIERRA LEONE: BUILD ON THE ROCK

September 20, 2019 

BY Andrew Keili

Build on the Rock, the Rock that ever stands,
Oh, build on the Rock, and not upon the sands;
You need not fear the storm, or the earthquake shock,
You’re safe for evermore if you build on the Rock.

This famous chorus by H. Ernest Nichol contains an apt recommendation for our education sector in Sierra Leone which is facing storms of “Bahamian” proportions, threatening to mess up our human development and productivity aspirations for generations. Nichol used this metaphor of building on the rock as he had begun a study program in Civil Engineering but decided to study music at Oxford University instead.

I am not going to pretend that everything was ok with education in “our days”- like an Uncle who claimed he was so clever at school that when he came first, there would be no second or third but the next in line would be given fourth position! But honestly it is true that in “our days”, teachers were given respect and parents and students valued education at whatever level. I recall that even people who went up to University and fell by the way side, not completing their courses valued the partial degrees they gave themselves. Someone would claim to have a “BA Inter” or a “BSc Inter”-and these were good teachers-TWWWs. For you, young ones TXWWW is “Teacher wova wova wova wa”.  Don’t ask me what this means- ask any Mende man.

Anyway in “our days”, I recall we were in awe of our teachers and our quest for knowledge was beyond compare. My friend, a classmate who had joined us in Form 3 at CKC from a village school was on the first day of class so mesmerized by trigonometry which we had started mastering in Form 2 that when Father Curran did a revision in class, he quietly listened without understanding. After class he ran after him shouting-“Please Father, this sin” (as in sinner)! I don’t understand your sin! It was only after further questioning that Father Curran knew he was referring to “sin” (as in sine, cosine, tangent) and not to any sin, the good Reverend Father may have committed. Truth be told, he turned out later to be a top student and is now a to Engineer in this country.

Now to our recent examination results. To many people the recent bad results, especially in the WASCE examinations did not come as a surprise. For years we have known that cheating was prevalent in all nearly examinations. Those who run credible institutions have known this, because of the poor standards of many who come to seek admission and the attitude of invigilators at examination centers. I know of a school proprietress who even tests some prospective teachers on the very test papers meant for their potential students!-some do fail! Those who run tertiary institutions or teach there know very well the standards of the students leaves a lot to be desired. They also often join in the cheating themselves and we end up producing poor quality graduates in most fields. We who employ them know it is pot luck to get those who are likely to perform and, frankly many employers already have it in their minds that most qualifications are not worth the paper they are written on and require other stringent means of testing applicants before gradually taking the “best of the worst”. The fact that foreign employers have little regard for our educational qualifications is the worst kept secret.

Many people have analysed the WASCE results which indicated that 95% of the students did not meet the University intake requirements. The results are terrible and much worse than in previous years in which we still did not perform well. Yusuf Bangura  recently stated in an article that “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.”. Clearly standards have collapsed and we cannot hold a candle to Nigeria and Ghana – not even to lowly Gambia. Oh how the Athens of West Africa has fallen!

Many reasons have been proffered for the drop in standards from the collapse of standards or quality at all levels, large number of teachers are not qualified to teach, overcrowded classrooms, teaching methods, out of date and poor quality control measures.

Even examination preparation is poor. We heard the other day about bar codes on examination sheets being inadvertently torn off by invigilators who did not know about their significance and about the use of poor quality HB pencils whose shading may not be captured in the automatic marking.

The sad reality is also that cheating has become so pervasive that it has become a thriving industry  at official examination centres, “house centres” set up and involving teachers and multiple stakeholders. Students have taken this as a “right to cheat” as a basic human right and parents sometimes get in on the act. Honesty is eschewed and during the recent monitoring of centers some honest invigilators were chased out by others, Even the Police, not to be left out of anything are said to have got in on the act. The cheating attitude is pervasive.

Kudos however to the President Bio and his government for making it clear that they are bent on stamping this out. Despite his recent snafu, the ACC boss is to be commended for his no-nonsense attitude towards this blot on our country.

The sad part of all of all of this is that we are creating a nation of people who are not fit for the tasks they may have at hand for the future in the workplace and meritocracy has been thrown out the window. Providing high-quality university education is central to the task of national development. Failing to do so will hamper economic growth, weaken democracy and good governance, and leave a generation without the opportunity to pursue their ambitions for a better future.

Many will in any case inevitably end up being unemployed and join their colleagues in the long employment queue. A major challenge in Sierra Leone is creating enough jobs for its growing population. I don’t know what the figures for Sierra Leone, but a recent World Bank report estimates that as many as 11 million young people in Sub-Saharan Africa will be joining the job market every year for the next decade. Too few graduates gain the skills they need to find work. Employers across the region complain of a lack of basic, technical and transferable skills. The issue of employability is certainly a problem. It could take years for a graduate to even secure a job. Employers are concerned about the work readiness of graduates. There are significant gaps in their IT skills, personal qualities (e.g. reliability) and transferable skills (e.g. team working and problem solving). This is not surprising as in many cases, lecturers lack adequate qualifications and preparation themselves, and transmission-based pedagogy and rote learning are commonplace. Universities have also suffered a severe lack of physical resources, including buildings, laboratories and libraries.

Many have blamed the government for rushing through the free education programme and suggest it should have been phased, ensuring that with limited funds and problems of organizing a sector that has been moribund for decades, only a gradualist approach would help solve the problems. All of this may be true, but this is all now water under the bridge. The situation is so serious that “Monday morning quarterbacking” will be of no use. The Free Quality Education is upon us and  we have to swim. To the government’s credit, the two Ministers of Education are amongst the most sober Cabinet Ministers. They are knowledgeable, have a passion for their work and are consultative, reaching across the aisle and working with multifarious stakeholders. Alpha Timbo’s Teachers’ Union experience and Labour experience are being brought to bear positively on a Ministry that needs the collaboration of various stakeholders. The recent rapproachment with the FCC under a Mayor that also understands the issues and has made education one of her flagship programmes is good. Together with the Mayor, they have involved all stakeholders including the private schools.

Professor Gbakima and his team have also been shaping up the TVET programme and recently unveiled a new TVET policy that will eventually improve employability. The TVET team at the Ministry has been considerably revamped and there is greater liaison with the private sector. The role played by the DSTI in the education data hub is commendable. David Sengeh’s DSTI’s role in obtaining and analyzing all kinds of information on the education sector will enhance planning for the sector and result in better utilization of scarce resources.

The current fiasco in the education sector, with bad results and cheating galore and several other challenges facing the education sector are all too apparent, The fact that the Ministry and associated Institutions like WAEC and others have realized the scale of the examination cheating problem and are taking active steps to stamp out these practices should be commended. Whatever the results now, it is at least commendable that we know where we are and recognize the need to rise from the ashes.

One hopes that going forward the government will accentuate the “quality” part of the Free Quality Education. Luckily there are people at the helm of both Ministries that are devoted, knowledgeable and consultative and it behooves all stakeholders to collaborate with Ministry officials, especially when they have indicated they are ready to reach out. The Ministers must be given support and the government should certainly not politicize the issue but be open t ideas and stared the credit. I have been very impressed with Mayor Aki-Sawyer’s cooperation with Minister Timbo and his team. Come to think of it, the FCC is in charge of 25% of the schools in the country. Other Local Councils should also be in the avant garde of this revamping process.

It is good to see that both Ministries realise the yeoman’s role to be played by teachers in revamping our educational system, no matter what the current trials are. The strengthening of the Teacher Service Commission and improving the lot of teachers is core to improving our educational system. In “our days”, our teachers were proud of their work and well regarded in our communities. I can’t end if I don’t tell you about my teaching days. In “our days”, many used to teach for a year after sixth form before going to University. I did my stint at St. Andrews Secondary School, Bo (before the time of students like J.J.Saffa and Professor David Francis but after Dr. Samura Kamara). Hon. I.B Kargbo was my Vice Principal and Mr. D.S. Bindi. of blessed memory my Principal. I relished the staff meetings. Mr. Bindi had gone to Aberdeen, Scotland on a three-month bursary and had some new ideas he wanted us on the staff to inculcate. He insisted on starting staff meetings with Scottish music and would start by saying to us- “Let us invoke the Aberdeen spirit before the meeting.” I thought to myself-It is good he only went for three months! What a proud Principal and what proud teachers we were!

For now, things have got to get worse before they get better. Let all stakeholders collaborate with the Ministry to “build our educational system on a rock”. It has been far too long on the sands. This is the only way we can stand the earthquake shock that will bode well for the future of our children.

Ponder my thoughts.