FROM KUSH AND GHETTO MENTALITY TO FREE EDUCATION: BIO’S QUIET HUMAN CAPITAL REVOLUTION             

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By Sheikh Bakarr Kamara

The aftermath of the APCs mismanagement of our educational system reads like a horror movie from the imaginary banana republic of Costaguana in the fabled Joseph Conrad fiction- Nostromo. The school dropout rates were scary to say the least, and what passed for an educational system under the APCs tragic reign was a clay legged mockery of what sainted our country with the legendary Athens of West Africa tag. Teachers went unpaid, promotions were virtually non-existent except for those who were family members or cronies of the system under the APC. Little or no funding support for text or excercise books, public examinations like the WASCE became so mired in open examination malpractices with the open support of government functionaries, that the results of such exams were not even worth a toilet paper. Poor overburdened parents who could no longer afford school fees painfully and helplessly watched as their children were kicked out of schools. As a consequence of the massive dropout rate in our schools courtesy of unbridled corruption, our children imbibed a ghetto mentality of Kush and other dangerous substances – at least as a way of passing a hopeless existence. The late Minister Dr. Minkailu Bah and his cronies so comprehensively looted the Ministry’s coffers, that the office’s functionaries sat idly all day long with nothing of any meaningful substance to do. After looting the Ministry’s coffers of some 68 million United States Dollars and billions of Leones (See COI Report), the Minister and his cronies embarked on what was the only available convenient option- tracking non-existent Ghost Teachers during their entire ten-year mandate.

BRETTON WOODS

Of course, the Bretton Woods institutions were left so rankled by APCs comprehensive looting of the country’s lean treasury that particularly the education related UNESCO and its partners, simply packed up and bade farewell leaving the APC and nearly 3 million hapless children in their wake with nowhere to turn to.

It was on the back of this wretched state of affairs that the then leader of the opposition Rtd. Brig. Julius Maada Bio saw this massive development lacuna, and launched his elections manifesto with a well-oiled campaign machinery. I have always insisted that President Bio won the 2018 elections largely on the basis of the fact that in 2018, it was the SLPP that had the clearest and most consistent campaign message-Vote for Me and I Will Give Your Children hope and Free Primary and Secondary Education – This message resonated with the people perhaps not only on the basis of its clarity alone, but against the background of the APC’s wretched legacy of prioritising thieving and gangsterism over the noble principle of education and skills acquisition for a better future.

To me, that just a few months into office, President Bio was to actualise his dream of providing free education for over 2.6 million children, coupled with the supply of text and exercise books at the initial cost of 276 billion Leones to 12 thousand schools, employ 12,000 new teachers, train 25 thousand more teachers and pay an initial 500 billion Leones in tuition fees alone in a matter of months upon assumption of office, was nothing short of a miracle. If I am to say the truth, as an unbelieving Thomas, I would never have believed that such a monumental feat of free education, free meals, free exercise and core text books, bus transportation for nearly 3

million school children could be achieved in my life time. Today I dare say, to commit 22 percent of state resources to the free education, lunch, transportation etc. at a cost of over a trillion Leones is the biggest development project ever undertaken in Sierra Leone in such a short space of time.

HIPC

One of the reasons for my doubt was predicated not only upon its declaration of austerity but really the near state of total collapse in which the APC had left the country in 2018. To clearly understand my import here, we need to go back a bit down memory lane. We have to remember that on the eve of President Kabbah exiting office, such was the efficiency with which our economy was run and so rosy were the signs of looming growth and prosperity under Kabbah, that the Bretton Woods institutions singled us out as one of the countries that best qualified for perhaps the biggest debt relief ever granted any developing economy globally. So, under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief programme, the IMF and The World Bank comprehensively cancelled all of our debts which amounted to 994 million or close to a billion U.S Dollars under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative from just the IMF, IDA, AfDB and other Multilateral Creditors. This list is far from exhaustive; Bilateral Creditors also alone waived 244.3 million of our debts while Commercial Creditors cancelled 90.0 million Dollars (credit IMF Press Release NO.06/286-December 2006)

In all, nearly 2 billion of our debts were cancelled on the eve of President Kabbah’s exit from State House. Furthermore, President Koroma inherited 1.6 billion dollars in our reserves. by the time of his ascension to power, never mind the trillions of Leones that he also inherited. In spite of the fact that President Koroma’s government inherited a debt free country unburdened by the suffocating monthly debt servicing to which President Bio’s administration is subjected to every month, President Koroma bequeathed to President Bio in 2018 an external debt of 2 billion US Dollars and a domestic debt of 4.9 trillion Leones which as at 2018 was equivalent to 636 million US Dollars (Credit Desmond Davies of Newafricanmagazine.com, May 1 2018). The above were the reasons why I doubted President Bio’s capacity to deliver on a project of this magnitude, but to the amazement of his compatriots and the world at large-and to me in particular, the free education and school feeding programmes have been unqualified successes and a lesson in human capital development.

UNIVERSAL FREE EDUCATION

Today 2.6 million (about the entire population of the nation states of the Gambia and Cape Verde) are beneficiaries of free education complete with text and exercise books, school feeding and transportation. Amazingly, although it has been achieved at enormous cost, sacrifice and at the opportunity cost of other critical sectors, the president has craftily continued to ensure that other sectors like health and agriculture are not disadvantaged unduly. The statistics speak for themselves. By 2019 alone, government shelled out 637 billion Leones on the cost of tuition fees alone up from 500 million in 2018. This expenditure occasioned a more than 500 percent increment in school enrollment from 2012 to 2021. It is a mammoth task to sit 2.6 million children in schools, so to alleviate the problem of accommodation, the government embarked upon a massive approval of schools which were tottering on the brink of collapse as a result of inadequate funding. To this end, the government swiftly upped schools approved and placed on

the government’s budget which includes 54 percent of Pre-Primary schools, 79 percent of primary schools and 77 percent of junior and senior secondary schools.

It is common knowledge that the indicators for progress in schools are how well students fare in examinations. To this end, the government in 2020 further subsidised struggling parents by paying 277 billion Leones in examination fees, a further 57 billion Leones was further spent to increase the number of teachers on government payroll by 2020 – it is important to note that most were teachers who had not received salaries for years. Over 276 billion was further spent in 2021 on examinations fees support for students taking public exams. Between 2020 and 2022 also, to further create a more conducive learning environment, the government shelled out 33 billion and 164 billion Leones on exercise and core text books for students respectively. The positive ripple effects of these interventions meant that one million new students were enrolled in our schools between 2018 to 2022 – a 37 percent increment in school enrollment within this period. This intervention triggered the highest school completion rate among girl children in West Africa. The government’s examinations fees support between 2018 to 2022 translated into a 79 percent increment in students taking public examinations.

New school buildings mean new furniture. To that end Bio’s administration in 2021 alone cashed out 3 billion Leones on school furniture and set up three Early Childhood Centres in Moyamba, Kambia and Pujehun to further boost the government’s emphasis of ‘catching them early’which was geared towards strengthening childrens’ academic foundation in their formative years.

It is important to note that the vast stride this government has made in education has not gone unnoticed. On the home front, the sports betting company Mercury constructed an ultra-modern   all girls boarding secondary school in Portloko in support of the programme’s girls empowerment mandate. On the international front, material, financial and moral support keeps pouring in as the world looks in amazing wonder as to how a small developing country, was able to provide free education and lunch for 2.6 million children. Such is the level of admiration for what President Bio has been able to achieve in just five years, that he was invited to chair the Global Transforming Education Programme in September 2022 as a Global Champion for Education as the world sought to use Sierra Leone’s example to address what the UN referred to as a Global Learning Crisis. President Bio’s stunning achievements have made him the poster boy of the world’s global education drive. Coming hard on the heels of the Global Learning Crisis summit, the red carpet was also rolled out for him to attend the UNESCO, UNICEF and EU funded Gender Transformation Summit in May 2022, in a bid to form a formidable global coalition around girls’ education and womens’ empowerment.

INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION AND SUPPORT

The European Union in addition to its myriad support to the free education project has also funded the rehabilitation of 100 schools in Bombali, Portloko, Bo and Kenema. Furthermore, under the GPE programme, the government has also received a total financial support of 115 million dollars for President Bio’s flagship programme. By 2022, 818 thousand students had benefitted from the school feeding programme. To ensure compliance and quality, the government recruited 165 Quality Assurance Officials who have been deployed all over the country to help with the monitoring and evaluation of the programme. So comprehensive has government support to education been, that out of its concern for the burden on students who pay

substantial sums to check their results after publication, it has funded a Result Checkers app to help hundreds of thousands of these students check their results online at no cost to them.

When a government makes the kind of monumental efforts and sacrifice this government has made in the area of human capital development, it expects a positive outcome. The outcomes for Bio’s administration in this regard has been nothing but fantastic. As a result of the free education and government’s funding of thousands of students’ examination fees, the number of pupils taking the WASCE exams has risen by 470 percent between 2018 to 2022 reaching a record 186,000 students. As girls and women empowerment are at the heart of the free education programme, it is just appropriate that the impact on them is as positive as everybody would have wanted. In 2022, more females than men took the exams and the pass rate in individual papers climbed dramatically from 64 percent in 2020 to 77 percent in 2022. A five subject pass is the benchmark for university admission. The number of students who passed this magic number increased by 1,863 percent between 2018 to 2022. Even more amazing is the fact that all the top students passed all eight subjects attempted and the top school recorded a 100 percent five credit pass and all of the students obtained direct university entrance. Students obtaining the 5 credits bench mark entry requirement in a single sitting increased by an amazing 1,781 percent between 2018 to 2022.

In 2022 alone, 108 students obtained requirements that were far better in quality and quantity far more than what was achieved in the previous 5 years combined, with the number of females outnumbering their male counterpartsThe pass rate for the compulsory subjects of English and mathematics ranged between 63 to 90 percent with males slightly out performing females in English and their male counterparts upstaging them in mathematics. The result in the dicey Core Science discipline was stunning. The students who took this paper triumphed with a 95 percent pass rate. The mouthwatering pass rate in the core English and Maths subjects was largely motivated by the availability of free 3.1 million maths and English textbooks to the beneficiaries.

While the figures above are nothing short of amazing, they become even more of a celebration when put into context. Before President Bio’s accession to power in 2018, the WASCE pass rate especially in the bench mark 5 subjects was less than 10 percent and the pass rate in the core English and maths areas wavered between 3 and 5 percent. That the pass rate in these two subjects now fluctuate between 64 to 90 percent is utterly remarkable and is nothing short of a glowing testament to what President Bio and his government have been able to achieve in these unpredictable and demanding five years. Such a feat can only be achieved with back breaking commitment and dedication.

UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE

Put into greater context, such was the enormity of the unprecedented success students scored in the 2022 WASCE exams, that the University of Sierra Leone found in its hands over 8 thousand successful undergraduate applicants, all fighting for only less than 2000 spaces. The University had to resort to the conduct of an examination to fish out the best out of the rest. Such was the enormity of the outstanding success of President Bio’s Free Quality Education. Any parent who craves success for their school going children should sit back and reflect on what President Bio has been able to achieve for them in this COVID ravaged world in these five years. There is no

doubt that if these elections are going to be about hope, the future of our children, a viable and sustainable economy, food self-sufficiency, then there is no doubt that President Bio’s track record of formidable achievements is a pointer that he is the only credible, viable and available alternative. A vote for president Bio will be a concrete endorsement of his quiet human capital development revolution.

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