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Sierra Leone’s free quality education in perspective

30 July 2019 at 03:32 | 12917 views


Sierra Leone’s free quality education in perspective

By Ibrahim P. Sheriff
Communications Specialist
Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education
Sierra Leone

August 20, 2019 makes the Free Quality School Education (FQSE) one year since it was officially launched by His Excellency, President Retired Brigadier-General Julius Maada Bio.

When he was campaigning to the Sierra Leonean people for election to the highest political office of the country, he made a solemn promise to the people – that when elected President of Sierra Leone, atop of his agenda is developing the human capital of the country through education, skilsl training, health and the provision for and protection of vulnerable Sierra Leoneans. The President’s promise was predicated on the fact that even though Sierra Leone is renowned throughout the world for its endowment with precious mineral and natural resources, but that those resources have not been harnessed to transform into sustainable development for the country. He attributed the abysmal failure of not harnessing our mineral and natural resources for the benefit of our people and the country to the fact that the country had wrongly prioritized its development agenda. He therefore thought that developing the human beings of Sierra Leone is the best strategy for addressing our national problem. Hence, the premise for the introduction of the FQSE in August, 2018. The President justified his unflinching commitment to the program by allocating 21% of the national budget to its implementation.

What does Free Quality Education in Sierra Leone mean?
The FQSE is the new educational system introduced by the New Direction government of His Excellency, President Retired Brigadier-General Julius Maada Bio to completely eliminate and replace the then popular notion that education in Sierra Leone was a privilege and not a right. The program is called Free Quality School Education because government has now taken over the control of the education system especially at pre-primary, primary, junior and senior secondary school levels. The FQSE package means that the burden of paying school fees on parents and guardians is no more, the purchase of exercise and core textbooks is also no longer a nightmare to parents and guardians. Government gives all public schools subsidies to help them run smoothly. These subsidies include substitutions for school fees, furniture, expansion of school infrastructure, provision of school amenities such as toilet, water and sanitation facilities, as well as personal hygiene kits for girls. Government has also distributed over 12 million exercise books to pupils in all public schools – government and government-assisted schools. It has also distributed more 94 containers of core textbooks as well as teaching and learning materials to public schools across the country.

The role of parents and guardians in the FQSE program
It is maintained that it is the responsibility of all Sierra Leoneans to play their own patriotic parts to support the FQSE to succeed. The FQSE is not one of those government programs that anyone must play politics with – it is quite above politics. Meanwhile, there is more expectation from parents and guardians in playing their parts to help the program succeed. Parents and guardians enjoy many reliefs under the program. However, even though it is not a requirement for pupils to be in uniforms before they can attend classes at any public school under the FQSE program, parents and guardians are however encouraged to provide uniforms and shoes for their children. They are responsible for signing for the core textbooks and ensuring that their children read them and take care of them so their brothers and sisters coming from behind them could benefit from same books when they are promoted to the next levels of their education. Parents and guardians are encouraged to attend Community Teachers Association (CTA) meetings and make comments, suggestions, ask questions, and generally make inputs into the program as part of their social responsibility to make the program succeed.

Components of the program
The FQSE operates within the confinement of six core components. These components form the basis for the implementation and success of the President’s agenda for developing the human capital of Sierra Leoneans through education and skill training.

This component enforces that all Sierra Leonean children must have uninterrupted access to free quality school education in the country. It also emphasizes that education in Sierra Leone is no longer a privilege, but a right to all Sierra Leonean children. The component emphasizes that no Sierra Leonean child must be left behind. Hence, it is a crime for any parent or guardian of a school-age child to deliberate decide not to send his/her child to school. The act is punishable by law in Sierra Leone.

This component enforces that all Sierra Leonean children enrolled in the school system of the country, regardless of their socio-economic conditions, sex, tribe, religion, physical and intellectual incapacity must be treated as one. All Sierra Leonean children are treated on the same basis with equal access to everything provided by the FQSE.

This component of the FQSE ensures that a child enrolled in school in Sierra Leone must be followed meticulously to ensure that he/she completes his/her education to at least the basic education level; and can sustain his/her livelihood through employment using that basic education. The component discourages the idea of school dropouts or leaving school early due to either socio-economic or other reasons.

Quality and Relevance
This component enforces that in order that the education provided in Sierra Leonean schools has quality and relevance in this modern world, that such education must be provided by teaching the right materials by trained and qualified teachers using the government-prescribed curriculum. This approach ensures that education acquired has quality and is relevant to the general development of the graduates and Sierra Leone as a country.

For one’s education to have value and merit national and international accreditation, it must have integrity. This component of the FQSE therefore enforces that education provided in Sierra Leone must be free from any type of fraud and malpractice. It encourages teachers, head teachers and principals to provide teaching services with integrity. It also encourages pupils to work hard, listen to what they are thought, read their books, study their notes and take exams based on their hard work and with integrity.

System Strengthening
There is no doubt that previous education systems in Sierra Leone, especially in the past few decades have been weak, ill-motivated, ill-advised, corrupt and tainted. There was then the urgent need to revamp the system by strengthening it. This component of the FQSE is poised to do just that.

Achievements made in the one year or the launching
When the FQSE program was launched by the President in August, 2018, it was met with mixed feelings, perceptions and receptions from the Sierra Leonean populace. Many believed that the program was not feasible, or was doomed to fail as there were no financial resources to help implement and sustain it. Some other Sierra Leoneans genuinely believed in the success of the program. They thought it was the right step by the President in the right direction. The people believed that though the country was strapped off of its financial resources by the previous regime, that, with the will-power and stringent fiscal discipline, the country could surmount any problem that may inhibit the successful implementation and sustenance of the FQSE. The program was therefore successfully launched and has been thriving for the past year. So, achievements that have been made so far can be understood better when put under each of the components:

Achievements under the Access Component
-  Surge in the enrollment of pupils in schools throughout the country.
-  More than 3,040 schools have been approved
-  More than 1,400 teachers have been approved; 1,901 teachers re-assessed, and recruitment process for more 3,400 teachers completed.
-  Parents and guardians feel relived from the burden of paying school fees, buying exercise and core textbooks.
-  More awareness about the relevance of education in developing human beings.
-  More and more girls are enrolling in schools.
-  The notion that education was not a right, but a privilege has been wiped off the minds of Sierra Leoneans through the unfettered access to education.
-  The national school-feeding program is motivation and inspiration to children to enroll and stay in schools.

Achievements under the Equity Component
-  All Sierra Leonean children regardless of their physical, intellectual and socio-economic conditions have equal access to free quality school education in Sierra Leone.
-  Special amenities and infrastructure improvements such as ramps have been made available to either schools for the blind, or co-mingled schools where physically challenged children need help to access education.
-  There has been improvement in girl-child education awareness campaign throughout the country. Issues of rape, early marriages and teenage pregnancy are at the top of the girl-child education awareness campaign.
-  The provision of school buses addresses the issues of disparity between the “Haves” and the “Haves Not”. All children who need help with transportation to and from schools now have the opportunity to ride in school buses.
-  The national school feeding program will minimize or eradicate issues of child labor as more and more children are motivated by the feeding program to stay in school.

Achievements under the Completion Component
-  Two shifts systems have been discouraged in schools so students can spend longer hours learning what they are taught.
-  After school syndicate classes have been abolished by the government to refocus teachers on the teaching of the right materials using the government-prescribed curriculum.
-  Public examination study camps have been abolished by government which addresses the issue of early pregnancy among girls, as well as refocusing teachers on teaching the right materials during normal school hours.
-  More and more social mobilization and awareness campaigns are routinely carried out across the country to create awareness and better understanding among the public on issues of early marriage and child labor.
-  Various data collection and analyses are ongoing to understudy the issues that culminate into school dropout issues.

Achievements under the Quality and Relevance Component
-  Government has distributed revised core textbooks to students in Junior and Senior secondary schools (public schools) throughout the country.
-  Government has distributed modern teaching and learning materials to all schools.
-  Government has provided school and furniture subsidies that enable schools to run smoothly.
-  Government has approved more than 1,400 trained and qualified teachers.
-  Government has re-assessed about 1,901 teachers so they get commensurate salaries based on their qualifications and teaching experiences.
-  Government is recruiting another 3,400 and more teachers to meet the 5,000 mark.
-  The Teaching Service Commission, the SLTU and Labor Congress are reviewing the conditions of service for teachers.
-  Teachers who have taught for 10 years and above will have their children get scholarship to University.
-  The President will soon launch the Best Teacher Award.

Achievements under the Integrity Component
-  Awareness about the need for pupils to work harder in schools.
-  Awareness and understanding by pupils, parents and guardians about effectively utilizing the core textbooks distributed to them by government.
-  Conditions that undermined the Integrity component of the FQSE either discouraged or abolished in schools.
-  Examination malpractices have been uncovered.
-  Disciplinary measures taken against those who engaged in examination malpractices.
-  Multi-dimensional approach taken to tackle examination malpractices in the country including database technology to force people to do the right things, and government effectively taking control of the set up and management of examination centers.

Achievements under the System Strengthening Component
-  There is awareness and understanding that business is no longer as usual.
-  Providing access to quality education is itself strengthening of the system.
-  Education is no longer a privilege, but a right is another way of strengthening the system.
-  Awareness about girl-child education and consequences of child labor.
-  Awareness about the relevance of education in developing the human capital of the country.
-  Uncovering examination malpractices and punishing perpetrators.
-  Creating corrupt and malpractice-free examination management system to tackle examination fraud and malpractices.
How did the government do it?
Well, the President made no mistake when he placed Honorable Alpha Osman Timbo in charge of implementing his national flagship program. Alpha Timbo already had his own record to run on, as a man who is result-prone in whatever he is charged to do. He has manifested his result-prone acumen at the Sierra Leone Teachers Union, Labor Congress, Ministry of Labor and Industrial Relations, NASSIT, etc. Sierra Leoneans had no doubt to believe that he will successfully champion the President’s flagship program. His first move was to first understand the educational system including the school system, number of pupils, physical school buildings and their locations across the country, school amenities, etc. He did this through the national school census. The information collected from that census provided the basis upon which all initial decisions were made for the launching of the FQSE. The Minister then understudied the Ministry he was put in charge of. He saw the need to create a special Secretariat to handle all issues related to the FQSE. He created the FQSE Secretariat and placed a National Program Coordinator in charge of it in the person of Mr. Amara Sowa. Within the Secretariat, Mr. Sowa created an organogram for the effective coordination of projects to fulfill the implementation plans of the FQSE. The FQSE Secretariat is structured with the National Program Coordinator at the top, Program Manager beneath him, and then Monitoring, Evaluation and Rapid Response, Regional and District Coordinators and the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) within the structure. Another core inclusion into the FQSE Secretariat is the Communications Unit – a Unit that is charged with the responsibility of promoting the FQSE and the Ministry, controlling the flow of information and addressing bad publicity. The Communications Unit is the mouthpiece of the FQSE as well as the Ministry as long as FQSE continues to be the main focus of the Ministry.

With these structures in place, plus constant trainings, workshops, stakeholder and development partner engagements, with effective monitoring of the schools by the Regional and District Coordinators and the Monitoring and Evaluation team, the Minister had a good handle on the program implementation. It is therefore not an amazement that we can count such achievements under each of the components.

The Challenges
It is quite understood that cynics of the President and the FQSE can maintain negative assessments and thoughts about the FQSE program itself. Considering what the President was walking into when he was elected as President of Sierra Leone, it took him a great deal of patriotism and courage to make a bold statement about providing free quality education to Sierra Leonean children. He knew there were going to be challenges along the way. However, he did not flinch to make history by starting what many thought was unprecedented, insurmountable and unrealistic. Those thoughts have changed today with the many achievements we have seen.

As a new concept in the educational sector of the country, it was met with the following challenges:
-  The surge in the enrollment of pupils in schools across the country uncovered the need for more school infrastructure, more school amenities and facilities.
-  There is need for the construction of more schools across the country.
-  There is need to recruit more trained and qualified teachers to meet the teacher-pupil ratio of 1 teacher to 45 pupils per class.
-  There is need to satisfy teachers in order to keep the completion, quality and relevance and integrity components of the FQSE working for the children.
-  There must be a result-prone and stakeholder-focused communication strategy for more awareness and better understanding of key messages about the FQSE by stakeholders and the general public.
-  Some players, especially some of those who were in the old system still undermine the flagship program of the President either by slowing down processes, putting bureaucratic bottlenecks in the path of progress, or by antagonizing Presidential appointees who are charged with the responsibility of seeing that the President’s flagship program succeeds.

These challenges, though may look tough, but are surmountable with the right reasoning, determination and approach by a time-tested leader of the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Honorable Alpha Osman Timbo. The bottom line is that the FQSE implementation has been a huge success; it is enviable by other countries; it has survived against all odds; and it is the most realistic way of developing the human capital of our country and moving Sierra Leone forward. All citizens must feel compelled to support the program if they mean well for Mama Salone.