Sierra Leone was once the centre for quality education in Anglophone West Africa. Known as the Athens of West Africa, the country has witnessed a steady decline in the provision of good standards of quality education.
This has immensely affected the human resource base of the country and productivity of its economy.
The free and quality education programme which was launched by President Julius Maada Bio at the Miatta Conference Hall on 20th August, 2018, will focus on government and government assisted schools all over the country.
The government’s support will include free subsidy for pre-primary, primary, Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary Schools, accelerated primary school programme for over-aged children in non-formal education learning centres, subsidy for pupils taking private examination. BECE, NPSE, WASSCE and NCTVA examination fees will be met by the government.
The free education programme will supply core text books in English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Integrated Science and Civic Education; essential teaching and learning materials for pupils and teachers – including exercise books, pens, pencils, chalks, registers and sports equipment, and a school meal.
Much needed furnitures are being supplied to schools in all districts. There are more trained and qualified teachers now on the government payroll.
The President has declared that his government will strictly enforce the Education Act of 2004. The Education Act of 2004 clearly states that it is a crime for any parent or guardian who does not send his or her child to school.
The launch of the free and quality education programme by the new administration has been welcomed by all well-meaning Sierra Leoneans.
But to find out about the preparedness of schools, our reporter spoke to heads of school and parents around Freetown.
Mrs. Rachel M.S Turay, acting Head-teacher of Saint Luke’s primary school, Wilberforce Barracks, said they are ready for the government’s free and quality education programme starting in September. Class lists and classrooms have been prepared, she said.
“We used to have 60 to 70 pupils per classroom and the classrooms are very small. Despite the government calls for 50 pupils per class, we are not going to ask pupils to find other schools because most of them got promoted. Lack of furniture and classrooms are the major challenges we are facing but we have just managed to repair the broken furniture that we had,” she said.
She stated that government used to provide school funding subsidy, but the whole of last academic year they did not receive a single cent from the government. She noted that last academic year, parents were asked to help run the school by paying additional charge of Le170, 000 per child.
Madam Turay said that the money collected from parents was also used to organize sporting events, school thanksgiving, paid auxiliary workers and other utility bills.
She said: “We do not admit pupils in other classes, except for class one and that is for pupils that graduated from nursery school. We are prepared to take at most 55 pupils per class because we also have repeaters. We won’t take a single penny from parents as admission fees because of the free and quality education programme.”
Mrs. Turay added that since government has introduced the free and quality education programme they are not going to collect money from parents as school charges as they did previously.
She said that she had called the teachers to a meeting and warned them strictly not to ask for payment from parents; and that if anyone is found wanting for taking money from parents, they will be dealt with accordingly.
The Head Teacher is appealing for more classrooms and furniture so as to cut down on the number of pupils per class.
She said that since text and exercise books are part of the free education package, they have not given booklist to parents, and that they will distribute government supplies received fairly.
“The school feeding programme will depend on what the government will provide. If what the government will be providing is enough, we will be cooking everyday but if it is not enough we will know how we will alternate the cooking. But if government does not provide help with firewood, pots and they like, we will call on the parents for assistance and the feeding will be for free,” she maintained.
She however called on the government to send the free education package to schools immediately when school reopens, so that they can begin to plan its delivery.
The Head Teacher of D.T Akibo-Betts Municipal primary school, Tower Hill, Madam Fatmata Musa explained that the school doesn’t have adequate classrooms and enough furniture. She said that for the time being they will make adjustment to accommodate the government’s 50 per class policy.
“We have done some registration and it was free of charge. The only thing we asked for was the last school report cards,” she stated.
Mrs. Musa added that the main challenge facing her school is that the school compound is not paved and has no proper playing ground for the pupils. She calls on the government and development partners to consider helping the school.
She calls on parents to make use of this opportunity by sending their pupils to school, and to monitor them so that the county’s literacy rate can increase.
Mr Sahr M.R Dauda, Principal of Government Model Senior Secondary School said they are at the stage of preparation and are putting measures in place for the free quality education programme.
He outlined that the key challenge facing the school is that they have a large number of pupils but not enough classrooms. He said they will not be able to implement the 50 pupils per classroom policy at this time.
“We are working towards having more furniture and putting up temporary structures to accommodate the pupils so that we can meet the government’s policy,” he stated.
He disclosed that his school used to have 70-80 pupils per class, and that the teacher to pupil ratio has been poor. This is the very reason why the school has not been performing well in public examinations, he said.
He said that last academic year, up to 1,784 pupils applied for admission to attend the school SSS1. A large number of them passed the entry exam, but the school was unable to admit all of them, noting that they will be cutting down on the number of intakes in the coming academic year.
The school administrator also disclosed that he has a good number of qualified teachers, but the only problem is that most of them are not yet approved.
He calls on the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education to speedily approve more qualified teachers who have been in the system, and also make the learning environment friendly for pupils – more especially the disabled.
He admitted that parents are always in the habit of bribing teachers. He said that any parent who engages in such practice will be destroying the free quality education programme the government has introduced in the country.
He added also that, some pupils are in the habit of lying to their parents that the school has asked them to take money to school, which he said is not true.
“Teachers are professionals and should behave professionally in schools. I’m calling on teachers who are in the habit of asking for money from pupils to stop immediately, because any teacher who engages in such practice is committing a serious crime and will face the full force of the law.”
Mr. Mohamed Kallon, a parent of two said that the free quality education programme is a laudable project for which he is thanking the government.
He said paying school fees for his children has been a huge challenge as both of his kids are in secondary school.
He stated that the government should monitor the free quality education programme as teachers are in the habit of organising extra classes, which he said is a burden on parents.
“We the parents should rigorously monitor our children to and from schools because government is paying huge amount of the country’s budget into the education sector, which would have been allocated to agriculture or health,” he appealed.
Another parent of three, Madam Josephine Williams said that the free education is welcoming news for them. She maintained that they are going to make use of the opportunity as it has been the cry of parents.
Madam Williams added that government should fully monitor the process, if not, some unscrupulous offcials in the educational system will undermine the process.
Mr. Augustine M. Kambo, Head of Administration at Education for All Sierra Leone Coalition and also a member of the Technical Working Committee on the Free, Quality Education programme, said that as a civil society working on education, the Free Quality Education is a laudable venture by the government, because for a long time they have been campaigning for access to free and quality education.
“As per global standard, the world has decided that every country should allocate 20% of their national budgets to education. And today, we have seen the government allocated 21% of the budget to education, and we have started seeing result of our campaign,” he stated.
He said, as a member of the Technical Working Committee, on the area of one shift system, the Minister of Basic and Secondary Education held discussion with the conference of principals, and they all agreed to accept a one shift system; stating that it might not be 100% successful, but they have to start somewhere.
Mr. Kambo maintained that with the introduction of the free quality education programme, contact hours of pupils with their teachers in school will increase, which he said has been a challenge leading to poor performance in public exams.
“We as civil societies are ready to follow and monitor the process because the role of civil society is that, we should be an ally to government and we should also look at government as a target based on the promises,” he said.
But he said, what is disappointing about the free quality education is that the President in his speech did not talk about issues affecting the physically challenged. He said the government should have provided accessibility support for disabled children to enable quick access to schools. They are also part of the society, he said.
He said that they are going to follow the delivery of the free education programme rigorously to make sure that school authorities do not extort money from parents and guardians.
The civil society activist stated that they are also going to work with diverse stakeholders at various levels to find out the challenges they face and proffer solutions.
He calls on the government to put a premium on teacher recruitment, stating that the free and quality education can only be achieved through the service of qualified teachers.
Sierra Telegraph 5th September 2018
Editor’s Note: This story is made available courtesy of MRCG/SLRU with support from UNDP.