By Dr. Yusuf Bangura
Sierra Leoneans have been shocked by the outrageously poor results of the recently released West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE). It has been reported that more than 95 percent of students who took the examination failed or did not obtain the five credits required for admission into universities.
This is not the first time that Sierra Leone’s students have performed poorly in WASSCE. Reports indicate that in 2017, about 40 percent of students did not obtain a single credit and only 5 percent had five credits. This year’s lowest ever recorded pass rate of less than 5 percent may be due to the vigorous efforts by the authorities to clamp down on cheating during the examinations period. But the increase in the failure rate seems marginal.
The rot in Sierra Leone’s education system goes well beyond cheating
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.
Shockingly, in 2010, whereas the pass rates of Nigerian students for Biology, Chemistry, English, Maths and Physics were 49.65 percent, 50.7 percent, 35.1 percent, 41.9 percent and 51.2 percent respectively, those of Sierra Leone were 5.9 percent, 3.8 percent, 13.7 percent, 5.1 percent and 4 percent.
Even The Gambia that was a late developer in the field of education outperformed Sierra Leone in most subjects between 2008 and2010. The unacceptably poor performance of our students in such an important examination calls for serious reflection. I do not think that Sierra Leone’s education problem has been well conceptualised, despite the attention it has received in the last year and half as the new government rolls out its free education programme.
Is the Free Quality Education Programme tackling standards of performance?
School fees are clearly a strong barrier to education. The literacy rate for those aged 15 years or older is a mere 32 percent; despite a high enrolment rate, only 47 percent survive to the last grade of primary school; and 219,207 adolescents were reported to be out of school in 2017.
Fees and cost of books, uniforms, school lunch and transportation may account for much of the low participation rates in our school system. The introduction of the free quality education programme, which abolished fees in government-supported schools and provided basic reading materials and transport services to students, has unquestionably removed some of the key barriers to participation.
However, a bigger problem in Sierra Leone is the collapse of standards or quality at all levels of our education system, including our universities.
So what are the underlying issues?
A large number of teachers are not qualified to teach, classrooms are overcrowded, teaching methods and curricula seem outdated. Basic infrastructure for a healthy and productive learning environment is in a state of decay in many schools, and quality control measures are inadequate or non-existent.
Much of the problem can be traced to the 1980s when the economy experienced a massive contraction. A series of ineffective economic stabilization measures simply depressed incomes further, especially those of teachers; school supplies became erratic; moonlighting by teachers to make ends meet became common; and capacity to monitor and enforce standards sharply declined.
The war of the 1990s aggravated these problems. Many teachers left the profession for other countries or better opportunities in other local sectors. The first generation of highly qualified post-independence teachers retired; class sizes ballooned; and quality control took a nosedive.
Cheating, involving the participation of some teachers as a survival strategy, became the new normal
Providing free education – thus opening up wider access, may be laudable. But in such an environment, and without a strong emphasis on quality, the free education programme is likely to lead to a waste of human capital, as the majority of our young people may become unemployable and unable to function in a modern economy.
A failure rate of 95 percent in WASSCE is bound to impact adversely, not only on the aspirations and careers of the affected students but also on society at large. Thus, ninety-five percent of the potential human capital from this year’s cohort of young people is already being degraded or wasted.
Because of Sierra Leone’s resource and capacity constraints, it would have been useful for government to have adopted an incremental approach to rolling out its Free Quality Education Programme, by targeting the primary school level first.
The aim will be to ensure that all those who are supposed to be in school at that level are in school, and getting the right type and quality of education.
This would have involved providing at the primary level, more trained teachers and teaching materials, building more schools, upgrading the infrastructure of existing schools, and implementing quality control measures.
This process could take three to five years before moving on to the delivery of the next stage of the free quality education programme at the first three years of secondary school, which could be accomplished in a similar time period.
The final rolling out stage could then focus on the last three years of secondary school education, with significant continuous emphasis on quality control, monitoring and improvement.
What is suggested here is similar to Rwanda’s route to free education. Rwanda introduced universal free primary education in 2003. It took the bold step of extending the programme of universality to the first three years of secondary school in 2009, after a major revamp of the education system and curricula. And in 2012, students in the last three years of secondary school were added to the programme.
In Rwanda’s case, despite the many challenges that remain (such as the financial unsustainability of the school feeding programme; gaps in the primary school completion rate, reckoned to have greatly improved but still at 69 percent in 2014; the persistence of double shift systems; and the need to further reduce failure rates in public exams), today there is migration of students from private to public schools. This is because public schools are not only free, their quality is comparable to that of private schools.
It has been reported that some of Rwanda’s private schools have stopped operating because of lack of students (https://www.relocationafrica.com/private-schools-in-rwanda-close-down-as-public-schools-become-more-attractive-to-parents/). In contrast, Sierra Leone’s free education programme can be described as a political project that seeks high visibility and quick wins. The government wants to be seen to be delivering free education at all levels simultaneously. The quality part of the programme seems to have been added as an afterthought. With limited resources and a long history of weak state capacity, we spread ourselves thinly by trying to implement free quality education across the 12-year span of our school system immediately.
It may not be advisable to reverse the free part of the programme, but the development of quality can be spaced out, with greater attention given to the primary school level at the start, before moving on to other levels. When standards have collapsed, a systematic, bottom-up approach is likely to yield better results than doing everything at once haphazardly.
An incremental or a stage by stage approach to the delivery of the free quality education programme is obviously out of sync with the electoral cycle. But quality takes time to develop, especially after more than three decades of erosion of national standards.
A stage by stage programme delivery approach may not be appealing to politicians with short-term horizons, who want to demonstrate quick results and win the confidence of voters for mandate renewal. But it seems to me the appropriate thing to do.