Ponder My Thoughts | Sierra Leone's Failing Educational System

Last week, Amnesty International West Africa suggested the bloodshed at recent student protests in Sierra Leone was caused by a  "heavy-handed response” by security forces. Students of Njala University reportedly started protesting against a lecturers' strike, which has left the college closed since October last year. Reports also said lecturers have been on strike due to non-payment of salaries by the government. Police said that the students did not obtain a permit for the protest and were burning tires and blocking roads.

While Amnesty International has called for an investigation and accountability through fair trials, a social commentaor in Sierra Leone looks at the issues through the prism of a failing educational system. Andrew Keili writes the weekly column,
Ponder My Thoughts 

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
-John Dewey

I thought hard about the angle I should take on writing about the Njala University debacle. I really never thought I would relegate the wanton fatal shooting of unarmed students in Bo by trigger happy Police or the locking up of a notable political activist under suspicious circumstances to the backburner. Not even the new accelerated pace at which our judicial system could mete out swift justice to arrested students could match the noteworthy topic of choice for this Njala article. We will leave all of these for another day.  After all, as bad and callous as it may seem, the killing of youths by Police who throw rules of engagement out the window has become much too commonplace! This event was preceded by killing of youths in Kabala and other places -and in all of this the perpetrators seem to have got away with a mere slap on the wrist despite protestations from the public and civil society including human rights organisations

The silence of the Police complaints Board and the callous response by the Police and government officials should come as no surprise. As for poor Jesmed Suma, one cannot help but to probably invoke the nexus between his formation of a new political party and his arrest. It is also not surprising that the same judiciary that could take two years to adjudicate a political dispute could suddenly get efficient overnight!

But we are living in interesting times. I have chosen to accentuate the mis-education of our children by the woeful neglect of education by the very people who are supposed to have stewardship of such an important area of our life-education. John Dewey is right -education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.

President Koroma could arguably be given plaudits for a few things by even his detractors during his nine year leadership of this nation but education is not one of them, despite having a University named after him.  It is s a supreme irony that whilst youths in Njala were being denied what is a basic right to education, the President was exhorting other youths in red in Port Loko on "the virtues of being steeped in undemocratic ways for the preservation in power of a system that has failed them in the education arena". Again let us leave this for another day and come back to the Education Ministry.

A good 20 percent of our national budget is spent on education. It is no rocket science to realise that you need to place your best managers in an area that carries the lion's share of the national budget. The case is even made more compelling when one considers the consequences of our youths being consigned to a future bereft of the education that they so badly need to progress in life. Allowing the Njala issue to fester for over three months-and Njala is just one of the problems in our educational system shows a callous disregard for these children .

A newspaper report attributes this statement to Allieu Deen Conteh of the Sierra Leone Teacher's Union: "We have over ten thousand unapproved teachers who have been serving in the field for the past nine years. The highest affected teachers are in the Western Area."  The accountability group, Budget Advocacy Network, citing Audit Service Sierra Leone reports claims that Le 21.2 billion is unaccounted for by the Education Ministry and is asking for the ACC's intervention. The list of maladies goes on. In all of these problems the Minster put in charge of this Ministry maintains a noticeable silence and is only audible and visible when it comes to making political pronouncements.
Njala is just a symptom of the failing educational system. The failings are many. Generally poor educational standards, the abysmal failure rate in public exams, the thousands of students leaving university with qualifications that are unfit for purpose, and making little contribution to wealth creation are all manifestations of a failing educational system which the Education Ministry has proved incompetent to handle.

The paucity of infrastructure, low contact hours, limited learning and teaching materials, limited technical facilities, poor teacher morale are problems all too common in our educational system. The Ministry has been counting teachers unsuccessfully for years and is still at it. There is hardly anything to show for the Gbamanja introduced 6344 system that essentially lengthened the educational system in secondary schools by one year. Even good performing schools were forced to comply with the system because the Ministry was bent in enforcing uniformity at all costs. Tertiary educational institutions are constantly on strike and it is difficult to predict how the educational year is scheduled.

The Ministry in its "infinite wisdom" picked up a needless fight  with private schools totally oblivious of the fact that private proprietors manage 33 percent of all schools and enrolling 17.1 percent of all students.

Njala's problems may not all be laid squarely at the government's door however. Unchecked spending and poor accountability by the University authorities may  have also compounded the problems. Problems involve payment of all outstanding allowances, payment of benefits to retirees, salary drawbacks etc. The Government claims it has bailed out Njala before only for the same problem to be reoccur now. Meanwhile, the college has been closed down for the past three months.

In many ways the Education Ministry is complex one. Though it receives about 20% of non salary recurrent budget,.76% of this is allocated to tertiary and vocational education. 82% of this allocation to tertiary and vocational education is actually for tuition subsidies for tertiary education. Very little is spent on vocational education-less than 2% of this figure.

Our vocational and tertiary educational system is subject to so many pieces of legislation.
The following are some of them:
The Universities Act 2005
Tertiary Education Commission Act  2001
The Education Commission (Tertiary Education Institutions) Regulation, 2006
The Universities Act 2005
The Polytechnics Act 2001
The National Council for Technical, Vocational and other Academic Awards Act 2001

Each of these pieces of legislation requires some oversight body. Some of these bodies do not function well and even when they do the Ministry's liaison with them is poor. The Universities Act, 2005 gives a considerable amount of authority to the University on Academic matters.  Section 20 (3) of Universities Act states that “the Court shall exercise all the powers and authority of the University, except on purely academic matters for which it shall receive recommendations from the senate and any other body established for by law for the purpose.” The  Teaching Service Commission, is in charge of recruiting teachers. These issues notwithstanding, the Ministry still is in overall charge.

In many ways the problem is not just one of money. Several bodies need to work and gel together to make the system work and the buck ultimately rests with the education Ministry. Our spending on higher education may in fact be at par with other countries. In 2012 spending on higher education was higher in Sierra Leone than in four other sub-Saharan countries with the same primary completion rate. Expenditure per tertiary student is 18 times the spending per primary school student.

It is obvious that there is a huge management problem and managers not only need to manage the institutions well and become fiscally responsible but also see how they can be innovative and pursue alternative sources of funding. Consideration could be given to  the development of a student loan system and the possibility of partnership with private financial institutions. It will also help if courses and programs are aligned to labour market demands and GOSL priorities.. Stronger links with employers should be encouraged and they should be enticed to be involved in various governing bodies, curriculum review committees, and research.

This is clearly a time when we should have a paradigm shift in the way we approach our educational system but alas who should manage this change? Not the Educational  Ministry in its present form!
We will not develop as a country if we do not get out of this morass. The HDI which is intended to gauge a country’s development is measured through  a composite measure of three dimensions of human development:  greater opportunities for education, health care, income and employment―among other things. With our present educational system we are consigning a whole generation of Sierra Leonean children and youth to a future of poverty, insecurity and unemployment.

It is encouraging to see however that Classes will start soon after intervention by several groups including civil society. It is a pointer to the Ministry's ineffectiveness that once more  the President and Vice President had to be involved to broker a temporary settlement of sorts. Meanwhile we await another educational catastrophe as the burble threatens to burst again.

Kudos to the Bar Association for its press release on the recent Njala incidents  in which they call for an inquest into the killings and bring to the fore "the State's obligation to provide the necessary structures, finance and supportive facilities for education pursuant to Section 9 (10 c)) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No,6 of 1991 and "the right of persons to freely express themselves and their right to also freely assemble as entrenched in Section 25 and 26 respectively of the aforesaid constitution".

It should be realised that whatever the failings of these various institutions and their governing bodies the buck stops with the Ministry. They  Ministry officials should make themselves available and dialogue with various groups and not wait until a precipitous situation warrants the involvement of trigger happy Police or lawmen waiting to lock up political critics.

The Njala problem is a symptom of the failing educational system-pure and simple!
Ponder my thoughts


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