Why Sierra Leonean Students are Performing Poorly in Public Examinations.

Mban Kabu, A former Sierra Leone Teachers Union President writes on Sierra Leonean students’ poor performance in the recently concluded West African Senior School Certificate Examination.

Mban Kabu – Former SLTU President

Introduction

The abysmal performance of Sierra Leone students in the recent West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) is deeply worrying and has preoccupied the attention of policymakers, school administrators, educators, Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union (SLTU), parents/guardians, media practitioners, and the general public as they attempt to analyze the probable reasons responsible for this sad and reprehensible situation.

A country once called the Anthems of West Africa and the hub of higher education, especially for students from English-speaking African countries, has now been relegated to the dust bin insofar as academic excellence is a concern. Two key questions that need to be answered are: (i) what has gone wrong with Sierra Leone’s education system and (ii) how can the country overcome these shortcomings, especially in the context of SLPP’s flagship “Free Quality Education” programme, which is now in its third year.

I will try to discuss these two questions under the following sub-headings: educational infrastructure, facilities, and materials; pre-service and in-service teachers’ training; class size and continuous assessment; conditions of service for teachers and motivation of teachers; ghost teachers and ghost educational institution; the syndrome of cheating in exams; supervision and inspection of schools; research; Covid-19 and digitization technology; and the role of parents/guardians in the education system.

Educational infrastructure, facilities and materials

After years of sheer neglect during the one-party era, Sierra Leone’s education system faced multiple challenges including gross inadequacies in the areas of infrastructure, equipment, basic facilities, and learning and teaching materials. Overcrowding of schools caused by large swarms of pupils / students compared to the limited capacity of school infrastructure and facilities to cope and support the provision of quality education became evident as a result of these unfortunate situations. These challenges were compounded by the eleven years of armed rebellion which resulted in the destruction of vital school buildings, furniture, equipment and materials, especially in provinces where the war was more pronounced and prolonged.

Rehabilitating damaged schools and expanding school infrastructure to cope with the growing number of children attending school had remained a priority and difficult task for successive post-war governments. As an emergency response to mitigate this crisis during the immediate post-war period, the Ministry of Education introduced a shift system in schools – a situation which no doubt overloaded many of the teachers as they were obliged to contend with the burden of teaching in both the morning and afternoon shifts. Schools’ science laboratories that were in the first place poorly equipped were destroyed and / or largely underfunded during the war. Likewise, the majority of schools were cut-off from supplies of essential learning and teaching materials and pupils / students were at times compelled to bring essential school supplies from home to support their education.

The shift system turned out to be a mere cosmetic measure as it failed to resolve the overcrowding problem as more and more children got enrolled in schools. Thus the teacher-pupil/student ratio grew exponentially and has since remained at an unprecedented level – fluctuating from 50 to 100 or more pupils / students per class per teacher at any given time. Doubtlessly, the workload on individual teachers has increased at an unbearable level with a concomitant effect of teachers’ inability to conduct regular assessment to ascertain the level and quality of learning attained by their pupils/students.

Suggested remedy

The government and its partners should prioritize and scale-up investments in infrastructure, facilities, equipment, science laboratories, pre-service teaching training and teaching and learning materials for schools. More school buildings with enough classrooms should be built to cope with the current problem of overcrowding. Schools located in given geographic areas should be grouped together to share equipped libraries and science laboratories as a strategy in acquiring and operating these essential educational facilities on a cost effective basis.

Pre-service and in-service teachers’ training

Teaching is a profession and those who should participate in it need adequate initial and continuing education to remain relevant in the dynamic process of educational change. Unfortunately, since time immemorial, over 60 per cent of Sierra Leone’s teaching force has been comprised of untrained and unqualified teachers (UUTs) and qualified but untrained teachers (QBUTs). Just a mere 30 per cent of teachers in Sierra Leone are trained professional teachers. In the quest for a better life, many professional teachers opt for the public service, mainly the police and the military where a worker is guaranteed to get a bag of rice every month, other fringed benefits and promotions.

Both trained professional teachers and untrained teachers over the years received little or no in-service training. As a matter of fact, there was no budget allocation for this vital component of education at the Ministry of Education during the decade of the one-party era. Rather, this responsibility was on a very limited scale, held jointly by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and SLTU. These two teacher organizations on their own benevolence on an annual basis organized few in-service training programmes for a few primary school teachers that covered just a few subjects and teaching methods. Due to the limitation of this kind of intervention, we cannot expect the entire body of teachers to catch-up with trends in changes in the field education and by extension expect their pupils / students to excel as well.

In the 1970s to mid-1980s, teachers from the United States who came under the Peace Crop programme and other expatriate teachers from Canada and the United Kingdom reinforced the teaching force in Sierra Leone. This, to a considerable extent addressed the chronic shortage of trained and qualified teachers in schools that benefited from the services of these highly qualified and experienced foreign teachers. However, the outbreak of the Lasser fever scourge in the eastern region of Sierra Leone disrupted the Peace Corp program and raised fears among foreign teachers across the country, forcing them to flee the country in large numbers during the 1978/79 school year. Pupils / students in affected schools performed poorly in public exams that year.

Suggested remedy

UUTs and TBQTs should be encouraged to undergo pre-service teacher training. For example, they should be encouraged to enroll in the teacher training programmes or be given the opportunity to combine teaching and continuing their teacher training programmes.

In-service training is a very important component of education which should be revived, fully funded and operationalized. Every professionally trained teacher, UUTs and TBUTs should benefit from this programme and it delivery should be decentralized as a cost-effective strategy. Lecturers from teacher training colleges and university education faculties, school inspectors and other key professional officials from the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, managers of schools and some senior teachers of both primary and secondary should constitute the staff for the implementation of the in-service training programme. It is hoped that the successful implementation of this programme on a periodic basis can contribute to the honing of teachers’ skills and bring them up-to-date with changes in the educational curricula and syllabi as well as relevant digital skills.

Class size and continuous assessment

The class size is about the pupil / student teacher ratio. Smaller classes are often perceived as allowing teachers to focus more on the needs of individual pupils/students and reducing the amount of the time needed to deal with disruptions. According to acceptable international best practice, the pupil / student teacher ratio is 35 pupils / students per teacher. This arrangement will allow the teacher to be more attentive and observe the activism of each pupil / student in the class. The teacher will be able to assess pupils’ / students’ learning ability by periodically administering tests to determine whether or not learning has taken place, identify learning gaps and provide appropriate support that would enable the slow learners to catch up. An ideal teacher-pupil/student ratio contribute to better learning environment for learners, and to improved working conditions for teachers and other staff.

In view of the chronic and unprecedented abysmal teacher-pupil / student ratio situation that has clothed the education system, continuous assessment as a vital component of Sierra Leone’s education system has been overlooked over the years and many teachers have resulted to assessing pupils/students only at the end of the school term and / or year. Thus, the standard and ideal practice of administering continuous assessment has been swept under the carpet.

Terms and conditions of teachers and the motivation of teachers

In the 1980s and early-1990s, working conditions for teachers in Sierra Leone fell to an all-time low. Teachers’ salaries were not only grossly insufficient vis-à-vis the high cost of living, but the meager salaries were also not paid on time.

In 1990, the delay in paying teachers became a very serious problem. The backlog of salary arrears reached five months in all areas for all categories of teachers. This insufferable situation forced many teachers to engage in a sit-in strike or go-slow over a few months at the expense of innocent school children unofficially on be known to the authorities and the general public. A group of patriotic teachers at St. Helena Secondary School in East Freetown frowned at the sit-in strike or go-slow, describing it as a disservice to innocent school children in particular and to the nation as a whole. They reflected on the teachers’ plight and decided to convene a meeting of a representative group of five teachers per school in East Freetown to discuss further and come up with solutions to save the fate of teachers and the entire education system in the country.

The meeting was held in the Assembly Hall of St. Helena Secondary School. The meeting seriously deliberated on the plight of teachers in particular and education in general and adopted the roadmap of 13-point resolutions, which called among other things for the immediate settlement of arrears of teachers’ salaries, the denunciation and dissolution of the SLTU leadership, recognition of the National Teachers’ Resolution Committee (NTRC) as the official mouthpiece for teachers with a mandate to lead a nationwide teachers’ strike until the impasse was amicably resolved, pressurize the government to provide a bag of rice at cost recovery price to each teacher on a monthly basis, supply relevant teaching and learning materials, award a salary increase commensurate to the prevailing cost of living to all teachers, etc.

Under the guidance of the NTRC, the entire body of teachers downed tools. The government, desperate to avoid a complete halt to public exams whose timing coincided with the teachers’ industrial action, called on the police to step in and invigilate the exams. This misguided move was counterproductive as the police clashed with striking teachers.

The use of excessive force by the police to coil down the teachers’ strike resulted in the untimely deaths of four armless innocent civilians across the country – two in Freetown, one in Lunsar, and one in Taiama. May their souls continue to rest in perfect peace and may God grant the bereaved families the courage to endure the loss of their loved ones. 

At a well-attended meeting between the police and the NTRC to discuss the strike, it was revealed that the government allocated every month 20,000 bags of rice to the SLTU to be sold to teachers at a cost-recovery price. Unfortunately, this rice was never sold to the intended beneficiaries and is an issue that researchers should probe. The teachers’ compliance was described as a pure industrial relations matter that should be handled jointly by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labour.

A joint meeting between officials of the Ministries of Education and Labour on the one hand and representatives of NTRC, the Conference of Principals of Secondary Schools (CPSS) and the Head Teachers’ Council (HTC) concluded that the SLTU had lost the trust and confidence of teachers.

At that meeting, the CPSS and HTC declared their unflinching support for the teachers’ struggle spearheaded by the NTRC and endorsed this outfit as their official mouthpiece. In the late afternoon on that fateful day, the Secretary-General upon clearly seeing the writings on the wall had no cause but to resign his position as Secretary-General of the SLTU in order not to continue to hold Sierra Leone’s education to ransom.  

The NTRC gladly received the news of the resignation of the Secretary General but further called on the entire SLTU executive board to resign and which call was spontaneously adhered to.

The government settled the back pay for teachers and gave them a modest salary increase. The status of teachers was enhanced and some degree of sanity was restored in the education system. The then-incoming leadership of the SLTU remained committed to the struggle for the continuous improvement of teachers’ conditions by ensuring the union’s adherence to the principles of internal democracy and the application of an organizational culture that ensured that the SLTU functioned as a collective sword of social justice for the advancement of the working conditions of teachers. Periodic mass zonal meetings enabled grassroots members of the SLTU to influence and shape union policies and those meetings were also forums where union officials not only accounted for their stewardship but afforded them to jointly plan with the membership, thereby clearly illustrating that union democracy is based on the principle of consent with consent and not consent without consent.

Suggested remedy

The working conditions of teachers must be decent, and their salaries and other benefits must be adequate to enable them and their families to lead a simple but decent life. Teachers’ salaries must meet their needs and the needs of their families in terms of food, housing, clothing, transport, health care, education, social security, etc. Their salaries must be paid regularly and on time. They should receive adequate teaching and learning materials as well as pre-service and in-service training. The terms and conditions of service of teachers in accordance with the collective agreement should be reviewed periodically by representatives of the Teaching Service Trade Group Negotiating Council (TSTGNC).

The problem of poaching of teachers by other lucrative sectors of the economy can be solved by adopting the “single spine” salary structure. Sierra Leone can borrow a leaf from Ghana who had experimented the “single spine” pay structure in the most recent past.

Ghost teachers and ghost educational institutional

The vice of ghost teachers and ghost schools, which successive governments in Sierra Leone have failed to eliminate, has over the years, kept the payroll and the overall cost of education high. This crime is not only peculiar to the teaching profession but it is also prevalent in all sectors of the public service. The pervasive and chronic nature of this payroll crime, dubbed as “voucher-gate” continues to punch Sierra Leone below its weight. This cancer has over the years dwarfed the government’s efforts to improve the conditions of service of teachers and scale-up spending to expand school infrastructure, upgrade schools’ libraries and science laboratories and recruit more teachers, thereby compromising delivery of quality education across the country.

Attempts by successive governments to curb this mess have been cosmetic and based on misguided and failed strategies. For example, officials from the Ministries of Education and Finance have sometimes been tasked with carrying out on the sport payment of teachers’ monthly salaries as solution to ridding the country of this cancer. In one instance, a former SLTU president questioned the credibility of this approach by pointing out that it was inconceivable and utterly ridiculous to deploy the very people who are suspected of involvement in this corrupt practice to rid the country of this obviously bad crime.

Suggested remedy

The government should instruct Statistics Sierra Leone (Starts-SL) to conduct a census of teachers and all educational institutions with a view to generating accurate disaggregated data. Prior to this census, all Heads of Schools and TVET institutions should be mandated to post the names and addresses and staff list of their respective schools on their school notice boards and to share this vital information with Starts-SL, Community Education Committees, SLTU, Teaching Services Commission (TSC), School Managers and  Inspectors, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and Ministry of Finance.

The syndrome of cheating in exams

The phenomenon of cheating on internal and external examinations at primary, secondary and higher education levels is an age old problem in Sierra Leone. What is perhaps new is its widespread nature, particularly with regard to external examinations. The perpetrators of this vice have not only undermined Sierra Leone’s education system, but they have carried out a blatant attack on the very foundation of the country’s development. No country can prosper without a competent and quality education system, Sierra Leone is no exception. Much of our country’s current state of underdevelopment can be attributed to the scale of its appalling education system clad with the syndrome of widespread cheating in external examinations. Countries that have maintained high-quality educational standards with little or cheating on exams are consistently on the development path while those with very low-quality education standards clad in cheating syndrome have stagnated in development.

Exam cheating can take many forms, including parents/guardians bribing teachers to assist their children/wards in exams, pupils / students giving bribes to their teachers in exchange for exam questions, teachers helping their pupils / students answer exam questions or allowing their students to take open book exams often outside of the designated exam environment, teachers allowing other pupils / students to take the exam on behalf of other pupils / students, etc. This cancer has weakened not only the foundation of Sierra Leone’s education system but also undermined the country’s development against the backdrop that a significant segment of new entrants in the country’s labour market some of whom are today in key positions are ill-prepared and with limited capacity. Going forward, we must collectively roundly condemn and do everything within our means to completely root out this menace in our educational system.   

Suggested remedy

The government should enact strong legislation and rules backed by punitive sanctions that can be imposed by impartial courts and / or tribunals to act as a deterrent in the fight against exam malpractices. The entire population must be made aware of the negative consequences of cheating on exams and of the penalties to be imposed on people found guilty of committing this crime. The SLTU and the authorities should engage communities in an open conversation around this vice in order to galvanize their support for collective action aimed at ridding Sierra Leone of this offensive crime.

Supervision of teachers and inspection of schools

It is standard best practice to supervise the work of teachers by their respective head teachers, principals, heads of departments and senior colleagues. Newly recruited teachers in particular need to be supervised. Their lesson plans and notes, as well as their marking schemes, should be reviewed to ensure that they meet the requirements of the approved syllabi, curricula and exam questions. This should be a weekly exercise and should aim to identify gaps in education and instituting appropriate corrective measures. These oversight efforts should be reinforced by periodic sports inspection by designated school inspectors, who should check school infrastructure, facilities, equipment, teachers and their work, evaluate the external views of the schools’ performance and provide relevant advice aimed at ensuring that high standards are maintained and that there is continuing development of the educational system.

Research

Education is a dynamic process shaped by social change and is an ever-present phenomenon that changes the structure of society. Social changes are characteristics of human societies because customs and norms change, new techniques and technologies occur, environmental changes stimulate new adaptations, and conflicts result in a redistribution of power.

The main ideas about education and social change are that society is constantly changing and knowledge is not neutral. Education supports the status quo or sets a new course of action and direction. Education, especially lifelong learning, is successful when linked to research that helps tackle the problem, work through change, and make and sustain improvements; delivered in a favorable environment; is innovative and adaptable to change; reflect the content of the 21st century in terms of global awareness; financial, economic and commercial awareness; civic literacy; awareness of health and well-being and must function as a path to social change and sustainable development.

The role of parents/guardians in the education system

Parents/guardians are the first teachers of pupils/students and they have a key role in shaping up their character. A balance of education at home and school molds a pupil’s/student’s actual learning.  Parental/guardian encouragement plays a crucial role in successful pupils/students. Their role is not limited to home but involvement in school activities too. While pupils/students attend school about six hours a day, they only have a few minutes of teachers’ undivided attention in a class. Parents have the opportunity to sit side-by-side with them, working through homework and other learning activities for extended periods. Parents/guardians may be the only adults who closely observe pupils’/students’ work and get feedback from their children/wards. Consequently, no one else has the perspective of a parent in a meeting.

Parents/guardians are vital to the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and Individual Education Programme (IEP) team process. They provide information on the child’s strengths and weaknesses at home, background information on the child’s history and development, and information on any family factors that may affect the child’s learning. They know their children better than anyone else and have the most complete understanding of a child’s physical, social, developmental, and family history. 

The most important thing parents / guardians can do is making sure they are involved and play an active role as a member of the Individual Education Program (IEP) team that sets the course for a pupil / student. They have a duty to the education of their children / wards at home and at school. At home, they should ensure a quiet environment and allow their children / pupils sufficient time to study. The IEP team is responsible for making educational decisions for students and deals with issues such as eligibility, assessment, curriculum development, and placement of a child in special or gifted education programmes. Parents/guardians pare the only adults in the educational process who have been and will continue to be deeply involved throughout the child’s school career; and although they are not educators themselves, they bring to the process their years of experience in other professions and aspects of life.

Covid-19 and digitalization technology

The pandemic of the coronavirus has exposed the technological weaknesses inherent in Sierra Leone’s education system as the use of digital technology has become the obvious new normal for connecting teachers and their pupils / students in a meaningful way. Digital literacy is a second language that individuals need to master from an early age to enable them to adapt to distance learning and stay safe amid the raging Covid-19 crisis. Thus, improving training in the digital skills front is essential to ensuring that the teachers and their pupils / students cope with the Covid-19 crisis.

Conclusion

Education as we all know is the engine of our national development. Therefore, we are all duty bound not to allow its quality to be destroyed by a few unpatriotic and desperate individuals who are hell bent on promoting the vice of exams cheating. We must fight this vice with might and main by calling on the government and ourselves to stand together to firmly resist this evil agenda and to maintain high standards aimed at restoring the past glory of our country of being the anthems of West Africa. As a nation, we must ensure that our teachers are entitled to decent working conditions to enable them to perform at their best by preparing their pupils / students not only for high performance in exams, but also for their effectiveness when entering the labour market.

About the author

Mban KABU had served as President of the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union (SLTU) in Sierra Leone but currently has an international assignment.

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