ON FREE EDUCATION IN SIERRA LEONE: A REFLECTION
By Dr. Kemoh Rogers, PhD
I was very excited and pleased when in his campaign debate presentations, the then Presidential aspirant and now the substantive Head of State of Sierra Leone (SL), His Excellency, Brigadier (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio (JMB) committed to providing free primary and secondary education in Sierra Leone.
When issues around this formidable project are clarified, and the government succeeds in providing education free at primary and secondary levels, all Sierra Leoneans should accept the initiative as one of the greatest and daring aspirations of this Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) Government.
In this short brief, I offer my personal views which could be alluded to by others. Mainly, I emphasise the importance of free education to present and future generations and our country, the forms this could take, the rights and responsibilities of citizens as well as trade-offs and possible impediments to and sanctions for those who might not readily accept the prospects of free education.
Importance of education
We are forever appreciative of the impact of education. An inclusive and accessible education means that all children, irrespective of tribe and part of the country they live in, are offered the same opportunities to learn and develop. Some, if not all educated children grow up into responsible adults who are informed, tolerant, innovative and develop the knowledge and aspirations to enhance the abilities of societies and contribute meaningfully to them. In other words, education is means of emancipation because there is a permanent change in the attitudes, dispositions, and aspirations of the educated individuals and for the country.
An educated population is essential to the prosperity of SL because such a population is more likely to understand the complexities and ramifications of modern democracy better and could embrace values pertinent to human and national existence and developments.
Educated populations will have the courage to confront the issues that thwart human developments in our nation. They will embrace human developments and will also develop sensitivity and respect for the environment. The populations will be equipped with the notion that SL belongs not only to past and present generations but will consider the rights of future generations to our resources.
A high number of appropriately educated population will seek and maintain peace for the nation and themselves. Above all, if the current status quo, including abject poverty and deprivation, institutionalised corruption, extreme selfishness and disregard for others and the environment are to be minimised and eventually eradicated, educating our children should be a paramount ambition.
Education that is free and supported by JMB’s government implies that he identifies with the current crisis in Sierra Leone. Free education ensures that the life chances of children are not determined by the income and circumstances of their birth.
Importantly, free education is an indication of JMB’s courage, commitment, and convictions that children, who form our future adult generations are put first.
Proposing and ensuring free education is also recognition that future social and economic developments of the nation are enshrined in investment in education for children. Free education undoubtedly, means significant trade-offs in that investment in other ministries might be affected.
However, I will not deliberate on costs of free education because the project is undoubtedly a crucial and worthwhile investment for both the present and the future of our nation. Instead, I proceed to discuss the forms free education could take to make it a viable project for a developing country like Sierra Leone.
The narratives are by no means exhaustive but are posed as points of reflection for those responsible for planning, implementing and evaluating the free education project.
The forms free education could take in Sierra Leone
What exactly does free education mean in Sierra Leone and what would the free education include and not include in its calculations? This should be clarified so that citizens know their rights and responsibilities in ensuring that the free education is feasible and accessible.
Does free education mean free tuition and classroom resources such as text and exercise books? Does free education refer to a school or home education? Will schools follow a national curriculum? What provisions are made for special needs children?
There are state schools, faith schools, grammar/private schools. Will there be freedom to change the ways some schools do things? Will there be provisions for free schools who follow their curriculum and set pay and other conditions for staff and change the length of school terms and the school days?
What about academic selection processes? Will certain schools opt for higher entrance grades than others? Will there be provisions made so that all schools run morning sessions only? This requires huge investments in existing and new infrastructure so that there are sufficient provisions made for all primary and secondary schools to fit into one session. Who will meet the costs to build and equip new schools? How will community or non-governmental organisations participate in the free school project? How will decisions be made about whether new schools are needed for particular sections of the country? Will such provisions be determined by population density, number of children within localities or geographical distance? Will pupils benefit from modern technologies that enhance teaching and learning? Will there be benchmarks for achievements in specific timeframes? How will the educational project be monitored and valuated? Will free education be enshrined in law or will it be left to the prerogative of subsequent governments?
I assume that state boarding schools provide free education but as is happening now, will charge fees for boarding facilities. Will some of these schools run on part government and part private schemes if communities make meaningful contributions to the functioning of the schools? Will progression to successive classes be based on ability or age? Will there be age limits for free education? If parents are assured of the children’s right to free education, how will their responsibilities be monitored to ensure that children are not unduly deprived of the opportunity? Will there be sanctions for defaulting parents and carers? Will school meals be re-introduced at least for primary schools? A viable school food programme could enhance the abilities of school age children.
What about making the free school systems functional? There should be sufficient number of teachers who are paid adequately and regularly otherwise the free education project will be at risk of failure. I assume parents understanding of the project is enhanced so they know that education in any form is a very expensive endeavour in terms of money, time and resources. If tuition is accounted for in the free education project, parents should be supported to help their children through providing books, uniforms and encouragement to meaningfully engage in education.
Why free education now? I address this question with a few statements.
We are conscious of the great responsibilities enshrined in having, nurturing, protecting and providing for our children as they grow up. It does not matter if children come from cities or villages of SL or from the north, south, east or west, free education is a great aspiration for every child. However, tragically, and for very many children in Sierra Leone, there has been no government initiatives to give these humble children the opportunity to develop their potential. For this reason and perhaps for others, HE RtB JMB and his government should be applauded. It is not late for children of SL to recognise that they hold great potential since, no ray of sunshine is ever lost but the green that it awakens into takes time to sprout (Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1965). Freely provided and inclusive and accessible quality education provides the opportunity for potentials of the children to develop.
Kemoh Rogers, Ph.D., Senior University Lecturer in Nursing Sciences (Adult), School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, UK.