Friday, September 18, 2009

Schools in Sierra Leone

Now that I have visited a number of schools in Gbonkolenken and Paki Masabong chiefdoms, I’d like to describe them a little bit for you. All of the schools I have visited so far are in rural parts of the country. They are generally all community schools, meaning that they are not run by the government. Some of them receive government support to pay some of the teachers’ salaries, especially in the secondary schools, but most receive insufficient support, or none at all.

Many of the school buildings are built by either ministries (Adventist and Catholic are two that I saw), by NGOs (two communities near Mapaki have new schools that opened officially today that were built by Plan), or by the community (for example, the old school in Makambray – the one whose roof blew off). The buildings are then turned over to the community to care for them.

The schools I have met with range in size from about 250 to 700 students. Class sizes are large, generally around 40-50 students per class. The official government policy is a maximum of 50 students per class, but you do see classes bigger than that. In one secondary school we visited in Mathombo, last year they had 400 students and cold only get 4 teachers. Imagine that, 100 students to a class. Definitely makes it more difficult for the students to learn.

For primary school, students pay no official fees to attend school. However, there are other associated costs, like uniforms, shoes and books, that can present a financial barrier to attendance. Once students reach the Junior Secondary (JSS) and Senior Secondary levels, there are fees just to attend. These fees are in the range of between 210,000 LE and 420,000 LE per year, and the books and uniforms these students require are in addition to that. Also, in many cases there isn’t a senior secondary school located nearby, so a student from a rural community would also have to pay room and board to attend school in one of the bigger centres.

From what I can see, and what I understand from others, the majority of teachers are untrained. Very often they have only a high school education, with no formal post-secondary training. Sometimes they have a post-secondary degree in a subject area (e.g. math) but no training in teaching. One big reason why teachers are not able to get qualified is that there is no way possible for them to afford the training. Those teachers who do earn a salary would receive between 150,000 to 300,000 LE per month (about $45 to $90) depending on their qualifications and years of experience teaching. With a bag of rice to feed a family costing about 100,000 LE, there isn't anything left over at the end of the month. Many of the teachers I have talked with do not receive a salary of any kind, and work completely as unpaid volunteers. Some of them have been teaching 6 or 7 years without being paid at all. Later, in thinking about this, I asked Kouame why he thought the teachers were willing to work for no salary. He said that they saw that there was a need for teachers and they valued education. The children needed to learn, and there was no one to teach them, so these volunteer teachers stepped in.

The government now intends to pay teachers once the community schools go through an approval process. However, government will only pay teachers who are formally trained and have a teaching certificate, so this remains a challenge for many of the current teachers. There simply aren't anywhere near enough qualified teachers in the country to meet the need.

As is evident from all this, the educational system here is struggling. However, at all of the community meetings I have been at so far, people have mentioned the importance of education for their children. For example, the women’s groups I met with in Gbonkolenken spoke about the importance of being able to earn income to support school fees for their children. There seems to be a great desire and interest among all people in improving their level of knowledge and education, regardless of the obstacles.

This is one of the reasons cdpeace and PSI are working on education issues here. We do this in a few different ways:
- scholarships for teachers that cover the costs for teachers to attend the teacher training college part-time and through distance learning and get their teaching certificate;
- scholarships for students to help support their fees and costs at school, especially at the secondary level;
- training workshops in basic teaching skills for teachers;
- some funding from our CIDA project also assisted with the repair and reconstruction of some schools.

Alleviating the financial burden on families and being able to properly train and pay teachers would result in a big improvement in education in the country.


Ben Levin said...

Thanks Clare
I'm forwarding the students in my masters course on large scale improvement in education as a contrast to our debates about Canada.

Clare said...

Yes, quite a different scale of issues and problems when comparing Canada and Sierra Leone!