Free Education Launched Today

 

Article 13 of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ensures the right to free education at primary level and progressive introduction of it at secondary and higher levels as the right to education.

His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio will today Monday, 30th August, 2018 officially launch his much vaunted and much anticipated flagship Free Education programme for primary and secondary schools in the country.

With hardship hitting hard, everybody is anxious to have their children’s fees and basic textbooks provided as pronounced by President Bio. Even citizens of the main opposition APC that are still in denial of losing the elections welcome the move.

Implementation of the scheme which is supported by UK, World Bank, Irish Aid, WFP, UNICEF, among others phased over a five years period. It waives payment of tuition and admission fees, provides teaching and learning materials, with emphasis on English Language and Mathematics textbooks and payment of fees for all public exams.

Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Alpha Timbo had maintained: “The waiver of fees for learning in any form will definitely ease the burden on parents and guardians who are making lot of sacrifices under extremely difficult economic conditions to see their children educated.” He added: “This initiative by the government will, no doubt, increase educational outcomes and human resource capital will be strengthened to meet the growing social and technological revolution in a globalized world.”

Head of DFID in Sierra Leone, Mary Hunt had said: “We are proud to support GoSL on this initiative. I am really pleased to see the priority the government is giving to ensuring all – girls, boys, those with disabilities – throughout the country access quality education.”

Parents are encouraged to provide uniforms and some textbooks and continue their traditional role of home supervision, support and coaching to ensure they take maximum advantage of the opportunity. A hotline number: 4060 on all local networks is being set up to encourage pupils, parents and community stakeholders to report malpractices in schools and communities. The District Deputy Directors of Education, Ward Education Committees and Paramount Chiefs will also conduct rigorous monitoring of the scheme in their localities.

Like many developing countries, Sierra Leone has in the years since the war ended in 2002 has made dramatic progress to enroll their children in school. Still, too many children—especially girls and those in rural areas—are out of school or leave school before graduating from the primary level and have little opportunity to attend secondary school. In declaring the free education, President Bio is showing strong political will and commitment, good leadership, and concrete planning, with collaboration from international donors, to use innovations and available resources to ensure that the next generation does not miss the opportunity to be educated because their parents are poor.

Many at home and abroad have praised President Bio for the initiative, stating that it is a right choice and a step in the right direction in the country moving rapidly to attain standard education. Similarly, in Fiji the government announced in 2013 it would cover the costs of primary and secondary school education, equivalent to 250 Fiji dollars per year per student. In Sri Lanka, free education is provided by the government at different levels.

To ensure the success of the president’s gallant initiative to eliminate illiteracy in the country for the coming generations, as a nation we can compliment President Bio and the government’s efforts in providing free education, especially those in the education sector, by making the added commitment and combining the knowledge we have with the political will, technologies, teacher preparation, materials development, and management systems to make more rapid progress.

Education is the foundation for all countries which have achieved social and economic development. It remains so for the future of all countries and all communities. Towards implementation of the free education, President Bio raised the education budget from 11 per cent to 20 per cent. Campaigning on the platform of instilling discipline in governance, President said he hoped to increase access education that would enable every citizen to engage in meaningful productive activity. The announcement of the scheme which targets primary and secondary school levels follows President Bio’s maiden address to the House of Parliament when he said: “I am pleased to officially pronounce that effective next academic year starting September 2018, my government will introduce free education from primary level to senior secondary school as promised,” he said.

Thus, his speech at the State Opening of Parliament provided the platform for today’s launching. The president said he hoped to increase access to quality pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical and vocational and university education that would enable every citizen to engage in meaningful productive activity. The president also announced free university education for three children of every school teacher with 10 years experience, a move aimed at motivating those in the teaching profession. There was also an announcement of a new loan scheme for university students.

Earlier, the free education scheme received a major boost from the World Bank, which announced an initial funding of US$10 million for a multi-donor trust fund for it. The European Union and the UK government also pledged to support it. As the programme kicks into action, the President of the Sierra Leones Teachers Union (SLTU) Mohamed Sallieu Bangura on the 13th July, 2018 in a meeting at State House assured President Bio that the ‘New Direction’ free education scheme will be actualized. Endorsing the programme, the SLTU President expressed hope in the success of the new approach to education. He extended his appreciation for the appointment of Alpha Timbo as the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education. He said that there are many urgent and challenging issues facing teachers across the country. But he assured the president that the minister, whom he said understands the everyday concerns of teachers because he was once a teacher himself, is very capable of unifying the teachers in the face of those challenges.

Mr. Bangura said they are ready to implement the free education program, commencing in September 2018. He called on President Bio to pay special attention to the recruitment and replacement of teachers, improve salary and conditions of service, provide adequate teaching and learning materials, grant refresher training for teachers, pay school subsidy on time and  empower the Teaching Service Commission.

President Bio thanked the union for believing in his vision to transform the country through education, noting that teachers are the builders of the future of the country and providers of knowledge and wisdom. He emphasized that the future of the country depends on the quality of education children received in school, adding that during the election campaign he went to some parts of the country where he saw dilapidated schools, teachers deprived of facilities. This, he said, ultimately meant that there could be no effective teaching and learning in those schools.

The President promised to look into the concerns of teachers and urged them to support education as the flagship programme of the ‘New Direction.’ “Teachers are a very important component to the progress of this nation. My administration will work closely with the Union to make sure that those teachers, who spend their entire lives building the lives of their countrymen, also live in comfort,” he assured the SLTU.

Meanwhile, ahead of the start of the programme in September, the Minister of Information and Communications and staff of his ministry have embarked on facility assessment of internet connectivity at educational institutions in the east and southern regions of the country to enhance e-learning. While addressing educationists about government commitment to not only free education but quality standards in the educational sector, Minister Mohamed Raman Swaray said his ministry would work in concert with the Sierra Leone Cable Network to connect all campuses to enhance research and e-education.

‘’With an intensified ICT, our pupils and students will access international lectures to brace up with best practices,’’ he said, adding that he knew there were many challenges, but the government under President Bio was determined to tackle the issues and effect change that would enhance the facilities and ensure support to education that meet international standards, allowing for students to compete with foreign students for jobs and scholarships internationally. He added that plans were underway to overhaul the ICT sector, which he said would improve education via e-learning and strengthen research in different fields of study. Managing Director of the Sierra Leone Cabling Network (SALCAB), Mohamed Sheriff said, “The world is a global village, if you compete, you just don’t compete in the size of your country, but in knowledge.”  He added that the connectivity of the educational institutions was just a pilot project sponsored by the World Bank.

For Sierra Leone to achieve the goal of free primary and secondary education, he said, there are numerous challenges to be overcome, particularly in ensuring that the quality of education is improved, including significantly improving teacher/pupil ratios and teacher training.

The following are the key areas that the Government should continue to address:

Concerned parents and guardians as well as school children have said that government must engage with school authorities to discuss the removal of extra school charges, which they said are more the burden than the school fees. According to them, education in this country has become a big business for school authorities and the nurturing of kids for meaningful life has taken second place. Some school authorities are so mercenary that they ask parents to pay moneys for whatever comes into their minds on a regular basis with little or no consideration for the parents’ financial standing.

Even to receive results, kids are asked to pay! Another thing parents and guardians say the government must discuss with school authorities is the many expensive activities like arranging graduation ceremonies for kids. These ceremonies, like thanksgivings, only benefit the bank pockets of teachers and schools.

Another concern of parents and students is the quality of education provided by the schools, noting that education standards for promotion are not followed these days by many schools which follow the principle of “let my people go.” This, is said, to have contributed largely to many pupils leaving school, many in fact with certificates they cannot defend.

Another issue parents, teachers and pupils say the government has to deal with is class size. In some parts of the urban area, and in many parts of the remote rural areas, many schools do not have enough seats for the pupils and in some cases kids sit on stones or on the floor. In very remote areas in the country, kids do not have roofed classrooms while in others classroom space is grossly inadequate. A single classroom is divided into two or three to accommodate more classes. Quality education cannot happen in these situations.
Another great challenge for the scheme is unqualified and untrained teachers commonly referred to as UU Teachers who are utilized because of the unavailability of qualified teachers. It is not uncommon to find in many rural schools only one or two professionally qualified teachers with the rest either untrained or qualified by experience.

There is also the problem of remote area teachers not paid by government are commonly called “Community teachers.” They are volunteer teachers and the school authorities do not have a hold on them as their only remuneration is community donations and sometimes farming and home chores by the school kids. These activities are most times done at school times so the pupils actually lose those days. Also, girls doing house chores like cooking for their teachers in their homes lead to the girls getting pregnant. No quality education can emanate from this.
The role of the local councils also needs to be properly reviewed in terms of them being the agents responsible for providing education in their localities under the decentralization act. There needs to be proper coordination between them and the ministry of education in terms of the employment and deployment of teachers, timely disbursement of subsidies and salaries, supply of furniture and teaching and learning materials and most importantly monitoring and supervision of the entire system to ensure that it works well, effectively and meets set educational standards and targets.

One other important issue that all the stakeholders have to hang heads about is that of hygiene and sanitation in the schools. Many schools cannot boast of having toilets and water facilities which impacts negatively on hygiene.