Free Education Starts Today

Today September 17th, 2018 marks a new dawn in the country’s educational system as it ushers in the Sierra Leone People’s Party Government’s free pre-primary, primary and secondary education program.

The fact is that, many children drop out of school because their parents cannot afford to pay their tuition. Free education will help to reduce the financial burden on families and serve as a form of motivation to send their children to school. The Free Education will result in an increase in enrolment – especially for girls – and also success in retention.

Thus, there was thunderous applause when President Bio outlined his plans for state subsidized primary and secondary education at the state opening of parliament. With education being one of the biggest challenges that our country faces, the excitement and relief poor families have expressed is palpable and beyond imagination.

The SLPP Government’s flagship free quality education stands to benefit approximately 1.5 million school going pupils attending government and government assisted schools all over the country. This means significantly that many more poor families will be able to send their children to school; as well as many who had dropped out along the way.

It could be recalled that in February 2018 when now President Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio official launched his campaign manifesto, in the area of education, he lamented that under his predecessor, our education system was not up to scratch in terms of accessibility and quality.

“This despicable state of affairs has to change. The people of this country are yearning for change and change is inevitable and inescapable,” he said. He furthered that he was “again offering the nation hope and a new promise that Sierra Leone will be better for all under my leadership.”

Under his New Direction for Sierra Leone promise, he averred that: “We must transform Sierra Leone into a Middle-Income Country of the 21st Century. This is my vision for Sierra Leone.” How? He stated: “The flagship of our strategic priorities will focus on developing the country’s human capital through free education. We believe in giving every child a good education so that they can develop themselves, support their families and build our nation for the future.”

On Monday, 20th August, 2018, at the Miatta Conference Center in Freetown, President Bio made good on his vision when he officially launched the free quality pre-primary, primary and secondary education for government and government assisted schools, starting 17 September 2018.

This announcement was widely received by all – regardless of political party affiliation – because many parents who can’t afford to pay their children’s tuition fees will now have the opportunity to send their children to school.”

Bio’s announcement is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals target of every country providing free, quality education for every child by 2030. The increase on education spending to 20% is also what the Education Commission says developing countries should be aiming for. As well as free schooling and increased budgets, the president said there is a need for more qualified teachers in Sierra Leone, where only 42% of primary teachers are qualified.

In his keynote statement on the theme: ‘Education for Development,’ he called on parents and teachers to support the initiative, noting that the introduction of his government’s flagship program marked the beginning of free quality education in Sierra Leone and one that would be centered on development.

He averred that education was an investment for personal and national development, the foundation of moral regeneration, a revival of the people as well as a strong pillar for the nation’s industries. He added that without quality education a nation cannot get the much-needed manpower for socio-economic advancement.

“When I promised free quality education, my opponents said it was a political gimmick. But today, I have proven them wrong. In less than six months, we have shown that free education is possible. I have always prioritized education as a means for development. As President, in order to demonstrate my commitment to education, my government has increased the budgetary allocation to education to 21 per cent of the national budget. Several other strides have been taken already in this short time to commence the implementation of free quality education program across the country,” he boasted.

President Bio mentioned that in their early lives students should realize the importance of education and that it was imperative on parents to show their children that education was the ticket to fulfilling dreams as well as having a productive life. He therefore, used the opportunity to call on teachers and parents to support the free education program, adding that his government would take legal actions against parents who failed to send their children to school.

“While my government is ready to cover the expenses in paying tuition fees for students, providing textbooks, books, pens and pencils, sports equipment, rehabilitation of schools, provision of furniture, and the commencement of the school feeding program in government and government assisted schools, we encourage parents, guardians and teachers to show commitment to the education of their children. It is the responsibility of teachers to teach properly and the duty of parents to ensure that the child goes to school, stays in school for the full day, and has time at home to do homework and rest. Subjecting the child to excessive chores, and sending them for trading instead of schooling will not be acceptable. In line with the 2004 Education Act, we will enforce and convict any parent who neglects to send their children to school,” he warned.

Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Alpha Timbo, observed that: “The waiver of fees for learning in any form will definitely ease the burden on parents and guardians who are making a lot of sacrifices under extremely difficult economic conditions to see their children become educated”.

United Kingdom Acting High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Colin Crorkin OBE, who spoke on behalf of World Bank, Irish Aid, World Food Program and UNICEF as donor partners, congratulated the government for the initiative of a free quality education and commended the government for the bold step in increasing the budgetary allocation for education to 21 per cent of the country’s annual budget. He said the launch would mark the beginning of an exciting journey under the New Direction of which the UK government and its partners were ready to provide support.

Quality education needs good teachers. When he informed parliament about his Free Education intent, President Bio announced a Presidential Initiative for Teachers, saying: “None of us would have been here today without our greatest asset, teachers. Yet, they have been least recognized and least rewarded. This is de-motivating.  “Let me simply state that, without qualified teachers, our free education program will not be fully implemented.”

In a meeting with the executive of the Sierra Leone Teachers Union at State House on July 13th, 2018, the SLTU President, Mohamed Sallieu Bangura, assured President Bio that, “We are fully supportive of the free quality education. Our partners have been working closely with the Minister of Basic and Higher Education and we are pleased with the effort of the government. We are delighted to see free access for students attending government and government assisted schools and we are also happy to note that government has been able to meet the increased enrolment demands come September. We are ready to support the government’s efforts in providing the free quality education.”

He expressed hope in the success of the new approach to education and extended 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. 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.

“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.

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 urges them to support education as the flagship program of the New Direction.

School system

The country’s education system had changed from three years at senior secondary to four years. That will now revert to three years. The timescale for this is to be decided.

Teacher training

Only 55% of teachers at preschool level, 42% at primary, 35% at junior secondary and 49% at senior secondary are qualified to teach. The government will increase the number of qualified teachers and ensure they are fairly distributed across the country. Teacher training campuses will be established in every region and there will be free tuition for teacher education.

Motivating teachers

A special incentive scheme will be launched for science and French teachers, as well as those in remote areas and special needs institutions. An awards scheme will recognize the most innovative and dedicated teachers at national and district levels. Every school teacher with 10 years or more experience will get free university education for three of their children.

New classrooms

New classroom blocks will be built in urban areas to reduce congestion in schools and the two-shift system will be eliminated in the next few years.

School meals

To keep children in school and help them concentrate on their learning, the government would work with the World Food Program (WFP) and other agencies to expand feeding programmes in all public primary schools.

Transport

A school bus system will be reintroduced in large urban towns at “less than the prevailing market price”.

Various measures for tackling higher education, adult literacy and vocational training were also announced – as well as a student loans scheme and plans for a polytechnic in every district.

The programme will also provide teaching and learning materials, with an initial emphasis on English language and Mathematics text books to all secondary schools in the country. 6 million exercise books have arrived and will be distributed nationwide to schools.

Payment for public examination fees such as the National Primary School Examination (NPSE), Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and West Africa Senior Secondary School Examination (WASSCE) are waived.

This initiative 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. Parents are being encouraged to provide uniforms and some text books for a start, and continue with their traditional role of home supervision, support and coaching to ensure they take maximum advantage of this opportunity.

A telephone hotline (Number 4060 from any local network), 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 in their localities.

Funding

With support from donor partners – including UK Aid, World Bank, Irish Aid, World Food Program and UNICEF, the free education program will be phased over five years and will waive the payment of tuition and admission fees.

“We are proud to be supporting the Government of Sierra Leone on this initiative,’ said Mary Hunt, Head of Office at DFID Sierra Leone. “I am really pleased to see the priority the Government is giving to ensuring all children –  girls, boys, those with disabilities –  throughout the country access quality education,” she said.

“This is a laudable initiative by the Government of Sierra Leone and the commitment shown in increasing education budget from 12 to 21 per cent, will significantly increase access, improve quality and school completion in the coming years,” said Dr Hamid El-Bashir, UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone. “UNICEF will continue to partner with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to ensure that this initiative yields the best results for children of Sierra Leone,” he said.

On his recent visit to China, the Government committed $40 million to Sierra Leone which Finance Minister Jacob Jusu Saffa said will be used to finance Free Education.

Earlier, the World Bank had generously committed $10 million to the program.

Local partnership

The premier Sports Betting and Lottery Company – Mercury International on Thursday 9th August 2018, made a proposal to the Government of Sierra Leone for the construction of 80 classrooms, costing US$1.5 million. The offer was made to the Minister of Basic Primary and secondary school education – Mr. Alpha Timbo, at his New England Ville office in Freetown.

The proposal, the company said, is geared towards complementing the government’s effort in achieving its flagship free and quality education program, and in recognition of the infrastructural challenges faced by the government in achieving its ambition of delivering free education.

Presenting the proposal to Minister Timbo, the Management of Mercury International Company SL Ltd assured the minister of Mercury’s continuous commitment to supporting the government in the development of the Country through education.

Mercury says that its support for education in Sierra Leone has, in the past, focused largely on providing scholarships for qualified Sierra Leoneans to pursue professional courses overseas, and the payment of school fees for over one thousand Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and University students every year.

According to Mercury, supporting education is a right step towards nation building, hence the reason why the company has prioritized educational support in achieving its corporate social responsibility, through Mercury International Charitable Foundation.

“Mercury will fund the construction of 80 single classrooms in 4 phases of 20 classrooms each, starting this year; with the first phase to commence 1st October 2018 and ends in September 2019”, said Mercury.

The government is expected to work with Mercury by providing appropriate construction specification, building permits and the allocation of land for the construction of the classrooms.

The entire project Mercury says will cost about Le12 billion (USD 1,500,000).

Mercury’s proposed also states that the construction work will be supervised by the Ministry with advance payment, regular valuation payment, and a final payment to be made by Mercury International directly into the respective contractor’s accounts within 30 days from receipt of valuation certificates from the Ministry.

The contract for the construction will be tendered through an open bid and final decision will be made by a joint committee comprising of Mercury International and the Ministry of Education.

Receiving the proposal, the Minister of Primary and Secondary Education – Timbo, expressed his profound gratitude to Mercury International for such a laudable venture in complementing government’s effort to materialize its free and quality education program.

“It is clear that there are infrastructural challenges with the implementation of the free education program, but the 80 classrooms from Mercury will help greatly to accommodate close to 6000 pupils across the country”,  Minister Timbo said.

The Minister also assured Mercury of the Ministry’s commitment to ensure the successful implementation of the project and said that the contract tendering process will be free and fair.

The Ministry will ensure proper monitoring and evaluation of the project from start to finish, he said.  He called on other companies to follow the exemplary footsteps of Mercury as part of their corporate social responsibility, in supporting the government in its developmental strides in the country.

And at the launching, following the plea by President Bio for everyone to support the program, the First Lady Her Excellency Madam Fatima Bio also launched a multi-donor basket fund that would raise additional funds for the free education scheme.

President Bio pledged three months of his salary to support the free quality education program. So too did members of his government, including ministers and the Speaker of Parliament.