Monday, January 23, 2012

Addressing the Educational Decline in Sierra Leone

School Children Sierra Leone
To say that education has declined in Sierra Leone is basically an understatement. Just last week I received an email message from a nephew of mine that I will not reproduce here to respect his privacy. But reading such a terrible letter from a secondary school graduate made me sad the whole day and had me worried about Sierra Leone's future competitiveness in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized.

You could say that my nephew was just a poor student, but interactions with other recent Sierra Leone graduates, even some  recent university graduates, has occasionally left a bitter taste in my mouth. If the deterioration in educational standards was just in isolated pockets of the country, that could be understandable and maybe attributable to certain factors that could be easily explained . But the fact that this deterioration seems to be systemic, affecting every area of the country is not only alarming, but could well be catastrophic for the future of the country.

War Education
The ten year civil war did of course play a major role in accelerating this decline, but that does not fully explain the reason why the decline persists and even seem to be increasing exponentially. We know that schools were burnt down and students and teachers were displaced for considerable periods during the war. The Nixon Memorial Nursing School and my own school Wesley Secondary school, both prominent institutions in my home town Segbwema, had cause to be relocated to Kenema during the peak of the war and for the students that could not afford the relocation that effectively meant the end of their education.

The war however officially ended in 2002 and even though it is now 2012, news emanating from Sierra Leone on the educational front is bleak and disheartening to those of us who know the positive role that good education can play in assuring the future well being of both the individual and society.

The importance of education in any society need not be overemphasized. To emphasize the major role that education plays in a country's economic development, most economists refer to education as an investment in human capital. For developing countries like Sierra Leone, education is crucial, as no government, no matter how great its ambition may be, will succeed without an enlightened and technically trained citizenry in this age of technical progress. For a government to implement its development plans effectively, it has to draw from the expertise of the citizens and if they are not up to the task, the result will always be failure no matter how well thought out the development plans are.

Tokyo Japan
Freetown Sierra Leone
It may surprise a lot of people to know that Sierra Leone has more natural resources than Japan. While Japan continues to rank among the greatest economies in the world, Sierra Leonean are proud when the country is not ranked among the five least developed countries in the world. The only logical explanation for this paradoxical disparity is investment in human capital through education. Japan invests heavily in educating its citizenry and competition for its top universities are fierce. This investment in human development has fundamentally transformed the Japanese economy to one that now heavily relies on the export of highly technical vehicles and electronic items. Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Sony, Toshiba, and other technological giants did not just fall out of the sky, they represent year of painstaking scientific and technological research that could only be achieved by a society with a highly trained labor force.

Hell's Corridor-Kailahun Road
When we were young, we were told that learning was better than silver and gold. Some people at that time thought the statement was a ploy for Europeans to take our gold and diamonds whilst they built us schools and colleges. Today we can see that even though the colonialists did unfairly rape our natural resources, the essence of the statement remains true. While Sierra Leone has gold, diamond, bauxite, iron ore, and now we are hearing petroleum, the lack of technical expertise has meant years of basically exporting these materials in their raw forms to those countries where the citizens are trained to process them and multiply the value sometimes hundredfold. Today, while the Japanese are looking for the most effective way to get to the moon, we are still looking for the most effective way to get to Kailahun.

Sierra Leone as a country needs to invest in the education of its people. No single political party can be blamed for years of systematic disregard of the once great educational sector in the country. The increase in a lot of negatives in the society; violent crime, thuggery, "raray boys", burglary, corruption, hooliganism, can all be attributed to a society that has not put the necessary focus on developing the youth and teaching them to regard themselves as individuals of substance and worth. In most developed nations, the government relies on the individuals for development and basic progress. In Sierra Leone however, the reverse is true as individuals rely on and blame the government for everything, the simple reason being that most people lack the expertise to be sufficiently independent.

Though Sierra Leone is far behind on the global development train, it is never too late to catch up. I know the country has excellent educational policies in place and most times in our country our problem is implementation. I will however endeavor to add my own voice to what I believe should be the way forward. The following points are purely my opinion, but I do hope those who are leaders in the educational sector will give my points a read and even if they disagree with me, at least they would have heard another point of view, which is what education is all about.

  • In most developed countries early childhood education is viewed as the foundation of human development. In Sierra Leone, there is now this tendency for teachers without strong intellectual foundation to migrate to primary schools as those represent an easier and less challenging population to teach. This is a disastrous situation as it is within this period that the foundation for future intellect is developed. Primary schools in my opinion should have the best and highest paid teachers. A lot of Sierra Leoneans reading this may disagree, but I can safely say that my primary school teachers, ranging from Mr. Jajua in class 1 of Methodist Primary School, Segbwema, to Mr. Thorpe in class 7 of Samaria Primary school, Wellington Street, Freetown played a much greater role in my education than all my secondary school teachers combined. In those days, a primary school teacher taught you every subject;  from Maths, Social Studies, History, Civic,....... to English. If your primary school teachers were not very clever, or were not academically strong, you were not going to be strong in any of the foundation subjects and by the time you got to secondary school, you had become the type of student who aimed at 50% and was glad to just pass to another class, a foundation that prepared you more for being a future political thug than a future civil servant or private entrepreneur.
Technical Training
  • Every school in Sierra Leone should place the same emphasis on technical subjects as they do on the more traditional subjects. The advantage with an emphasis on skills training is that the trainee graduates with readily marketable skills that will promote their own independence. There are hundreds of technical colleges in America where people go to learn essential skills that they can use the day they graduate. Sierra Leone's technical schools should collaborate with manufacturing and mining industries to produce labor that is ready for use in these industries. Skills like carpentry, automotive technicians, welding, and so on are necessary for the technical progress in a country. 
Fourah Bay College
  • I hope the academic offering or subject offered by a college like FBC has changed or is changing. In the 90s, there were very few students in the essential faculties like engineering and science. There was a surplus of students reading mundane subjects like Greek and Roman History, and though I have enormous respect for ancient Greek and Romans, I would have preferred to see more of my colleagues engaged in the study of subjects that involved researching how the country was going to get out of the terrible economic mess we were in during those days. I hope and pray things have changed, as Sierra Leone needs a flexible and adaptable workforce that can meet the demands of 21st century technological changes
                                         TO BE CONTINUED

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