Reflections On the Way Home

By Dr. David Klooster

March 26, 2010
I’m afraid my contributions to this Sierra Leone blog are all introductions and conclusions and nothing in between. I’m on my way back to North America after a week in Freetown, a whirlwind week, so here are a few reflections on what I saw and heard and learned.

I guess I’m most impressed, after this crash course in the education situation in Sierra Leone, with the enormity of the task ahead of us. In many of our meetings and in the day-long IRC conference on Thursday with a dozen or so speakers, we heard again and again descriptions of an education system in crisis. Most everyone agrees that despite the great strides taken since 2001 in re-opening schools and getting kids back in the classroom, the real learning of the children of this country isn’t getting much better, and it may very well be getting worse and worse.

The qualifications of the teachers is a major issue—many are untrained and unqualified. They are known as the “U-U’s” and most of these teachers (and there are thousands of them—perhaps a majority of the teachers in the rural schools) work as “volunteers” in the schools. Headmasters slip them a stipend out of their budget, but few receive more than $10 a month—about 60 cents a day for working with classes of 30-100 students. It’s no surprise that both student and teacher absenteeism is a major problem in these conditions. Instructional time is extremely limited—just a couple of hours a day, not more than 10 hours a week—since the schools run two shifts each day, morning and afternoon, in an effort to serve the huge number of children who want to go to school.

Although “free, basic education” is a guaranteed right for Sierra Leonean children, most of the people we spoke with agreed that it isn’t happening for far too many students. “Basic education” is defined as 6 years of primary school and 3 years of middle school, called “Junior Secondary School” or JSS in Sierra Leone. The government, the UN, and most of the international partners have focused on the six years of primary school, but few have started to work on JSS. And since more kids are now in primary school (and there are just more kids overall as the population grows rapidly), there’s huge pressure to create more opportunity in JSS.

There are around 5000 primary schools in the country, but only 500 JSSs. In many rural areas, the “local” JSS is miles away, too far for a twelve-year-old to travel every day. So only a very small fraction of the Sierra Leonean adolescents go to school. Most drop out to work or marry or hang out. One conference participant said, “If we don’t give young people a chance to go to school, we are creating a time bomb.”

Of the 37,000 Sierra Leonean JSS students who sat for the West African School exam, only about 500 passed.

presenting CODE at the workshop(presenting CODE at the workshop)

Facilities, access, teacher qualification, the pathetic salaries, lack of textbooks and other learning materials, the paucity of resources provided by the government—we heard these issues repeated throughout the week. In many ways we weren’t surprised, but it was bracing to hear the extent of the problems. One presentation at the IRC conference brought the enormity of the issue home for me.

A District Council official from a rural area, spent 15 minutes reading the list of furniture, equipment, and supplies his organization provided to schools in recent years, and the list went into great detail. “We brought 100 chairs and 20 tables to a school in Kono District, and we brought a dining table and six chairs to the teacher's room, and provided a chalkboard, and gave a motor bike to the school inspector so he could visit the far-flung schools.” His shopping list stretched on and on. It made me realize exactly what is involved when our conversation partners talked about “rebuilding the schools of Sierra Leone.” Rebuilding is anything but a metaphor.

A note for a future dissertation writer: it will be fascinating to compare in a few years the results of the Liberian Teacher Training Program (LTTP)—a massive, expensive US-AID supported effort to bring untrained volunteer teachers up to a basic level of competence—and the modest home-grown Sierra Leonean project to offer distance-learning courses for this same problem. A basic question: are the literacy skills of these teachers up to the challenges of correspondence courses?

Our week ended on a positive note. We meet on Friday morning with 25 educators, NGO personnel from various agencies, writers, journalists, and illustrators in a hot and dusty room to introduce Reading Sierra Leone in a formal presentation. With everyone in the same room, we could explain the program, demonstrate how the workshops work, and talk honestly together about the challenges RSL will face. Sean explained the Four Pillars of RSL, and I taught the first lesson in the workshop leaders’ guide, co-authored by Wendy Saul and Alison Preece. My sense was that participants liked what they saw and heard, and many of them look like good people to keep working with in the years ahead. As we ate our post-workshop lunch of jollof rice, I thought, “There where a lot of smart people in the room today.”

Aisha Fofana Ibrahim reading a children\'s book at the introductory workshop(Aisha Fofana Ibrahim reading a children's book at the introductory workshop)

The challenges are daunting. But the children and teachers of Sierra Leone face much greater challenges than we do, and I’m eager to get to work on the cause of literacy in what some of the locals call “Sweet Salone”—the special country of Sierra Leone.

Sean considers a local program partner

(Sean considers a local program partner)