Sierra Leone INSIGHT: Reversing the Education Decay (Part 2)

INSIGHT

with Julius Spencer

In my last article, I gave you an insight into what education in Sierra Leone was like, both while I was a pupil and teacher in school and university. Today, I will give you some idea of what went wrong and why. However, before that, let me tell you a bit about my wife, Sonia.

Sonia has a Ph.D in Science Curriculum Development and Evaluation. For her Ph.D project, she worked on Using Indigenous Technology as a basis for teaching Science, Mathematics and technology to JSS pupils and developed a module using the traditional coal pot to teach about energy to JSS 1–3 pupils. She later developed a number of other such modules, including using traditional gara tie dyeing, fish processing and the production of Omole (local gin) to teach some other science concepts. She offered these modules to the Ministry of Education to be used for teaching science in schools, but they were not interested. She published a number of articles in international science education journals and ended up being invited to the Netherlands, India (to name a few) and South Africa to run workshops in three universities that were looking for new methods of teaching science. What she imparted through these workshops contributed to their new approach to teaching science in that country.

When Sonia left the University, she worked for the British Council. While there, she led a team made up of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) some Secondary school teachers, and lecturers from FBC and Freetown Teachers College to produce a series of textbooks on using the environment to teach English, Science, Social Studies and Mathematics for JSS 1–3 which were donated to the Ministry of Education. Those books were never distributed to schools because ministry officials came up with a huge budget for the distribution which she rejected and offered to get some UN agencies to transport them to the various districts free of charge. Of course the ministry officials were not interested and the books were left lying in their stores and to this day have never been used.

Sonia is just one example of the many Sierra Leoneans whose ideas and expertise are not being used to solve the many problems this country has. There are Sierra Leonean economists, agriculturists, mining experts, telecoms experts, etc. Some of them having retired from senior positions in international organisations, now based in the country and being used as advisers by other countries while their own country does not make use of their services. I am sure many of you are surprised to hear this, but it’s the truth. Why is this happening?

The answer to this question is fairly simple, but I will come back to that later. For now, let me get back to the topic of this piece which is the decay in education and what needs to be done.

If you remember, in my last article I briefly mentioned the fact that the average Sierra Leonean is not an innovator and consequently we have become a nation of imitators. Well, my wife Sonia is one of the exceptions and the reason for that is quite simple. She did music in school and to this day has kept in touch with her form one music teacher, an American lady that visited us in Freetown a few years ago. She was also involved in drama and acted in a play directed by the Late A.K. Turay during our first year at Njala. In addition, she was a member of the first gospel music group in Sierra Leone, the Gospel Youth Singers. In other words, her creative intelligence was developed through involvement in the creative arts such that even though she is in the sciences, she can think creatively. The same applies to some of the foremost scientists and engineers in this country and the world over. Someone like Prof. Koso Thomas, while being a professional civil engineer is a fine artist and poet as well. Mr. Tani Pratt, another civil engineer, is also a musician and one of the leading organists in the country, and the list goes on.

The point I am trying to make is that the creative arts are a very important part of a rounded education. This was recognised as far back as Ancient Greece by the philosopher, Aristotle. Music and the performing arts were therefore an integral part of education in this country in the past. There was an arts education unit in the ministry of education that organised singing competitions for primary schools and drama competitions for secondary schools. All this ended a while ago and the unit disappeared.

I mentioned in my previous article, that while teaching at the St. Edwards Secondary school in the late 1970s, apart from being supervised by my head of department, school inspectors from the ministry of education visited the school periodically and engaged the teachers. I know that some years ago while Dr. Alpha Wurie was Minister of Education, an effort was made to revive and strengthen the school inspectorate division, but I wonder how effective it is today.

I was also surprised when a few years ago I heard that a team in Freetown had written lesson plans/notes for the core subjects and teachers were going to be trained to use them. I was surprised because I expected that any trained teacher should know how to do a lesson plan and lesson notes and it does not make sense for this to be done centrally because lesson plans and notes should be based on a particular set of pupils to be taught, taking into consideration their current level of competence in the subject. But of course it was done centrally because a group of people were paid to do it.

This brings me to the vexing question of corruption in the education sector and the issue of exams malpractices. As I said in my last article, the teachers and officials engaged in this practice did not come from Mars. They are products of our society which has become totally corrupt. As Late Siaka Stevens once said, “usay dɛn tay kaw na de I fɔ it gras”. Our teachers, like all other workers have come to believe that there’s nothing wrong with making extra money in their places of employment. After all, they see politicians who had nothing and were down and outs, suddenly become wealthy overnight, flaunting their ill-gotten wealth in the faces of those intellectually superior to them.

But the problem is not just with teachers. Corruption is rife in all sectors, with the education sector being close to the top of the pile. Many officials in the Ministries of Education, as is the case in all other ministries, are only interested in activities that they will benefit directly from, as my wife’s experience clearly shows.

Add to this the fact that pupils are no longer interested in acquiring knowledge. All they are interested in is acquiring the paper qualification because they believe that’s all they need to make it in life. Little wonder we now have students graduating from university with first class degrees who cannot write a single sentence without multiple grammatical and spelling errors.

To compound the problem is the fact that there has been a breakdown in parenting and many children are left on their own to fend for themselves. Our parents monitored our activities and we did the same for our children. We ensured they did their school homework; we attended Parent Teacher Association meetings and speech days; we engaged their teachers to find out how they were doing in class; we made sure they spent time studying at home. Nowadays, most parents have no idea what their children get up to. But worse is the fact that some parents encourage, particularly their daughters, to engage in illicit activities so they can bring things home. Parents induce teachers to give their children marks they do not deserve through bribery. And this has been going on since the 1990s.

Teachers, of course have also played a major role in the destruction of our education system by demanding cash or sex for grades, extorting monies from students by forcing them to buy pamphlets, not turning up for class and generally spending as little time as possible actually teaching. Note that I am using the term “teacher” in a generic sense to include all those involved in the activity, including university lecturers. In schools, many teachers insist that pupils pay and attend extra lessons where they actually teach, thus ensuring that those children who do not attend the extra lessons have little or no chance of passing exams. And all of this did not start today. I have clear evidence that it was going on as far back as the early 1990s.

I remember my son coming home one day from school. He attended the Prince of Wales like me, but during his own days in the school, class sizes had risen to 80 children and at times over 100. When he was in form 3 (1992), he came home one day rather upset saying that he had been awarded a mark lower than what he believed he deserved for Technical Drawing and when he took up the matter with the teacher, the teacher told him to give him some money so he could change the mark on his report card. He insisted that the teacher had already done that for some other boys. My wife and I could not believe what he was telling us and felt he was only trying to find a way to explain his poor performance in the subject. He however insisted that what he was telling us was true and asked that we give him the money and see if the mark on his report card will not change. We decided to give him the money to see what will happen and low and behold he came home with the report card the next day with the mark changed to a high pass mark. My wife and I were so disturbed that we went to the school the next day to report the matter to the principal expecting that some serious disciplinary action would be taken against the teacher who was easily identifiable, but all the principal did was make a lame comment like “o these teachers, some of them are difficult to control,” and that was the end of the matter.

While chatting with my son, who is now a medical doctor, about this and other issues a few days ago, he told me what had happened when he was in form 1, which he did not speak about at the time. The following are his own words.

“When I was in form 1 (1989), our woodwork teacher gave everyone a low mark in the first test we had and then came to class telling us how badly we’d performed and that we should give him money to change our marks. Being a fresh-faced boy from International School Njala, I ran to the principal and told him. The principal called the teacher to his office and lambasted him. Unfortunately for me, he told him I was the one who had reported the matter and the teacher came back to class and shamed me in front of the whole class. I clearly remember the day after it happened. As I was walking towards the form 1 block of classes, everyone in all the four form 1 classes came out of their classes singing “the evil” in unison. Throughout form 1, I was nicknamed “The Evil” and I never got more than 55 in both Woodwork and Metalwork until I got to form 3 and dropped both of them.”

I will pause here today. In my next article, I will lay out my ideas on what needs to be done to really change the status quo in education.

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