Education service transformation in Sierra Leone: Where policy meets the people

As GPE prepares to launch a new five-year strategic plan responding to partner countries’ demands for transformative change, GPE Board Member and Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education David Moinina Sengeh shares learnings from his first year of office on what transforming education means to the people of Sierra Leone.

November 04, 2020 by David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Sierra Leone
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8 minutes read
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Students at Aberdeen Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Students at Aberdeen Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

One year ago, on November 7, 2019, I was appointed as Cabinet Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) by H.E. President Julius Maada Bio. Although I was the youngest to ever hold that office for the Government of Sierra Leone, President Bio was direct and clear in his confidence in me. I was proud (still am) of his vote of confidence, but I knew we had an enormous task ahead.

Today, 2.6 million children and young people (approximately 37% of Sierra Leone’s population) directly benefit from the government’s flagship Free Quality School Education (FQSE) program.

MBSSE has around 33,000 teachers on the payroll – the largest single workforce category in the government – and a further 50,000 serving as community, volunteer or private school teachers.

In all, the government’s investment in education takes up 22% of its total budget.

Besides the sheer scale of the MBSSE’s remit, we were confronting a set of other thorny, urgent problems, which were exacerbated by decades of neglect of the education sector and deeply entrenched corrupt practices.

First, more than 4,000 teachers had not had their salary level revised to reflect their successful completion of professional development programs. Second, we had no updated syllabi or curriculum frameworks for the schools. Third, key positions in the MBSSE including the curriculum and research units were left vacant.

In addition, critical policies covering topics such early childhood development and school feeding were either stuck in draft stage or absent. Finally, new school infrastructure development was stalling even though our population continues to grow rapidly.

We needed to address all of these critical issues quickly to fulfill the potential of FQSE, and at the same time initiate a transformation of the MBSSE.

I felt the urge to act on all agendas immediately, but I knew that to enact a sustainable transformation, it was necessary to take an approach rooted in a highly consultative process with my staff, partners, and, most importantly, local stakeholders across the country.

So, we packed our bags and set out to meet children, parents, teachers, chiefs, civil society organizations, local council leaders, journalists, and really anyone who wanted to tell us about the challenges and ways of solving these perennial education sector problems.

Although COVID-19 impacted our itinerary, I am proud to say that my team has engaged with stakeholders in all 16 districts of Sierra Leone over the last 12 months. We prayed, laughed, cried, disagreed and danced together; we had road accidents on the way; but rain or shine, we remained committed to jointly diagnosing and addressing our challenges through dialogue. The rules of engagement were simple – honest discussions, respect and empathy for all.

It has been a year of dialogue, learning and action.

Students and their teacher at the Kailahun Methodist Primary School in Sierra Leone. Credit: George Lewis/The World Bank.
A student and his teacher at Kailahun Methodist Primary School in Sierra Leone
Credit: George Lewis/The World Bank.

My learnings from these nationwide engagements fall in five categories, each with a set of lessons and key interventions we have either already done or are currently planning.

1. Rural-urban divide: Whether it is infrastructure, teacher availability, or resource accessibility, schools in rural and remote areas have structural challenges which affect learning outcomes and appear to have been ignored for decades.

For example, all paramount chiefs pointed out that some of our 10 and 11-year-old National Primary School Examination (NPSE) candidates have to walk up to 20 miles to attempt exams because they have no examination centers in their chiefdoms.

While I understand the added expense from administrative and logistic processes for the Examination Council and the Ministry, I have constituted a body to review applications for examination centers in a data-driven manner that factors in some of these structural challenges.

I have also made it our target that each Chiefdom across Sierra Leone must have at least one examination center for the NPSE in 2021. At a townhall engagement in Makeni, Bombali district, a teacher in the audience suggested that we look much closer into the particular challenges facing village schools.

I have asked my team to develop a Village School Policy and also address implementation and impact of our other policies in remote areas.

2. Accessibility: Even in urban areas, essential services like road quality, water access, and proximity of health facilities are critical for improving learning outcomes. In Kamakwie, Karene district, children in one school regularly used the available government school bus system, but in a different school situated in the same town, they didn’t.

I soon learned from the pupils and teachers that the bus did not go to that school because of the poor road network. Nationwide, children with disabilities are generally not catered for on the bus service.

Another aspect of accessibility is specific to girls. I had initially expected to encounter some pushback against our Zero School Girl Pregnancy Campaign and the government’s lift of the ban on pregnant girls from attending school. After many dialogues and initial skepticism, I am proud to that say that it has been widely welcomed and in many communities with identified champions promoting our messages.

Currently, my team is focusing on our Radical Inclusion policy in Education that will seek to address legal, structural, procedural, cultural and other barriers that limit equitable access to vulnerable children, in particular girls and those living with disabilities.

3. Radio, mobile, and digital divide: During COVID-19 school closures, the ministry and partners bootstrapped our Education Radio as the core mode for continuous learning through the Radio Teaching Program. However, districts like Bonthe, Kailahun, Falaba and Koinadugu, comprising more than a million people, did not have radio connectivity.

They could not benefit from the online version either because of sparse mobile connectivity. With our partner Catholic Relief Service, we have now installed two new radio transmitters for Falaba and Koinadugu.

We will continue to build a resilient system so education can continue for all even with interruptions like COVID-19. With Plan International, we have supplied solar radios to girls nationwide and all pre-schools across the country.

With the United Nations and the government of Norway, the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation is undertaking an ambitious project within the Giga Project to connect all 11,000+ schools in Sierra Leone to the internet.

We have fully digitized our Annual School Census processes and have completed the distribution of tablets (with training) to all principals of Senior Secondary Schools nationwide to enhance real time data collection.

Education Technology is a critical part of our government’s agenda, and we will continue to invest in it and build more partnerships.

A teacher computes students' grades for their report card. Kailahun, Sierra Leone.
Credit: George Lewis/World Bank

My dual role as Chief Innovation Officer of Sierra Leone remains a critical asset to the Ministry.

4. Teachers and teaching matter: There can’t be schools without teachers. And without the right teaching methods, teachers may not have the tools to improve learning outcomes. In every stakeholder meeting the reassessments of teachers was brought up. This is an issue of justice - teachers deserve what is owed to them based on their qualifications and work output.

On October 5, 2020, H.E. President Bio ordered my ministry and the Ministry of Finance to focus on completing the reassessments. As mentioned above, over 4,000 applications have been reviewed by the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) and those reassessments will take effect in 2021.

Currently, teacher recruitment is manual and time consuming. We aim to digitize recruitment by end 2021. Placement of teachers particularly in remote areas and validating teacher details for the payroll remain a challenge. The latter is an activity conducted by the National Civil Registration Authority, the Ministry of Finance, the Accountant General’s Department, TSC and MBSSE.

We have strengthened the TSC over the last year and will continue to invest in teacher leadership.

5. Communication and dialogue: From these dialogues it what was apparent to me that the mistrust between stakeholders on issues of education had been growing for more than a decade. Accusations were not always backed up with evidence but rooted in misperception and a lack of trust.

Given a chance to say what they think and be heard, everyone quickly turned to a constructive approach. In many communities, they had never met a Minister of Education. The Deputy District Directors work hard to represent me in the districts, but I am glad I went with my team to signal our government’s dedication to education.

Granting interviews for local media, visiting classrooms, chatting with students and teachers all have helped change the perception on education in Sierra Leone.

We are grateful for the many dedicated stakeholders and partners we have and today every critical decision seeks out and applies partner and stakeholder input.

In addition to these rich, deep and impactful local engagements, I have also had the honor to represent Sierra Leone and contribute to a series of dialogues and exchanges with other Ministers of Education and development partners on the global stage. Together we are developing global education agendas that strongly resonate with the challenges we face in Sierra Leone.

For example, the 2020 GEM Report “Inclusion and Education: All Means All” puts forth an uncompromising mission to ensure that every child receives a quality education.

By listening to stakeholders across Sierra Leone, I’ve learned that to get there we need a raft of different initiatives based on local diagnostics, including ones seemingly not related directly to education, such as better road networks and telecommunications connectivity.

Similarly, GPE’s mission “To mobilize partnerships and investments that transform education systems in developing countries, leaving no one behind” strikes a chord with me.

H.E. President Bio has declared 2021 a year of Accelerated Delivery. As we complete the full restructuring of the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, make data and digitization a bedrock of our implementation and add to the critical transformational policies including supporting pregnant girls and radically expanding examination access, we are focused on delivering the president’s Manifesto Promises, the National Development Plan Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals in basic education.

If there is one thing I’ve learned after my first year, it is that for this to happen, we need all citizens: learners, teachers, parents, local leaders and school management to hop on the bus and join us on the road to national transformation through education.

My bags are packed, and the more I learn, the more hopeful I become for the future of education in Sierra Leone. Please jump in and join us on this exciting journey.

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Governance, Sector planning
Sub-Saharan Africa: Sierra Leone

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Congratulations, Minister, on the travel around the country to listen and learn. it is the best model of policy-making when combined with the top-down process.
KAILAHUN was mentioned in your account. During the Ebola outbreak, CHILD to CHILD with Pikin to Pikin, and DfID-FCDO support, pioneered a radio programme where children consulted others, aired useful information (listened to by whole families) and interviewed local ministry officials. The initiative won international recognition (http://www.childtochild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CTC_ODI-UNGEI…) and helped to raise the issues children, especially girls, were facing in the pandemic. CHILD to CHILD stands ready to assist, with its Getting Ready for School and COVID-19 package.

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