Schools without teachers

School girls at a village near the northern town of Makeni.
(David Hecht/IRIN)

With only 19 percent of children in school following Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, the former government began an ambitious project to renovate and build more schools. But while brightly painted blue and white classrooms have already popped up in towns and villages around the country they come at a time when fewer teachers than before are willing to work in them.

“Graduates from teacher training colleges are abandoning the classroom looking for greener pastures elsewhere,” deputy director of junior and secondary schools at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Simon Labour, told IRIN.

Before the war, Sierra Leone had about 20,000 qualified teachers, Labour said, but that number has dropped to 15,000, mostly because of the proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which offer teachers better salaries for humanitarian-type work.

Sierra Leone educationalists IRIN spoke with all agreed that the next government will need to do more than merely construct more schools. “Teachers have to be properly trained and paid decent salaries on time,” retired schools inspector John Saradugu told IRIN.

First on the list of “gaps” in the system according to a donor’s ‘appraisal report’ released in April on Sierra Leone’s education system is “teacher numbers and streamlining teacher training.”

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Plarque at a new school built at Waterloo on the outskirts of Freetown, one of hundreds being built as part of the Sababu education project

Empty classrooms

The government, which was recently deposed in elections, often pointed to the new schools as one of its accomplishments while in office. Its Sababu Education Project, as it is called, received some US$42 million in funding, mostly from the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

Some 300 new schools are in the process of being constructed, the project’s architect Conteh Kamara told IRIN, and by June 2008 around 500 schools should be finished. “But I have no idea how we will find enough text books and teachers for all those schools by the time they open,” he said.

The reason the government has failed to attract the necessary teachers according to the donor appraisal report is “unattractive conditions of service”. An Education Sector Plan endorsed by a score of international organizations in Sierra Leone, said the solution lies with “timely payment of salaries on a regular basis, providing teacher housing, some form of transportation and incentives for teaching in rural areas.”

The problem is even worse in rural areas, and the plan calls for specific “incentives for qualified teachers to access remote/rural areas,” and innovations such as “roving master teachers.”

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
New school built at Waterloo on the outskirts of Freetown, one of hundreds being built as part of the Sababu education project

Until now the government’s solution has been to bring in a type of teaching staff referred to as ‘UUTs’ or ‘Untrained and Unqualified Teachers.’ Officials say that most have only recently graduated from high school and for one reason or another are unable to start in tertiary education. “Nationally, 40 percent of teachers are unqualified, and in the northern region, over half of all teachers are unqualified,” the appraisal report said.

The UUTs say they have low morale because they get low salaries which often come late. The Forum for African Women’s Education, a Sierra Leonean NGO that promotes girls education, has accused male UUTs of regularly sexually exploiting female pupils.

The price of free schooling

According to the Education Act of 2004 it is now mandatory for all parents to send their children to school.

Yet if all children were to suddenly start going, the Sababu’s technical coordinator Albert Dubigny told IRIN, “We wouldn’t be able to cope.” The 500 new schools would only be “a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Even with current enrolment levels the system is close to collapse. Classes are so overcrowded that many schools have adopted what the deputy director of secondary school calls “a two-shift” system with half of the pupils going to classes in the morning while the other half come in the afternoon. And still there are as many as 70 students to a class, Labour said.

''How can the government force me to send my children to school when school authorities demand money that I don’t even have? ''

Public schools are supposed to be free but school administrators charge fees, according to Samuel Brima a lecturer of economics at the University of Sierra Leone. The fees amount to around US$66 per child in junior secondary school, he said. “Keep in mind that the average annual income of a working person in Sierra Leone is between $150 and $200,” he added

Also, teachers augment their salaries by giving private classes which children are obliged to take if they hope to pass their exams. “My children each take seven subjects and I have to pay an extra 5,000 leones ($1.50) a month per subject,” said Victor Younger a parent of two school children. “So you do the math.”

For Musukura Marah, a single parent of three school age children, the government has no right to make schooling compulsory when it is not free. “How can the government force me to send my children to school when school authorities demand money that I don’t even have?” she said.

Education for none

Many educationalists say that the education system is actually worse than it had been before despite the hundreds of new schools.

Part of the reason is corruption. Even officials from within the education ministry complained to IRIN about it. “A lot of the money for education is disappearing and no one is able to stop it,” one official told IRIN.

The resources for education are also spread too thin, Dubigny, from the Sababu project, said. “In the old days there were a few good schools for the elite,” he said. “Now we are producing many schools all of which are below par.”

He said that many communities have given up on the government education system and are creating local schools on their own. “These schools have very few resources but in the end they cost parents less money and the children often get more out of them,” he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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