By Moses Owen Browne, Jr.
Many people think education should be a quick fix. While I think education is an emergency situation in Liberia and should be treated as one, the partnership school proposal by Liberia’s education ministry should be inclusive of all partners, both local and international.
I remember entering the Gabriel L. Dennis Foreign Service Institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was my greatest and biggest challenge, just as getting admission for Graduate at New York University International Relations program.
As a requirement to enroll in schools abroad one must take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for most graduate schools in the United States and elsewhere. I am comparing the two because I wrote at least two separate exams before my admission at the Foreign Service Institute, and sat for an interview before a panel of educators and seasoned diplomats.
It was painstaking but at the end of the day, I appreciated the fact that Liberia’s education system could get better if we employ the same rigorous processes that are engaged around the world.
I’d thought the centrally-controlled, one-size-fits-all approach to education policy and reforms had disappeared with the introduction of modern technologies longtime ago. But I reckoned without the involvement of local content, the teacher associations, the parent associations and ordinary citizens it would be difficult to achieve any reforms.
Reading through the proposed “Partnership Schools for Liberia: Building a Better Future for our Children,” that it would fund up to 120 schools, just three percent of all public schools through Partnership Schools took me back to the mandate of the Ministry of Education.
“The mission of the Ministry of Education is to provide quality education for all and prepare future leaders who are capable of handling the task of nation building, protecting our national heritage and enhancing the socio-economic growth and development for the sustenance of the Liberian state.”
Let me first establish that Liberia’s educational system is gradually improving after decades of uncivil conflict, which led to the destruction of the Country’s entire education sector. As a country, we are beginning to see tremendous improvements especially with enrollment, retention and education infrastructure development. However, funding for the sector has been very low, which has resulted to a weak system over the last decade.
It is no secret that more than 70 percent of our schools were destroyed during the Country’s bloody civil war, and most school- going children were denied the opportunity of acquiring basic education and enrollment. Many of our teachers were killed and others fled for fear of being killed in the war.
Today, the war is over and Liberia has enjoyed 10 years of sustained peace. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has won two successive elections and the democratic process is well on course. In her inaugural address during her first term, she promised to institute policies and reform strategies that will enhance rapid growth and development for Liberia.
“Our strategy is to achieve quick and visible progress that reaches significant number of our people, to gain momentum, consolidate support, and establish the foundation for sustained economic development. This will encompass five major pillars: Security, Economic Revitalization, Basic Services, Infrastructure, and Good Governance” the President asserted.
Two years after that speech, in 2008, the government of Liberia launched its well-worded and publicized Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), which articulated the government’s overarching goals for all sectors of the Country. Education was placed under Pillar IV of the PRS: Rebuilding Infrastructures and Basic Social Services. It’s exactly five years now since the end of PRS implementation, and the results were miserable.
Today, there are many children in the streets of Liberia selling cold water, boil eggs, and candies. These kids are yet to sit their first exams; and there are many young people, former combatants who do not have the opportunity to go to school. Few years ago, at a well-attended cabinet meeting in Liberia, President Sirleaf termed the Education sector as a “big mess” that needs overhauling.
According to UNICEF, Liberia has a literacy rate of 60.8% which suggests to me that 39.2% of the population is illiterate. This is a scaring percentage, because if we dig more into the statistics of how many are males, females and youths, we would understand that the vulnerability lies with the youths and females.
We can’t afford to have a country that is so yearning for development and progress to have such a low level of literacy rate. It will be difficult for the segment that is illiterate to contribute meaningfully to the development drive of the country.
Today, we have more than 16-billion investment portfolio in Liberia. There are several concession companies, international development organizations and non-governmental organizations that are in serious search of qualified technicians, specialists and experts to work into different sectors of their entity.
However, majority of people cannot venture into the employment market simply because they lack the skills, the manpower development, the capacity to meet up with the demands these companies are making.
This is why I am so passionate about education, because if Liberia must achieve its full growth potential and developed into a nobler country, its citizens must be well-equipped, well-educated enough to manage the country’s natural and untapped resources. The challenges in Liberia’s Education sector are enormous; key amongst them are:
Inadequate and undefined sources of finance that will enable the sector to keep on par with the ever increasing demand for quality and relevant education;
Weak capacity for management and governance from central to the local level; an outdated curriculum and inadequate textbooks, chairs, desks, and school supplies;
Insufficient school access that limits the ability of every child, including girls and persons with disabilities, to exercise his/her right to quality education;
Insufficient numbers of well-trained, qualified, and motivated teachers; an understaffed and over-crowded public university; and poor quality programs being offered at some institutions of higher learning.
Though some initial progress were made upon the introduction of the Government Free and Compulsory Education Policy, which abolished tuition fees in public primary schools that significantly impacted young children; progress drop due to lack of adequate implementation of the policy which the government blamed on lack of funding.
Borrowing from Liberia’s Former Minister of Finance, Nathaniel Barnes’ paper titled “Are We Ready To Fix Our Broken Education System”?
Beyond rethinking the content and philosophy underpinning our education system, we must take a radical approach to educational financing if we are to successfully train our youth to thrive in the 21st century. Revamping Liberian education cannot and must not be seen as a quick fix. Improvements in school and teaching quality must be sustained over a significant period of time in order to successfully yield results.
It will require solid and stable financing that is predictable, extremely well managed, and consistent. Currently, Liberia’s educational financing has been largely sourced from donors and through the general budgetary process. Given that both donor and Government of Liberia funding are constrained by many internal and external factors such as politics and global economic trends, key aspects of Liberia’s Education Sector Plan remain to be implemented or achieved because, quite often, there are budget shortfalls.
Officials at the Ministry of Education spend so much time raising funds, which takes away the time that should have been spent actually implementing the Sector Plan. To secure Liberia’s long-term economic viability, we must treat educational reform as a priority, not just in rhetoric, but also in action.
Partnership school is expected to be launched in September, with aim to bring lessons from elsewhere in the world including South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK, to Liberia.
The government says she has learned from these models and is adapting them to the country’s unique context. The project is called Partnership Schools for Liberia. The Ministry of Education will contract operators from within and outside of Liberia to run public primary schools.
The schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors. Together, we will bring new ideas, new capacity, new systems and new expertise to a system that is struggling to deliver.
Partnership Schools has one overriding mission: to provide every child, regardless of family background or income, access to high-quality education. All Partnership Schools will be free and non-selective. No tuition fees will be charged. Instead, non-government operators will be funded by government and donors, and they will be accountable to government for the results they deliver.
However, the partnership school proposal by Liberia’s education ministry should be inclusive of all partners; both local and international. With this; I am very sure we ensure every child will be in school and learning.
Moses Owen Browne, Jr., is a Global Youth Ambassador for Education. A World at School, advocating for Education for all. Mr. Browne currently serves as Media and Communications Manager, Plan International Liberia. He is also a diplomat in training at the Gabriel L. Dennis Foreign Service Institute, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Liberia.