The President of Sierra Leone has defended his decision to spend almost a quarter of the state budget on education, saying the country cannot develop unless all children go to school.
Speaking to the Guardian, Julius Maada Bio admitted that the allocation of 1.7 trillion leones (80m. We cannot develop without improving education. I see that as an existential problem.
“I had to go to school barefoot, without shoes on my feet. In order to reach this level of leadership, I think education played a very important role.”
The organic government launched its Radical Inclusion program in 2018, which aims to get millions more children into school by providing free, quality education to all youth, especially those from poor and marginalized groups.
The government has allocated 22% of this year’s budget to education, one of the largest percentage funding commitments in the world, doubling the percentage allocation in 2016. Additional money is obtained from donors.
Education for girls is a central part of the program. More teachers are to be hired and trained, while pregnant students are encouraged to remain in the classroom. Until 2020, pregnant schoolgirls were forbidden to continue their education.
The policy has seen more than 1 million more children in the class and higher graduation rates to date.
However, the challenges in improving education in Sierra Leone are enormous. The country has some of the worst educational metrics in the world: less than half of the country’s 8 million people are literate.
The country’s 11-year civil war in the 1990s, the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the Covid pandemic have set back the country’s development by decades.
The bulk of the funds will be used to improve the quality of education by paying and training thousands more teachers. According to Joseph Kamara of the Teachers’ Union of Sierra Leone, about 20% of the 37,000 teachers on the government payroll do not show up for work regularly. In some rural areas, people without qualifications will teach.
Teacher training institutions are now required to verify a person’s qualifications before they can be hired. The government has also introduced a ‘quality benchmark’ test to ensure teachers are competent in math, English and ICT.
Five charities are testing different pedagogies in 325 government schools to explore teaching best practices.
Alberta Demby, the principal of St Joseph’s Secondary School in the capital, Freetown, said the number of students at her school doubled in 2018 when free education was introduced. They had to build a new classroom to accommodate more children, including six blind girls.
However, no new mothers have been admitted to Denby’s school since the program began. “Parents are unhappy” about girls coming back, Demby said. In March 2020, Sierra Leone lifted the ban on pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers from attending classes by order of the Economic Community of West African States court.
Fatima Fullah, 19, who attends Rolal Senior Secondary School in Port Loko, has stayed in class throughout her pregnancy.
“A lot of girls don’t go to school when they know they’re pregnant because they’re ashamed,” said Fullah, who is due to give birth in four months. “But I decided to come and move on.”
Bio, who hopes to be re-elected next year, admits his radical approach is daring at a time when millions of Sierra Leoneans are feeling the cost of living crisis.
In August, 21 protesters and six police officers were killed in Freetown in riots over the difficult economic climate, the country’s largest since the end of the civil war. Oppositionists argue that the government should allocate more resources to alleviate immediate suffering rather than investing in education, which could take years to bring results.
“It’s definitely a risk for a politician. But as much as I’m a politician, I’m more of a developmentalist,” Bio said.
“Girls are starting to perform [better]. And it’s all because of our radical inclusion policy that ensures girls are not left behind. women belong to it; They were held back for a very long time. I’ve been validated for the last few years.” This year, the two top-performing students in the country were girls.
“We were once the Athens of West Africa,” said the President. “They used to say that because of the quality of the education on offer. Sierra Leone is home to one of the first Western institutions, Fourah Bay College. It collapsed in the 1990s but we are trying to rebuild our educational facilities to exceed expectations. It’s a revolution.”