Mad rush for Sierra Leone's free education

Tuesday September 18 2018

Police in north Sierra Leone round up children

Police in north Sierra Leone round up children engaging in hawking instead of going to school. The country has launched a free learning programme. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

KEMO CHAM
By KEMO CHAM
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Schools in Sierra Leone witnessed an unprecedented high turnout as the new term opened Monday after the introduction of the free education programme.

Over two million children are expected to benefit from the scheme, which is a fulfilment of a campaign promise by new President Julius Maada Bio.

The programme notably targets primary and secondary schools with a package that provides free tuition and text books in four core subjects, including science and mathematics.

Learners will also receive exercise books and, in the long run, uniforms and even shoes.

Most school authorities have since Monday struggled to cope with the high demand for enrolment.

A huge deficit

One teacher said for the last 15 years he had never witnessed such a high turnout of pupils on the first day of school after a break.

Some parents in Freetown were forced to return home disappointed due to lack of space for their children in their schools of choice.

Mr Abdul Bangura, a father of three, complained that one of his children could not be admitted to as school of choice because the authorities said they had passed the classroom capacity.

“They should have fixed all the problems before they started this free education thing,” Mr Bangura, who leaves in the Malama, lamented.

The government says free education aimed to offset a huge deficit in school enrolment in the West African country, which has a literacy rate of 48 per cent, one of the lowest in the world.

The government has cited a constitutional provision that makes it an offence for a parent not to send their child to school.

Julius Maada Bio

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

There were reports of security forces in parts of the country arresting children selling in the streets and market palaces, a common practice also blamed for the low school enrolment.

But there have been many unanswered questions around the successful implementation of the freed learning programme.

First is the source of funding in a country dependent on international donors for over half of its annual budget.

A major concern has been whether the system can accommodate the huge interest.

There were also questions about classroom space and the teacher-learner ratio.

To make matters worse, the government insists that there cannot be more than 50 learners per class.

Area of concern

Education minister Alpha Timbo spent part of Monday touring schools in the city to monitor the first day.

Mr Timbo later told journalists that in spite of the problems he identified, the ministry was satisfied with the level of appreciation of the free education policy.

Education rights campaigners say one area of concern was the conduct of school authorities.

Teachers have been accused of imposing numerous levies on leaners, occasioning a high dropout rate, especially from those of poor backgrounds.

The Sierra Leone Teachers Union (SLTU) said the only way out of the problem was to fix the poor work condition and low salaries of teachers.

An average teacher in Sierra Leone receives about $100 a month. That, says SLTU, was hardly enough to take care of their basic needs.

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