The (Mixed) Promise Of Free Education In Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s recently elected President, retired Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio, has announced details of his plan to provide free primary and secondary education to Sierra Leonean students. Following through with an electoral promise, which swept him to power in elections on March 31, President Bio revealed that the share of annual budget spending on education will increase from 11% to 20%.

In his speech opening parliament, President Bio’s announcement was met with massive support from members of all political parties. “Free education will be introduced effective September 2018, for all primary and secondary schools to improve access to quality education,” the President told the parliament, to thunderous applause. The policy aligns with several major international standards, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals provide the target of free, quality education for every child by 2030.

In an interview with the Sierra Leone Global Times Newspaper, the Section Chief of Kroo Bay Community, Pa Alimamy Kargbo, said that one of the major challenges for parents is the lacking financial capacity to send their children to school. He said that the new policies will hopefully reduce school drop-out rates caused by financial pressures.

The education system in Sierra Leone was a major casualty of its brutal civil war, which ended in 2002. More than 67% of children were forced out of school by 2001, and over 1270 schools were destroyed. The destruction wreaked by the war has left systems unable to cope, and many students have not been able to complete their education, particularly in the more rural areas where government influence is at its weakest. In fact, the overall literacy rate for adults is about 43%, and while the country had been improving following the end of the war, issues such as the 2014 Ebola crisis impeded further development.

Still, some improvements have been made, yet the education system still faces many challenges. Education is notionally compulsory for 9 years (6 primary school and 3 junior secondary). While exact data is hard to find, in 2016 UNESCO reported that while 98% of children enrolled in primary school when they became eligible, only 51% completed the final year of primary education. Figures were even lower for secondary education, as only around 33% of students completed the (legally compulsory) 3-year junior secondary school program. ReliefWeb (part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reports that only 42% of Sierra Leonean primary school teachers are properly qualified. Improvements in education have regularly been linked to improvements in social well-being.

However, education in Sierra Leone has often been seen as a mechanism through which structural inequality in society is entrenched. Prior to the war, debates were already raging around whether the system was entrenching a ‘ruling’ class through access impediments, or even through splitting some schools between ‘academic education,’ which led to government roles, and ‘vocational education’, which focused around farming practices (in an economy characterized by high numbers of subsistence farmers). It was also the children of the wealthy and the elite that was sent to the best schools and stayed in the system until completion, while students from rural or poor backgrounds dropped out or were unable to even access facilities. Debates over such disparities are still occurring and have been noted in multiple post-war reports.

Education has a reputation as a panacea for many social ills and is one of the priorities of many developing countries. Despite the improvements seen since the war, and the massive injection of funding and political willpower in President Bio’s policy, Sierra Leone’s education system still needs large amounts of work. This is not just from a monetary perspective, but also to ensure that current structural inequalities are not widened by attempted improvements. Should the policy be implemented with such challenges in mind, it will hopefully provide a much-needed boost to Sierra Leonean citizens living in poverty and still feeling the effects of the tumultuous last 30 years.