Monrovia, Liberia — President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says that if Liberia is to make progress and compete in a 21st century world, the country's educational system will need a complete overhaul as the quality of education has declined and is far below acceptable standards.
"At a Cabinet Retreat, three weeks ago, I said that our education system is a mess and in need of complete overhaul," President Sirleaf recalled, reminding Liberians that the comment which drew banner headlines is not a new message, but one she has been singing since taking office in 2006.
According to an Executive Mansion release, President Sirleaf made the assertion when she addressed the nation on Friday, March 15, on the topic: "Fixing Liberia's Education System." The message coincides with the celebration of the 204th birth anniversary of the nation's first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, whose legacy is closely associated with the education of Liberia's children.
President Roberts recognized, during the founding of the nation, that education is the foundation for any nation's development. He set up the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Educational Foundation intended to sponsor students who have demonstrated exceptional academic performance and good moral behavior; and teachers, to address the country's need for well-trained, qualified and motivated educators.
In her message, President Sirleaf reminded Liberians that at the beginning of her Administration, she declared education her number one priority.Outlining some actions taken during her first term, including building and rehabilitating schools, the Liberian leader said: "We made primary education free and compulsory, and followed that with free compulsory basic education. We increased the level of support to state-owned institutions of higher education and provided subsidies to private ones. We expanded vocational and technical training for those not able to pursue a full academic program."
Rural Teachers Training Institutes (RTTIs) were also reactivated, while the wages of teachers were increased from US$30 to a minimum of US$200 a month - still not enough, the President said, but a start. The result of these efforts has been the increase in number of students enrolled nationwide from 1 million to 1.5 million. "For every 10 boys in school, there are 9 girls; still not good enough, but a big improvement since 2005, when there were only 7 girls in school for every 10 boys," President Sirleaf said.
However, the Liberian leader lamented that despite these accomplishments, the quality of education is still far too low! "For every 100 children who enroll in primary school, only 60 will complete grade 6; only 20 out of the 100 will sit the WAEC exams at the end of grade 12, and only 15 will pass," the Liberian leader pointed out, adding further, "Even for those who complete school, not everyone is learning what they should. An investigation showed that one-third of third graders could not read a simple sentence. Overall, only half of those finishing primary school are functionally literate." With figures like these, said the Liberian leader, it's no wonder that many parents prefer to sacrifice and pay for private schooling rather than send their children to the public schools where tuition is free.
Speaking of government's intervention to reverse the dismal situation, President Sirleaf said government is changing the approach from a "top down" to one that is based on partnership - between the government and community schools, between the public and the private sector, between parents and teachers. "The Education Reform Act of 2011 takes decisions out of the hands of the Education Ministry in Monrovia and puts them in the hands of County School Boards, who are closer to the parents and the teachers," she said, adding that during the 2012-2013 school year, county grants were distributed to all 15 counties, which has reinforced the Decentralization Roadmap by empowering County School Boards to manage school material requisitions and the overall distribution of resources."
President Sirleaf said government isalsorenewing efforts on cleaning up the payroll because many of those who collect the salary and civil service benefits of teachers are not, in fact, in the classroom. "The corruption and theft extends from teachers to officials at the Ministry of Education and the counties," the Liberian leader said, adding, "They are diverting for their personal use the resources intended for school buildings, furniture, textbooks and science equipment. They are stealing from the very children they were hired to help educate. In the end, they are stealing from all of us."
Madam Sirleaf noted that it is about time that government and the Liberian people join hands and look for lasting solutions together. "First, we must create more room for experimentation, new ideas and learning. We want to attract the best people into the teaching profession, and tie their incentives to the success of their students. We will experiment with new funding mechanisms that help schools perform better.
"Second, we must make room in our budgets for things other than buildings and salaries. Providing children with free school meals, deworming drugs and clean sanitation facilities have been shown to be very beneficial in getting children into school and keeping them there.
"Third, we need parents to take a more active role in their children's education. Many of you are already paying for fees, uniforms and textbooks. But you can do more. You can join a Parent-Teachers Association, help organize activities out of school, or help raise funds for school facilities.
"Fourth, we need communities to help tackle the corruption and theft that is in their midst. If a teacher or school official demands bribes, commits sexual offences or fails to perform their duties, they should be reported to the police, and if necessary legal action be taken.
"Finally, we must not forget that many Liberians continue their learning as adults. We must continue to support education programs for our market women, vocational training for adults, and the National Reading Campaign," she noted.
Concluding, President Sirleaf stressed that the education of our young people is what will determine our future as a nation. It is time, she said, for all Liberians to join hands with the government and work together to resolve the issues. "Parents, students, teachers and administrators, I am appealing to you: let us work together for a better education system and a better future for all of us," she said, stressing, "I call upon the reorganized Ministry of Education to now take up the challenge in helping to improve the quality of education."
President Sirleaf will continue to speak out on the subject of education when she appears on the next edition of the ELBC call-in program, "Conversation with the President," with LBS Director-General Ambrose Nmah, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.