opinionBy Jackie Sayegh
The stats are astounding. News services all over the world including Time, The Guardian, Huffington Post, BBC, NYPost, announced the astonishing fact that no student out of 25,000 passed the University of Liberia entrance exam. It sounds clichéd but it needs to be repeated, our young people are our future. That being said, the young people in Liberia are under siege. No jobs, no viable prospects, a broken educational system, and unrealized potential because of lack of opportunities. With almost 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world. The number of young people in Africa will double by 2045. Between 2000 and 2008, Africa's working age population (15-64 years) grew from 443 million to 550 million; an increase of 25%. In annual terms this is a growth of 13 million, or 2.7% per year (World Bank 2011a). If this trend continues, the continent's labor force will be 1 billion strong by 2040, making it the largest in the world, surpassing both China and India (McKinsey Global Institute, 2010).
UNICEF Country representative Sheldon Yett on August 12th celebrated International Youth day, stating that: "Liberia has an abundance of natural resources, but a country's true wealth is measured in its human resources. A young, educated and engaged population, working hand-in-hand with others in the community is the most effective engine of change." It seems this is something the MOE needs to be told repeatedly. The right to education ensures access to quality schools and to an education that is directed towards the full development of the human personality.
The Right to Education is protected by: Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Articles 13 & 14 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
Articles 28,29 & 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Article 5 of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Articles 10 & 14 of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Article 12 of American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man
And Liberia has ratified all these conventions and international treaties. The UN proclaims education as not only a fundamental human right but as one essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Literacy is literally life!
There are those who have wondered about the intelligence of the young people taking the exam. But today's young Liberians are just as bright as any of us who attended schools in Liberia before the war. That has not changed. Many of us have been able to succeed in high education because of a solid foundation from Liberian schools. I always maintain that I may have a higher degree from abroad but I was educated in Liberia. Articles and people touting our president as a Harvard graduate do a disservice to the Liberian school system. True, Madame President earned a Harvard degree, but her achievements were made possible because of the strong educational foundation she received in the elementary and high schools of Liberia. What has changed since then are the conditions among which these young people learn. Growing up we had books, electricity, and most of the time, went to school well fed. These days just getting to class in Liberia is an exercise in endurance and patience.
Those entrusted to create the enabling conditions that nurture a learning environment seem to be at a loss. Government throws week-long or month-long "summer" jobs to desperate youths that do nothing in helping them gain skills to sustain them in this global age. Disenchanted youths spend the majority of their formative years idle, frequenting the recently cropped up gambling houses, bars, and seedy night joints. Everyone agrees that the patient is sick but nobody knows the proper treatment to cure the patient. The month long vacation school for kids that ended on August 29th is a good start and I commend the Minister of Youth and Sports in creating this opportunity. But a vacation school for only 300 students when Liberia has thousands of kids in school does not begin to address the huge task of helping our kids learn.
On its spiffy website the MOE school statistics tell us that there are 11, 510 students enrolled from grades 1-6 in Grand Bassa County with 460 teachers (365 males) and 95 female. So there should be 25 students in each class taught by a teacher. (2012) As of the 2008 Census, the county had a population of 224,839, making it the fifth most populous county in Liberia. So how many young kids are out of school in Bassa? How many do not have enough books? How many sit on the floor and have to share a pencil? Yet these kids come and their parents send them because they know the power of an education and what the future holds if their children are not educated.
The Minister of Education now doubts the results and seeks evidence. Evidence of what really? She compares the mass failure with mass murder. But mass murder is not a strange phenomenon. It does occur and now in Liberia so it seems does mass failure. Just as bodies pile up, the entrance exams speak volumes about not only the failure of our young people but the fiasco and ineffectiveness of those entrusted to provide one of the most basic service, the right to an education.
Perhaps our esteemed Minister has not seen the mushrooming of sub- standard schools on every street corner, the poverty and unimaginable conditions our young kids go through both in and out of school, the ill prepared graduates who become teachers overnight. Did she perhaps miss the Front Page Africa continuing expose on the conditions students face? Or that students in Rivercess County (or any county for that matter) are learning less than half of the curriculum each semester because of untrained teachers and an ineffective curriculum and that students sit two to a chair or on the floor in class. I urge her to read.
Roundtable discussions are all well and good but what is needed are dedicated stakeholders and community leaders who can come together and work with our young people to create a sustainable and nurturing learning environment. Also, once these roundtables meetings are announced, we hear nothing of the planning or attendees until after the meeting. A conference should be planned months in advance and invited guests and community members given the time make meaningful contribution to the discussions.
The free and compulsory education lauded by President Sirleaf has not been realized. Free does not fill the stomach nor does it provide uniforms, shoes, or transportation. Weary kids sell goods in the morning and put on uniforms 10 minutes before school. It does not help if little Massa attends school in the morning and then has no time or no one to help her with homework because she is on the street selling; it is tragic when young Joseph has to borrow a book from a friend and read by candlelight or lantern for a test the next day; or when young Josephine or Moses is afraid to attend school because of the sexual harassment from a teacher. And what is not learnt in the primary schools will not miraculously be learned in high schools nor will it be shown on university entrance exams. 'Seeing is believing' and everywhere on our streets we see how the system has failed and continues to fail our cherished young people. Tired minds do not comprehend nor do hungry bellies learn.
A troubling trend in Liberia continues to be a select few who are educated in elite private schools while others stumble in the "free" schools. A new class of elites, one based not on social standing but on education is being created in our society. Many of those well educated in Liberia are above the age of 40 and as they progress towards old age, we will be left with a generation of unprepared and uneducated young adults to help move our country forward. Is that a risk we are willing to take?
We need effective educational leadership and a commitment to our children so that they can obtain the skills necessary to navigate their way successfully in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more educated. Anything other than that is roundtables and musical chairs.