Conrad Sackey, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, is a seasoned educationist who is passionate about harnessing the power of education for national development. Before his appointment as a minister in 2023, he was the Chairperson of Sierra Leone Teaching Service. In this interview, he speaks on how his ministry is implementing the Free Quality Education policy of President Julius Maada Bio’s administration, highlighting its significant positive impact on the country’s educational landscape. Excerpts:

How would you appraise the impact of President Julius Maada Bio’s Free Quality Education (FQSE) policy on the Education landscape in Sierra Leone?

There has been a tremendous amount of positive impact on Sierra Leone’s educational landscape as a result of President Bio’s Free Quality Education (FQSE) policy and this trend is likely to continue. The programme, aimed at ensuring nationwide access to high-quality education, ensures that every child in Sierra Leone, regardless of their socio-economic, political, or economic background, receives quality education from the pre-primary to the senior secondary levels in all fields, including technical and vocational education and training. Basically, the FQSE policy aims at ensuring that “no child in Sierra Leone is left behind,” through an inclusive and quality education approach which promotes inclusion and equity.

Now, let me get to the specifics. One of the primary goals of the FQSE programme is to increase access to education and we are on track. The FQSE has significantly increased access to education by eliminating school fees for primary and secondary education. Due to this, we have seen an increase in enrollment rates over the past few years, especially among marginalized, vulnerable and disadvantaged groups who had previously been unable to attend school due to school fees or other barriers to enrollment.

The FQSE is making remarkable progress in improving equity in access to education.The policy has helped to promote equity in access to education by ensuring that children from all socio-economic backgrounds can attend schools and remain in school with quality teaching and learning by removing financial barriers to education.

Enhancing education quality is another objective of the FQSE.Thanks to introduction of the FQSE,we have seen increased investment in teachers through training, salary increases, curriculum development, and additional infrastructure to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools nationwide.

As with any learning outcome, it takes time to see a major impact on learning results. However, the FQSE programme has laid the foundation for potential improvements by focusing on teacher recruitment, deployment, professional development, and curriculum development. Monitoring and evaluating learning outcomes will be done through an assessment of the policy’s effectiveness.

However, the FQSE programme, launched in August 2018, has significantly improved Sierra Leone’s education by extending school fee subsidies to senior secondary levels, leading to increased student transitions from junior to senior secondary schools,and a higher completion rate.

The policy has increased the number of candidates passing the NPSE, BECE, and WASSCE nationwide, as it ensures payment of public examination fees for all government and government-assisted schools.

The FQSE has equally enhanced the provision of free core textbooks at all school levels leading to increased pupil-to-textbook ratio, while also increasing the number of teachers recruited and added to the payroll.

We have also seen improved governance and accountability in schools, with over 250 School Quality Assurance Officers recruited for supervision and classroom monitoring. Furthermore, the development of new education policies, including the Radical Inclusion Policy, Comprehensive School Safety Policy, Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy, and National Teacher Policy, is underway.

And, there has been a significant increase in the number of students enrolling in pre-primary and primary school thanks to the revisions of the 2004 Education Act, the 2023 Education Act, and the 1984 West Africa Examination Council Act to meet the demand of the 21stcentury.

Between 2018 and 2021/2022, education access increased significantly, with pre-primary enrolment increasing by 90.97%, primary enrollment by 49.95%, junior secondary school enrollment by 102.53%, and senior secondary school enrollment by 136.71%. This growth also led to a significant increase in public examination participation with a majority meeting the minimum requirement of 5 credits in the West Africa Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSEC), which is the gateway to tertiary and higher education.

Human Capital Development is at the core of the President’s Big Five Game Changers. What strategies has your ministry adopted towards actualizing the goal?

We are implementing education reform to improve access to quality education at all levels under the four guiding principles of Universal Access, Comprehensive School Safety, Radical Inclusion, and Quality Teaching and Learning. In order to improve the quality of our schools, we are constructing new classrooms, improving the infrastructure of our schools, revamping the core curriculum in the basic and senior secondary schools, training and managing our teachers, and introducing technology and innovation into our classrooms.

In the curriculum emphasis is placed on “The 5Cs”: Comprehension, Computational Thinking, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Civics as a shift from traditional, academically narrow frameworks to a learner-centered approach, which emphasizes the development of foundational skills and competencies instead of rote repetition.

With the provision of in-service teacher training and teacher development programmes since 2018, over 25,000 teachers have received some type of in-service training in addition to the recruitment of an additional over 12,000 qualified teachers who have been employed by the government.

There has been a substantial increase in the number of girls and other vulnerable children attending school due to the radical inclusion policy. Thanks to this policy, all barriers on girls attending school, including those related to pregnancy, have been taken down. There has been a lot of activity in the past few years towards the promotion of gender education schools, as well as the development of the Gender Empowerment Bill, which provides 30 per cent access to women and girls in any sphere of employment within the country.

The government has increased the subventions to special needs schools as well as provided them with additional assistive devices so as to better meet the needs of the children. Over 500,000 children in pre-primary and primary schools are currently benefited by school feeding, and over 238 schools have been selected to pilot the home-grown school feeding policy following the development of the integrated school feeding policy.

Also, in the past few years, over 200 School Quality Assurance Officers have been recruited to monitor lesson plans, teaching, and learning in schools.

In what ways is your Ministry working with the Ministry of Tertiary and Higher Education (MTHE) to bring President Bio’s human capital development vision, which calls for providing every kid in Sierra Leone with access to comprehensive education, into reality?

In recognition of seamless educational progression, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and the Ministry of Tertiary and Higher Education (MTHE) are working together to achieve President Bio’s vision for Human Capital Development.This vision aims for Sierra Leone’s citizens’ holistic development, preparing them for the 21st century workforce through comprehensive education and collaborative efforts in the continuous process.

In a display of unity and shared purpose, the MTHE and the MBSSE collaborate to create an integrated Education Sector Plan, ensuring alignment and mutual reinforcement across educational initiatives, despite distinct missions.The two ministries are also collaborating on a harmonized teacher training curriculum for basic and senior secondary education. Additionally, we are conducting a joint education sector review to assess progress, identify challenges, and propose strategies for programme implementation.

Could you elaborate on the government’s funding for the National School Feeding Programme and School Infrastructure? How much of an impact have they had on education?

Given the limited resources at its disposal, the government is partnering with organizations like CRS, Plan International, and the World Food Programme to provide school feeding, especially in their areas of operation.The feeding programme has led to a significant increase in enrollment and improved child retention over time, as well as attracting children to early childhood centres near primary schools, enhancing their readiness for school.

The government, through donor support, has constructed or rehabilitated 500 classrooms, 100 schools, 59 Early Childhood Development centres, and 250 primary schools with improved learning environments.

Implementation of the School Feeding Programme and improvements in school infrastructure have been pivotal in increasing student enrolment and attendance.These initiatives have enhanced education by creating safer, more accessible environments, fostering healthier students, and enhancing the overall development of the education sector.

How is the Ministry tackling the two pressing issues of the growing numbers of youngsters who are currently not in school and girls’ education?

The government and its partners have funded research to identify out-of-school children, particularly girls, and developed an out-of-school strategy to assess their status.As the government and its partners devised accelerated learning pathways, partners have supported the ministry with close to US$25 million on research and activities addressing the out-of-school problem.

The government, through the Directorate of Non-formal Education, has discovered and returned approximately 3000 out-of-school girls, most of whom dropped out owing to pregnancy, to school. The implementation of comprehensive sexuality education in schools would also address the issue of dropout, as the majority of dropouts are due to pregnancy.The distribution of sanitary kits to adolescent females at school, the creation of a school-related Gender-based violence guidebook, and the implementation of referral mechanisms, will also address girls’ drop-out. Furthermore, the government, through its partners, is screening students to identify any previous forms of deformity, which is one of the top causes of dropout.

We are focusing heavily on increasing awareness and running campaigns on the value of education, particularly for girls, as well as forming gender empowerment groups at the community and municipal levels.

The Ministry is also addressing the growing number of unenrolled youngsters and girls’ education by paying tuition and public examination fees, recruiting guidance and counsellors, and hiring female teachers to act as role models for vulnerable girls.

The government is collaborating with local and international organizations to tackle out-of-school youth issues and promote girls’ education by leveraging resources, expertise, and best practices.

Sub-SaharanAfrica’s education sector receives pitifully little funding. How dedicated is the government of Sierra Leone to increase funding?

The Sierra Leone government is committed to increasing education funding, surpassing global benchmarks in this area.The global standard proposes investing at least 4% to 6% of a country’s GDP to education, as well as 15% to 20% of public expenditure to this sector. Sierra Leone has increased its education funding to 22% of its national budget since 2019, doubling the previous year’s allocation of 4% to 6%.

The government is focused on increasing domestic revenue generation to help sustain the allocation to the sector and is constantly working closely with development partners to  implement programmes and policies that attract both donor and domestic funding.The government raises funds for programme implementation in conjunction with both public and private partners.

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