Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Is Liberia’s education system in a mess? Then clean it up!

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Liberia’s education system has come under the spotlight as substandard and poorly equipped as compared to education systems elsewhere in Africa. This underrating has been confirmed by the performance of Liberian students in international exams, particularly the local West African Examination Council exams over the last few years. Interestingly, key government officials have joined the chorus condemning the same education system that they have been given power and authority to fix. This is an irony. In 2011, the Planning & Economic Affairs Minister cried out that most of the university students and even graduates are undertrained to the extent that they are incapable of writing a standard letter of application. This pronouncement was made at a national conference on the education sector. Just this year, the President of Liberia has complained twice that the education system is in a ‘mess’. What the Liberian people hope to see is not the weeping and condemnation from the officials, but actions on their part as employees or representatives of the people to fix the system and make it affordable, accessible and of quality to the population.

The cries are enough, and actions are required to provide better education to the children of Liberia. The actions required in the opinion of this patriot is not the change of individuals from the Ministry of Education as many Liberians would suggest, but rather a remaking of the system and the capacitating of institutions to make the system work. The solutions therefore are above dismissals and appointments that tend largely to massage problems in the public sector rather than sustainably addressing them.

The key issue undermining standards in Liberia is the absence of efficient regulatory systems; and where they exist, then it’s the lack of compliance and enforcement mechanisms. If there should be any sector with rigid enforcement of rules and standards in every given society, it should be the education sector with its attendant status of nobility. No nation should compromise enforcing standards on basic services that are critical to the livelihoods of the people and the survival of the state itself. Education and health care are key priorities to sustain the development and growth of a nation. A poor education system eventually produces poor quality in every other sector – public service, private sector and even the religious sector that supposedly provides the moral compass. If in Liberia, the system suffers such a laxity, ultimately the outcomes and products will be of no greater quality than the process that produces it – substandard, inefficient, and sloppy.

At present one can easily understand that the Ministry of Education is overburdened and have no capacity for the huge tasks at its feet. The incapacity of the Ministry, coupled with corruption at all levels in the school systems, and the lack of support to enhance quality, collectively form the mess in the system. With just few qualified teachers in the classrooms and a huge number of unqualified with very little experience and credentials, and limited wages, the outcome will be low output from the end of the teachers. Also with limited resources including tuition financing, textbooks and laboratory equipments students will obviously not perform as expected. This is therefore a compound problem that needs to be solved with the government, school authorities and teachers and parents in a single network to clean the mess. Yet, it is the responsibility of the government to take the lead by providing decisive policy directions that decentralizes the governance of the education sector.

A robust reform is thus required in the education sector. This needs to be radical, and will involve first, devolving implementation authorities to the counties and leaving the Ministry of Education with only policy and regulatory functions. At the last education conference in 2011, a policy on decentralization in the education sector was promulgated, and this policy provided for the creation of an education board in each county. It is high time that the policy is implemented and the boards are established and institutionalized to function as relevant and credible local authorities on education sector governance. This is needed to reduce the loads on the Ministry since it has proven to have limited or no capacity to enforce standards and compliance at the local levels. Giving the education boards full support in logistics and other needed resources will facilitate the process of cleaning the mess in each county given the proximity of the authority (the board) in said county. Decentralizing local decision-making, implementation authorities and resources will enable local education boards to implement national education policies and to have sufficient controls over such things as teachers’ licensing, schools supervision and monitoring, school feeding and subsidies to schools.

The current system cannot provide for effective governance of the education sector and equally cannot provide for better education to the children of Liberia. With a core of political appointees seated at the Ministry and agents in the counties as education officers reporting to Monrovia, it is difficult to have hands-on solution to the problems creating the mess. Thus, the difficulty in cleaning the on-going mess is that the decision makers are far from the mess itself, so it hard for them to really smell the stench. Yes, they do hear and know that it exists. What to do next is to stop weeping that there is mess, and move on to clean the mess.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

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