In 2018, Sierra Leoneans joined long, winding queues to end their suffering in the hands of the then-governing All-People’s Congress Party (APC), which had been at the helm of affairs for 10 years.
The polls brought a retired military general, Julius Maada Bio, to power.
For a country that had been plunged into austerity by the APC administration, the hopes of citizens were beyond the sky.
The expectations were borne out of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) wave of promises.
But four years later, it has become obvious that elections have consequences. Part of President Bio’s raft of promises was the Free Quality School Education Programme. In fact, as a candidate of the country’s largest opposition party, he worked the electorates into believing the possibilities of the policy.
It was an overture that worked.
So, when Brigadier General Bio (retd) won, he got to work on it in the very first year of his administration. It was probably a lesson from a political textbook he might have picked from Ghana. Free senior high school education was a message that resonated with Ghanaians in the 2016 elections and won the then candidate Nana Akufo-Addo power.
However, in Sierra Leone, the policy was not novel. It succeeded a similar World-Bank-funded scheme titled “Education for All” (EFA) implemented by former President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government.
The $21.31 million project funded by the World Bank had little impact before Mr. Koroma exited. The programme realised little impact in the education sector because the funds were massively misappropriated.
However, President Bio promised Sierra Leoneans he had a marshal plan for the policy.
What is the FQE Scheme?
The FQSE project was launched on August 20, 2018. The programme covers school feeding, uniforms, tuition fees, exercise and textbooks for pupils in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools.
President Bio’s government claims it has been allocating 22% of the country’s total annual budget to education. But the data available shows the figure is 21%.
|GROSS NATIONAL BUDGET||ALLOCATION TO EDUCATION||PERCENTAGE||USD EQU||YEAR|
|Le 4.95 trillion||Le 1.04 trillion||21%||123.372 million||2019|
|6.364 trillion||Le 1 trillion||21%||144.162 million||2020|
|Le 6.955 trillion||Le 1.53 trillion||21%||151.4 trillion||2021|
|Le 7.727||Le 1.7 trillion||21%||151.453 million||2022|
The budgetary allocation isn’t the most critical issue the government’s free education programme. Corruption is eating away resources meant for educating young Sierra Leoneans.
The rot on the pages of the previous and current Auditor-Generals’ reports points to an alarming misappropriation of funds meant for education.
The 2019 and 2020 Auditor-General’s reports revealed that the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) spent over 6.5 billion Leones without supporting documents.
The Auditor-General again revealed in 2020 that the same ministry could not produce receipts, and vouchers covering 9.40 billion Leones ($1 million) paid to institutions and for different purposes.
The report further stated that the MBSSE’s headquarters in the provincial town of Kailahun also had a similar dodgy payment of 69 million Leones (equivalent to $8,600).
The corruption was not just monetary. It was in kind too.
In 2019, the Chinese government donated a total of 30,000 bags of rice to the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education as support for the school feeding component of the FQE. But only 3,000 out of the 30,000 bags were distributed. 90% of the rice disappeared.
Cumulatively, over U$234 million disappeared between 2019 and 2020 in what appears to be an illegal string of payments all geared toward a tactical form of embezzlement of state resources within the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), according to the 2019 and 2020 Auditor-General’s reports.
Unfortunately, almost all of the Auditor-General’s recommendations since 2018 that monies misappropriated or embezzled be investigated and recovered have been treated like a joke cracked at a comedy show. Not a finger has been raised about some of these issues to date.
Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission seems disinterested.
With the investment in education probably finding its way into private pockets while school infrastructure deteriorates and teaching and learning materials are unavailable, it is telling on examination results.
Performance in public examinations in the last four years, since 2018 excluding 2022, has been nothing but degradingly concerning.
|YEAR||NUMBER OF CANDIDATES||NUMBER OF PASSES/ REQUIREMENTS|
As seen above, in 2020, there was an academic tsunami in Sierra Leone. The country’s rickety academic foundations were exposed. WASSCE results were a national embarrassment. The statistics of students who got 5 credits in WASSCE in 2020 was 4.5% as opposed to countries like Ghana with a score of (68.5%), Nigeria (65.8%), Gambia (64.8%).
According to figures from the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), it is estimated that 97% of pupils in grade 2 in Sierra Leone cannot read. The EGRA is an individually administered oral assessment of the most basic foundation skills for literacy acquisition in early grades, while the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGRA) measures numeracy. 60% of pupils still score 0% on the same reading and comprehension test in class 4.
Early mathematics learning outcomes are just twice as poor. Only 10% of Grade 2 and 30% of Grade 4 pupils can do basic subtraction. Quality in Sierra Leone’s education is nothing but a virtual reality. The Free Quality Education scheme, however well-meaning, still has a marathon journey to cover before its positive impact may begin to manifest.
However, Sierra Leone’s performance in the 2022 WASSCE examination records better scores which beam a glimpse of hope for the best although the overall best candidate in the exam comes from a private school, Kamboi Lebanese Senior Secondary school in the country’s Eastern province.
A central aim of Sierra Leone’s Free Quality Education programme is to reduce the number of pupils in a classroom to a maximum of 50 pupils and reclaim learning quality in the education sector, but the reality on the ground strikes a bitter opposite. A series of verifications by the country’s former Auditor-General, Lara Taylor Pierce, who had been removed from office, found out that most classrooms host much more than 50 pupils
“The flagship of our strategic priorities will focus on developing the country’s human capital through free education. We believe in giving every child a good education so that they can develop themselves, support their families and build our nation for the future,” page 5 of Mr. Bio’s “New Direction” manifesto promised.
That promise, as The Fourth Estate has uncovered, lies beyond a yet-to-be-spotted horizon although some progress is trickling in. With such huge sums of monies being misappropriated in Sierra Leone’s education sector, the future of kids is bleak.
As seen in the statistics presented above, Sierra Leone’s academic output and general performance in public exams have been nothing but surprisingly mind-bugging as compared to Ghana, for instance, which has a similar free education scheme.
The writer of this report, Victor Jones, is a Fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa.