In late August, Sierra Leone’s newly elected President Julius Madaa Bio, announced a five year initiative to roll out free pre-primary, primary and secondary education on 17 September. The new policy is intended to guarantee free school places for one and a half million children, as well as training for thousands of teachers, and free textbooks for all.
Mr. Madaa Bio campaigned hard on the promise of free education in the build-up to the election, which might have helped seal his victory. Across Sub-Saharan Africa many electoral platforms have been built around the pledge. A study of African elections and education policies noted 16 instances of user-fee abolition in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2007, for instance: 11 countries were found to have abolished school fees immediately after elections, and in 8 of those instances, a new national leader had been elected.
Yet, electoral promises are one thing, delivering is another. In our 2015 report, we noted that many countries in the region had failed in fully carrying through school fee abolition since 2000, often due to inadequate financing.
The new Sierra Leone administration is staking its reputation on this policy and the President has promised a large cash injection from his own pocket. Along with the Chief Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Basic Primary and Secondary Education he will contribute three months’ salary to the initiative, while the Finance Minister will donate two, according to local media reports. Government spending on education will be hiked from 11% to 20%, and support is coming from international partners too, including the World Bank, the United Nations and the United Kingdom.
Behind the great ambitions, there are, however, grounds for cynicism. The President’s political opponents and members of the public have voiced strong doubts that free schooling will ever be more than just an ideal. This cynicism comes from a previous failed attempt in the country to roll-out free primary education in 2010. When trying to make up for the revenue lost in school-fees, the per pupil subsidy was set too low at $2.20. Schools’ operating costs were not adequately covered, and schools differing needs were not taken into account. Fees were hastily brought back., in many parts of the country.
Many parents also dismiss President Bio’s announcement as pure populism, claiming that education will remain out of reach because of the expense of uniforms alone. The costs of uniforms are so crippling that, according to Poverty Action Lab, giving a uniform to a student in Sierra Leone reduced school absenteeism by 43%. Others claim that subsidies for university students will be entirely withdrawn to fund free schooling, although the education ministry says they will not be withdrawn altogether.
Whatever the doubts, the initiative is certainly ambitious given Sierra Leone’s history. The country is still recovering from civil war of 1991-2002, and its recent Ebola epidemic which killed 4000 people. In many parts of the country there aren’t enough school buildings, and currently only 40% of teachers are formally-trained at primary level. This is why NGOs in the region are praising the free-school initiative’s ‘direction of travel’, while cautioning that the sheer scale of the training and infrastructure needs means progress can only be gradual.
If free education for all is to be achieved, in addition to building new schools and tackling the lack of teacher training, the government also needs to address serious problems of inclusion. Many rural children in Sierra Leone do not regularly attend school even when there are no fees to pay, likely due to hidden costs of education such as uniforms or books, or the requirement to do farm or other work. There is hope on this front, as we noted in the 2015 GMR. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage gap of those who had never been to school in urban and rural areas in Sierra Leone fell from 31 to just 8 points.
Similarly, ambitions to improve access to education for all do not fit with the fact that pregnant girls are still banned from going to school in the country. UNICEF figures show that 39% of girls are married before the age of 18, and Sierra Leone’s early pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the world. Such ingrained cultural barriers to education clearly won’t be smashed overnight, although rapid progress is being made.
Sierra Leone was known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’ because it was home to the first higher education institution in the region, Fourah Bay College, established in 1827. West Africa’s first girls’ secondary school, the Annie Walsh Memorial School was also founded in Sierra Leone in 1849. In reality, this was no golden age of universal education. Resources and funding were concentrated across a handful of institutions in the capital, Freetown. But today the country has demonstrated its commitment to developing its education system in the face of significant challenges. Perhaps with the right level of budgetary commitment and foreign aid earmarked for schooling it can deliver on this academic year’s promise of free and inclusive education for all its children. We hope so.