By Dr David Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone and Chair of the Advisory Board for the GEM Report
I was only a few months into my new role as Sierra Leone’s Education Minister when COVID-19 hit. Unlike many countries that were caught off guard, we were prepared for the school closures that arise from such pandemics. At the peak of the of the COVID-19 crisis, up to 1.6 billion children did not have access to physical school. The tragic situation with the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016 meant that this time we were ready to provide distance schooling to 2.6 million students through the interactive Radio Teaching Program.
During the Ebola outbreak, students were out of school for the larger part of nine months. These were the years before Zoom calls and online learning platforms for schools: besides, very few households have access to internet technology in Sierra Leone. Radio programming was chosen to deliver lessons, as it was cost-effective and could be adapted to local languages. Distance learning through radio is also engaging and has been shown to improve learning outcomes.
Thanks to the Global Partnership for Education, 80,000 portable radio sets were distributed to learners in 2014. The best teachers were selected to present compelling lessons to 1.8 million learners. It worked well. While the radio teaching program ended when the Ebola crisis was over, the Ministry kept the Education Radio station alive.
In the face of COVID-19, we knew we could rely on the radio programs to deliver lessons once again, so students did not fall behind on their education. We re-trained teachers and adjusted the curriculum so by the time schools closed in March 2020 with our first COVID-19 case, the classes hit the airwaves and children could tune in for their daily lessons. And they did so until September 2020, when students started returning back to school for in-face learning (students in examination classes returned earlier in July).
Since I took on my role as Minister, we have developed and started implementing a new radical inclusion policy to ensure that every child in the country had access to quality education – particularly those who have been traditionally excluded from mainstream schooling. As part of this process last year, survey data was collected by the Institute for Governance Reform and Oxfam Sierra Leone that revealed that certain rural districts, such as Pujehun and Falaba, had low access to the Radio Teaching Program due to the lack of contiguous FM radio transmitter coverage and the limited availability of receivers. Disappointingly, not all students were being reached.
We approached GRID3, a project focused on geo-referenced infrastructure and demographic data to use high resolution datasets for geospatial modelling to map where the radio transmitters were and who they were reaching. The analysis, published this week, suggests that about one-third of school-age children may not be receiving the broadcasts under the current program.
To reach most, if not all children, other radio transmitters need to be added to the program to expand coverage. In areas where there are no transmitters to allow us to reach complete coverage, they must be installed. An optimisation algorithm, designed by the GRID3 team at Flowminder, was deployed to provide data-led guidance on where those transmitters should be built – providing us with exact data on coverage so that no child is left behind.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has made things more difficult for our education systems. But it has also presented us with an opportunity to think about how we can do things differently, more equitably. Why could we not use radio programs to continue to teach the most vulnerable students – those who are unable to attend classes in person and those who fall behind? Despite progress in Sierra Leone, the poorest children still struggle to attend school due to intersecting disadvantages such as poverty, social norms and stigma. Poor rural girls are especially at a disadvantage, most of them unable to complete a single year of secondary school.
The exciting news is that we can reach more children. GRID3’s analysis shows that adding 14 alternative transmitters to the program would expand coverage to 90% of children. Building a further three transmitters would increase this percentage to 96%, equating to an estimated 2.8 million children in total. The Ministry has already committed to buying the first set off three radio transmitters through a GPE COVID-19 Grant to Sierra Leone in addition to two other transmitters procured by a NGO partner. This means that we could be very close to achieving the goal of universal access to primary and secondary education in Sierra Leone.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has disrupted education systems. The learning gap between the richest and poorest students is at grave risk of growing. But the pandemic has also spurred governments to innovate to mitigate the learning losses. We have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the power of technology and data analytics to build a more inclusive and equitable education system. The ability to reach the most vulnerable students through geospatial data innovations could be transformative. Technology is not an end in itself, but it can help us find solutions that are desperately needed to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all.