While at first glance, there is an alluring temptation to get carried away and simply applaud the meteoric leaps in learning outcomes, it is equally almost impossible to ignore the unmistakable political correctness framing and delusions about the return of quality education because of the FQSE that characterise this year’s announcement and indeed many similar education data releases by the minister. It is not unreasonable at all, from looking at the WASSCE highlights, to suspect that considerable efforts go into ensuring that Sengeh’s data on education portray a carefully scripted narrative.
When Sierra Leone started rolling out a Free Quality School Education (FQSE) programme in 2018, I had very little doubts about the formidable social and economic implications of such a major national undertaking. It was not very clear to me how the country could be able to mobilise the massive resources required to pay tuition and composite fees for pupils at all levels of basic and senior secondary schooling without significantly leaving a dent in the delivery of other needed social services.
But whatever doubts I had about the feasibility of successfully delivering a free education programme were matched in almost equal measure by a sense of satisfaction that, at the very least, we were turning the spotlight again on education. I told a colleague then that even though I was not entirely confident that we had the capacity and resources to provide universal quality education, much less for free, it was quite reassuring that education was once again receiving the mainstream attention that it had thoroughly been starved of.
This note of optimism was perhaps driven by instinctive necessity, considering that my concerns and pessimism with the FQSE would be impossible to prove and might forever be — at least for the five- or ten-year tenure of the Bio administration. It seemed highly improbable to me that a government that had relentlessly campaigned on the promise of a free education programme would ever come out to admit that the programme was not proving to be either succeeding or sustainable, even if that was the case. Such a declaration, many would say, might well amount to an act of political suicide. And who would blame them? That is one of the more obvious consequences of blatantly politicising development in a politically toxic environment.
But this incessant and non-negotiable proclivity to prove that things work can certainly get too far. Last week, Sierra Leone’s minister in charge of the free education programme announced the release of the 2021 West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) results. A four-page analysis of the results, which interestingly included two pages of praise for President Bio and the successes of the FQSE, accompanied that announcement. “The document has more resemblance to a political party manifesto than the statistical report that it was supposed to be”, a colleague mentioned to me privately. “The MIT-trained engineer and Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Moinina David Sengeh, has truly mastered the art of politicking, the Sierra Leonean way, where loyalty to, and public praise for the president, was as important, if not even more, as delivering on performance objectives. He doesn’t seem to be bothered, it appears to me, that he, David Sengeh, was losing his professional appeal in the process”, he concluded.
But let’s not digress. Let’s look at the Ministry’s analyses of the 2021 WASSCE results. Shall we? Not before we offer our thanks to the minister, however, for his commendable strides in making his work and the Ministry more accessible to the people. Data on education are now generally more widely available and accessible. The minister spends a lot of time engaging the public on his policies and is not too busy to directly have fiery social media exchanges on some of his policies. While I think a lot more could be done, especially in terms of improving data governance and sharing practices or in encouraging more independent, third-party analysis of Sierra Leone’s education data, I am convinced that some gratitude and appreciation for his hard work, openness, and dedication are in order.
The major highlights of this year’s results were that two candidates, Skaikay Nasma and Kallon Khadijah, from relatively unknown schools in Kenema, respectively, took the first and second positions. While at first glance, there is an alluring temptation to get carried away and simply applaud the meteoric leaps in learning outcomes, it is equally almost impossible to ignore the unmistakable political correctness framing and delusions about the return of quality education because of the FQSE that characterise this year’s announcement and indeed many similar education data releases by the minister. It is not unreasonable at all, from looking at the WASSCE highlights, to suspect that considerable efforts go into ensuring that Sengeh’s data on education portray a carefully scripted narrative. For instance, there appears to be some deliberate and repeated efforts to ‘genderise’ education data or irrefutably prove the immediate impact of the FQSE. Nothing against girls excelling, but the information that more girls than boys took the WASSSCE exam, that the top candidates are girls, that girls outperformed boys in Mathematics, or that more females obtained university requirements, offer limited data value or utility other than, perhaps, meeting some donor funding benchmarks. Why should it be newsworthy or okay that girls now outperform boys?
Instead of questioning the patriotism of the critic, I think a more useful approach would be to inquire: Why are some people so vehemently critical of the latest WASSCE results? Well, first and foremost, I think the biggest reason is that these numbers and the improvements in learning outcomes that they purport to reflect within three years of the FQSE programme are staggering, surprising, magical, and unbelievable! Worse, these results are incongruous with contextual realities and the lived experiences of many Sierra Leoneans
Another noteworthy metric in this year’s announcement is the number of students who obtained university admission requirements. The release mentioned that “the number of candidates achieving direct university degree programme entry requirements by obtaining five credits including in English Language and/or Mathematics in a single sitting has increased by an amazing 1,781% since 2018.” As if that’s not intriguing enough, the report further noted that in 2022, more than 108,000 students, or 58% of candidates, obtained university requirements. It added that this figure was higher than the combined number of candidates who had obtained requirements in the previous five years. To add the icing to this year’s examination miracle cake, 63% of candidates passed English Language, while 90% passed Mathematics, according to the release.
Truly remarkable highlights, right? Everyone should celebrate the accomplishments of these kids and commend the impact of the Free Quality Education Programme. It appears that was precisely what Minister Sengeh expected and has been left sorely despondent that some citizens have expressed concerns that these results seem too good to be true! He has taken to social media to question the love and patriotism of Sierra Leoneans who raise objections about the credibility of these results and says he does not understand that people can be ‘mad’ that kids are performing better now.
This reaction by the minister is quite characteristic of many of our leaders and it reveals a noteworthy leadership flaw among Sierra Leone’s political elite — an inability or unwillingness to tolerate critical comments and mould consensus. I like the Canadian psychologist and former University of Toronto professor, Jordan Peterson, a lot. One of my favourites of his twelve rules for life is Rule 9: “Assume that the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t.” It is also this law that many of our leaders appear to have the least difficulty violating or only adhering to when the person they are listening to is saying what they wish to hear.
Instead of questioning the patriotism of the critic, I think a more useful approach would be to inquire: Why are some people so vehemently critical of the latest WASSCE results? Well, first and foremost, I think the biggest reason is that these numbers and the improvements in learning outcomes that they purport to reflect within three years of the FQSE programme are staggering, surprising, magical, and unbelievable! Worse, these results are incongruous with contextual realities and the lived experiences of many Sierra Leoneans.
It is also very difficult to attribute these changes to specific policy redesign, performance trends, or direct technical and/or financial inputs into the education sector. Granted, the free education programme has ramped up investments in education overall, but there is no evidence to suggest that average education spending per child has increased substantially, given the accompanying massive rise in enrolments; or indeed that the increase in government spending has led to an increase in the quality of teaching and learning in senior secondary schools. It also does not seem probable that these dramatic changes could happen in under three years. On the contrary, there is, in fact, sufficient evidence for doubting the credibility and validity of these results, as articulated below.
While it is tempting and perhaps even justifiable to believe that the criticisms are a function of politically motivated malice or envy… Now, more than ever, politicians like David Sengeh, who enjoy enormous presidential backing, and considerable public support, and who, all things being equal, project an attitude of genuine concern about effective service delivery, must seek to transcend political inclinations and considerations in their engagements with the public.
At the outset, it is worth mentioning that when this cohort of WASSCE candidates attempted the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) in 2019, only about 46% obtained the requirements for admission into Senior Secondary School. Overall, this cohort’s BECE performance was worse than the 2018 cohort before it and, indeed, the 2020 batch that will be taking the WASSCE next year. While the argument can be made that this cohort’s WASSCE performance is the fruit of three years of FQSE investments, that argument still fails to justify the massive spike in overall performances or the nearly dramatic improvement in pass rates in subjects like English and Mathematics. How does one explain that a cohort that averaged a 31.3 % pass rate in Mathematics in the 2019 BECE obtained a 90% pass rate in this year’s WASSCE? How do 9 out of 10 pupils get a pass in a standardised public examination like WASSCE? How did more pupils pass English (63%) and Mathematics (90%) than, say Commerce (11%), for example? Surely, IQ levels do not change substantially in under three years.
How also do these high pass rates – possibly the highest in the country’s WASSCE history – not conflict with the fact that the absence of qualified teachers is highest at the Senior Secondary School level in Sierra Leone? The 2021 National School Census, which the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education recently launched, revealed that nearly 60% of teachers in Senior Secondary Schools are not qualified to teach at that level. This is the highest prevalence of unqualified teachers across all levels. By comparison, only about 34% of the teaching workforce at the Junior Secondary School level are said to be without the right qualifications.
In consideration of these anomalies and the fact that corruption and widespread examination malpractices have become a recurring feature of Sierra Leone’s education system in the last two decades or so, the conclusion or, more precisely, the suspicion by some Serra Leoneans that these WASSCE numbers defy logic, make meaningful statistical interpretation challenging and are inconsistent with our national realities, seems perfectly reasonable. I am certain that getting disappointed at those who express doubts about the veracity of these results does not constitute the best approach to better understanding these issues. While it is tempting and perhaps even justifiable to believe that the criticisms are a function of politically motivated malice or envy; and while it may be indeed likely that many of the fiercest critics may not be very politically sympathetic to the current government, I think it will be a miscalculation to dismiss the critical concerns raised solely on those grounds. Now, more than ever, politicians like David Sengeh, who enjoy enormous presidential backing, and considerable public support, and who, all things being equal, project an attitude of genuine concern about effective service delivery, must seek to transcend political inclinations and considerations in their engagements with the public.
They must genuinely make attempts to listen to their most avowed critics and assume that there is an off chance that those who firmly articulate critical views might just know something that those in governance do not. In no other endeavour is this necessity for accommodating alternative opinions more imperative than in efforts to address the chronic and systemic integrity issues plaguing Sierra Leone’s education sector. Combatting academic fraud lies at the very core of the fight for the future and soul of this nation. It is one of our most guaranteed options for changing the fortunes of Sierra Leone. Demanding the highest levels of integrity by the West African Examination Council (WAEC), examiners, pupils, and parents is central to ensuring that the teachers, nurses, doctors, technicians, software engineers, judges, journalists, entrepreneurs, civil servants, and politicians of the new Sierra Leone are competent, trustworthy, productive, and globally competitive.
The window of opportunity to make this change is narrowing. We cannot afford to sacrifice this charge on the altar of political expediency. The time is nigh!
Joel Abdulai Kallon is an engineer, data management consultant, activist, and entrepreneur. He is the Co-founder and CEO of Meraki Analytics, a research and analytics consulting firm based in Sierra Leone.
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