Sierra Leone INSIGHT: Reversing the Education Decay (Part 1)
with Julius Spencer
I started primary school at the age of 5 when my father retired from the Nigerian Civil Service and we returned home. While in Nigeria, I recall that I attended nursery school, but of course my memory of those days is quite hazy. I started school in Sierra Leone at the Christ Church primary school, then moved to the Cathedral Boys School and finally to the Tower Hill Municipal school where I took my Common Entrance Examination, now called National Primary School Examination (NPSE) and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. I have no idea why my parents moved me and my younger brother from one primary school to another, but I suspect they were not quite satisfied with the education I was receiving.
At the time I attended primary and secondary school, there were no private schools in the country. In all my years in school, I only recall taking private lessons for Maths while I was in form 2 at the Prince of Wales. And this was because I was very weak in maths and we lived close to the Jonahs. Mr. Julius Jonah was a maths and physics teacher at the Prince of Wales school and was my father’s friend. When he found out that I was weak in maths, he offered to give me private lessons free of charge, and I recall I would go to his house a number of times in the week after school for lessons. I don’t recall the reason now, but I stopped going after a while. Needless to say, I failed maths at O’Level. My maths was so bad at the time, that adding together a string of numbers gave me a headache, and calculators didn’t exist then, not to talk about computers. I guess I was not cut out for the sciences, because my performance in the arts and humanities, apart from History which I hated, was very good.
While at the Prince of Wales school, I had an experience which completely changed my attitude to academic work. I had to repeat form 2 and the experience of going to school at the beginning of the next academic year and having to sit in class with those who were your juniors, while almost all your friends have moved to the next class had such a profound impact on me that I ensured I was always in the top 10% of any class after that, including while in university.
When I entered the Prince of Wales school, the pass mark to be promoted from one class to another was 45%. At the time our school principal was an Englishman. Our teachers were highly respected men and women in society and many of them drove their cars to school. We respected our teachers and aspired to be like them. Anyway, I digress. Back to my repeating form 2.
That year, for some reason, the school authorities decided to increase the pass mark to 50%. I scored 49.5%, a mark that is etched in my memory to this day, and I had to repeat the class. At the time, class sizes at the Prince of Wales and in most schools ranged from 28 to 35. We were provided a broad based education. In fact the year I took the O’Level exam, now called WASCE, there were only 12 of us in my class, 5 General. Form 5 Science had 10 and Form 5 Arts had 16. In 5 General, we did some arts subjects and science up to a certain level. Even though we were not in the pure science class, we did science practicals in biology, chemistry and physics. I loved the physics experiments and to this day, I remember experiments we did in reflection and refraction, and so I understand how mirrors work and what creates mirages. I did titration in chemistry, but somehow, perhaps because I had poor eyesight, I never could quite recognise the exact point when the liquid changed colour.
While in school in those days, our creative intelligence was developed alongside our social skills. We did some fine art, mainly drawing and painting, woodwork, and music. In fact, I did music up to O’Level. We had a Literary and Debating Society in the school and all pupils from form 4 upwards were members. The last 2 periods every Friday were for L&DS. There we learnt to debate, conduct meetings, make speeches, etc. In those days, school commenced at 7.30am with Assembly and by 8.00am, we were having our first lesson. We had 2 breaks, a 15 minutes break in the mid-morning and a 30 minutes lunch break, and school ended at 2.30pm.
I am sure by now you are wondering what the point of this history lesson is. Well, I have been trying to paint a picture of what education was like in those days in Sierra Leone, that is the 1960s and 70s. Even teacher training was top notch.
As I said in my last article, I was initially trained as a teacher at Njala University College (NUC). Apart from my major and minor subjects of English and Geography, we did educational psychology, educational philosophy, educational management as well as methodology for our major and minor subjects. Most of the 2nd term (it was a 3 term system at the time) during the 3rd and 4th years of our course was spent on teaching practice, and so I did my teaching practice in my 3rd year at the Harford Girls School and in my final year at the Bo School. We were taught how to do lesson notes and lesson plans as well as how to do assessment. Our lecturers visited the schools where we were assigned to observe us teaching and gave us tips on how to improve our teaching.
When I graduated and was teaching at the St. Edwards Secondary School, I had to do weekly lesson plans and daily lesson notes which were scrutinised by my head of department before I used them in my classes. School inspectors visited the school periodically and sat in on classes to observe what was going on and how teaching was being done. I was an English and Geography teacher while my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was a Chemistry and Biology teacher. As a result, she was earning a bit more than me, because she was entitled to a science allowance. I also had some friends who went to teach in the provinces, because they earned even more since they were entitled to I think it was called remote area allowance.
At the time I went to school and university in Sierra Leone, and even up till the time I was a teacher and lecturer, the kind of things one hears about now were unheard of. Giving bribes to teachers for grades, not to talk about university lecturers, was something we did not even dream of. What was indeed happening even then was sexual harassment, though it was not as widespread as it is today. We noticed this while I was a lecturer at FBC and Dr. Kadi Sesay was my head of department. Because I was the lecturer in the department who was generally close to the students, as a result of the fact that I taught drama practicals from preliminary to qualifying year (1st to 3rd year) students, I was asked by Dr. Sesay to serve as student liaison. In other words, if students had any problem, I was the one they would talk to first. I recall having to have a quiet word with a couple of my male colleagues because some female students had told me that they were being harassed by them, and they desisted forthwith. There was nothing like study camp in universities, not to talk about schools, but then, most students stayed on campus and so could meet in groups even at night to discuss specific topics and help each other understand what they had been taught.
Well, all of this changed over time, and in my view, the education system collapsed in the 1990s. This was due to a shift in focus to basic education and the impact of the civil war. I recall sometime in 1991, I was part of the Academic Staff Association negotiation team that met with the government to negotiate better conditions of service for university staff. The late Joseph Momoh was President and Dr. Sama Banya was Vice President. I distinctly remember that we drew attention to the fact that the new focus on basic education virtually to the exclusion of university education was going to have a very negative impact on education in the country, but we were not listened to because the donors had convinced the government that a focus on basic education was the way to go.
Well many of the best brains left the country in search of greener pastures, and in the English Department at Fourah Bay College where I was, we lost people like Prof. Eustace Palmer, Prof Alex Johnson and Mr. Ajayi Coomber, the three most senior members of staff in the department at the time, and this scenario was replicated in most departments and institutions across the country. The impact of this was that the quality of university education declined and this had a knock-on effect at the lower levels of the education system, because it is in the university that the staff of teacher training colleges are trained, and they train the teachers that teach the pupils in schools.
In recent times, I have read a lot of opinions in articles inspired by the controversy over examination malpractices. All I will say on that for now is that many people have been talking about issues of which they have very little understanding. Those involved in these malpractices did not drop from Mars. They are a product of our society and the result of a history that has seen our entire society degenerate to a level of decadence that those of us of a certain age never imagined this country would sink to.
So hold these thoughts about what education was like in Sierra Leone in the past until I come back to you with part 2 of this article where I will lay out what I believe needs to be done to change the current status quo.