I have just returned from Nigeria where I went for a medical check-up and to spend some time with my grandchildren. And while we in Sierra Leone are struggling to come to terms with the worst WASCE results in history and the all-pervasive issue of examination malpractices, I was struck by the differences between education in Sierra Leone and that in Nigeria.
I was in Lagos with my grandchildren on the first day of school for the new school year. The oldest of my grandchildren is 10 and the youngest is 4. They all came home that day very excited and all of them wanted to tell me at the same time what had happened in school that day. Apparently, the school had organised for a group of scientists to visit the school and perform some science experiments as a means of encouraging the children to join the Science club in the school. They succeeded because all my grandchildren wanted to become members after what they had seen that day and their poor parents now have to find the money to register them. I also found out that my oldest grandchild and the second one who is 6 are both now being taught computer coding in school. Here, the majority of university students graduate without even knowing how to do simple word processing.
Before I go any further, I believe I should state my credentials as an educator so you don’t make the mistake of thinking I am just a journalist dabbling in education. My initial university education at Njala University College, as it was called those days, was as a teacher. I graduated from NUC with a B.A.Ed English major and Geography minor. I taught English and Geography for a year at the St. Edwards Secondary school after graduation, then went back to Njala as a Research and Teaching Assistant in the English department for three years. I then proceeded to the University of Ibadan where I did an M.A and Ph.D in theatre arts. While there, I taught at the University of Ibadan International School for three years. After returning to Sierra Leone, I taught at NUC for a couple of years then transferred to FBC where I rose to Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of the English department. Now to the topic of this piece.
As a professionally trained teacher, I know that in every class or group of students assessment should produce what is called a normal curve. In other words, you will have a small group scoring high marks, the majority will score average and a small group will get low marks. This is because the majority of humans can be considered average in all things. However, there are those who are exceptional in terms of intellect etc.
With this in mind, I am worried that our education system is only catering for the average and no effort is being made to identify the brilliant children and provide an education that will challenge them. If we continue this way, we will find that we will not have individuals that can provide leadership of thought in the various fields because we are currently making no effort to identify and groom them. No country has developed an intelligentsia by providing just basic education. There have to be what some would refer to as elitist schools. Even countries like the UK and USA have them. In the UK, schools like Eaton, Harrow and universities like Oxford and Cambridge. In Nigeria they had what were called Government Colleges. These were secondary boarding schools where the best students attended. In Ghana, you had and still have schools like Achimota. It is therefore my view that we need to create such schools of excellence where the best brains among our children can be educated. China has not got to where it is today by concentrating only on basic education or treating all children the same way. They had a policy of acquiring the best education the world can offer, so children were sponsored to attend schools in the UK, USA and other western countries and the same applied to university education. You will find Chinese students in the best universities in the world, sponsored by their government.
Through the work I have been doing over the past almost 2 decades, I have had cause to travel the length and breadth of this country and have had opportunities to observe teaching and learning taking place. I can safely say that not only are the teaching methods being employed generally archaic, many of the teachers in primary and secondary schools around the country do not have a good grasp of the subjects they are teaching. I have had cause to marvel at teachers teaching absolute rubbish to pupils. Most teachers simply employ the rote method that requires pupils to memorise. In this information age where mobile phones have calculators, I wonder why children need to learn the times tables like we did at a time when even regular calculators were not available. Pupils are not given the opportunity to explore and learn through the discovery method or make use of the play way methodology.
As someone who studied educational philosophy and psychology at undergraduate level, I know that there have been various philosophies applied to education going as far back as Aristotle in ancient Greece. I wonder whether as a nation we have decided on the philosophy that underpins our education system and whether that philosophy is tailored to meet our needs. What role have we ascribed to the creative arts or do we simply consider them as forms of entertainment?
I have said elsewhere that we have become a nation of imitators because we have neglected the development of creative intelligence through our education system. This is why Sierra Leoneans generally cannot innovate and why David Sengeh will have a hard time finding many innovators. Of course there are exceptions, but those exceptions have a developed creative intelligence despite the education system. The sooner we realise that without being creative an individual cannot innovate or problem solve, the sooner we will pay attention to the creative arts. Anyway, I digress. Back to the issue of educating the intelligentsia of the future.
I believe that government should give serious thought to this and make provision for schools of excellence in every district. These should be secondary boarding schools where the best students in each district will be sent on government scholarships to receive the best education possible. These schools should cater for a wide variety of subjects in the sciences, arts and humanities. They should have well equipped laboratories, digital libraries, giving them access to the best information around the world, teaching methodology should be modern and world class. Teachers could even be recruited from other countries. In addition to academic studies, the pupils in these schools should be groomed to be leaders by getting them to be team players and think outside the box. On completion of their secondary education, the best of these students should be provided with government scholarships to attend the best universities in the world. I know someone will bring up the issue of them not returning at the end of their studies, but this can be controlled by simply getting a parent or guardian to sign an agreement that should the individual fail to return, the money spent on their education will be refunded by the guarantor.
Government has the responsibility to provide good quality education for all children. However, there’s no way we can run away from the fact that the country doesn’t have the resources to provide world class education across the board for now. So while ensuring that all children have access to an average education, it is essential for those with more than an average intellect to be provided with the kind of education that will enable them provide leadership in the various fields that will give this country the push it needs to rise to another level.
Let me end this piece by saying that while I applaud the government for providing free education through the school system, I believe it has bitten more than it can chew. The quality element of the Free Quality Education will take a long time to achieve because the problems are currently so numerous. For us to talk in a meaningful way about quality education, we need a thorough review of the curriculum, retraining of teachers, provision of teaching and learning materials, and I am not referring only to textbooks here. We need well equipped science laboratories, etc. We also need a reorientation of mind set in relation to technical education so we can produce the middle level manpower this country so badly needs.