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EDUCATION-SIERRA LEONE: Schools in Crisis as Thousands of Teachers go Unpaid

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 26 2009 (IPS) - Government’s refusal to pay the salaries of thousands teachers, while looking to recruit thousands more, has plunged the schooling system into crisis.

With the new academic year poised to start next week, government and the national teachers’ union are still odds about payment for almost 3,000 teachers who have not received their salaries for over a year.

Government refuses to pay the teachers because they were not approved by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports while the teachers’ union says the teachers have performed their duties in schools where they were desperately needed and deserve to be paid.

"We cannot pay these teachers because they were not approved by the ministry," says Minkailu Bah, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports. He adds: "Our system is such that a teacher only gets paid when his or her name is on the voucher, meaning that he or she must have been approved by the ministry."

It is a stance that the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union (SLTU) calls ridiculous. The union’s president, Abdulai Brima Koroma, says they are taking the matter head-on with the ministry. Previously schools were allowed to hire teachers as required and the ministry would approve them afterwards.

"This is absurd, to say the least. The schools badly needed teachers last year and they still do now. These teachers have delivered services and they must be paid. The ministry has no excuse for refusing to pay the teachers and we will not relent until they are fully paid their dues," Koroma says.

He says the union is currently compiling a list with details of the unpaid teachers – including their names and the names of the schools where they’ve been teaching – in order to make a strong case to the government.

The problem has been significantly compounded by the Ministry of Education, which embarked on a teacher verification exercise last year. It announced the uncovering of thousands of so-called "ghost" or "phantom" teachers in schools who receive salaries but are non-existent.

However, government is yet to publish its findings and to streamline the Ministry’s budget, to accommodate the salaries of new teachers recruited into the schooling system.

Officials at the ministry of education told IPS the government is planning to recruit up to 2,000 new teachers, but there is no mention of whether those already recruited by school authorities, would be considered.

Despite the current situation of unpaid teachers Koroma agrees there is need for the recruitment of more educators: "In the interior of the country, some schools with 300 or so pupils have only two to three teachers. This is unacceptable and it is in fact responsible for the falling standards in our educational system."

But while government looks to recruit new teachers, Thomas Kamara has not been paid a salary by government for over a year and wonders why he can’t get paid for his work.

A graduate from Njala University College, Kamara has been offering private classes to financially support his family of four. The basic salary of a teacher in Sierra Leone is about 250,000 Leones, which is roughly USD80. But Kamara doesn’t even receive this payment.

Says Kamara: "I teach high school kids in the community and also conduct extra lessons for my pupils. It is the money that I get from these lessons that I use to keep my family going." And Kamara isn’t the only teacher providing private tuition. Others also eke out their living by filling the gap created in the schooling system.

Kamara taught through the previous academic year and is yet to receive approval from the Ministry of Education. "I see this as totally ridiculous. I am a graduate and officially employed by the school authorities. Why can’t I get paid for my services?" he asks.

He is just one of the thousands of teachers who, despite the lack of pay, have kept working throughout the year because unemployment in the country is rife and options are limited. (The United Nations estimates that unemployment figures to be about 65 percent.) Others have said they are simply committed to educating the children.

But the stand-off between the teachers’ union and the Ministry of Education is badly affecting school pupils, especially those preparing for external examinations to enter university.

"We do not have teachers for Chemistry and Mathematics, two key subjects required for entry into the university and I am worried about this development," remarks Michael Cole, a high school pupil in the capital Freetown.

Many kids, like Cole, have had to resort to private classes to cover for the lessons they miss, due to the shortage of teachers. And, the short-comings of the school system are clearly visible in the examination results.

For two successive academic years, Sierra Leone recorded the worst results in public examinations. The examinations were conducted for the four English-speaking West African countries of: Sierra Leone; Ghana; the Gambia; and Nigeria.

Earlier this year, the government set up a commission of inquiry to look into the causes of falling standards in schools and why the country has twice performed dismally at public examinations.

The findings of the commission are yet to be made public, but already, critics say the Ministry of Education should be thoroughly restructured in order to inject efficiency into the system and resolve the recurrent impasse between teachers and the ministry.

There is concern now that many graduates would shy away from the teaching profession, which not only lack incentives in terms of remuneration, but also security and guarantee of monthly pay.

Concludes SLTU president Koroma: "The ministry needs to work with the SLTU in so far as the issue of teachers is concerned. Any unilateral move by them is bound to be counter-productive and inimical to progress in the schooling system." (END/LF/NK/09)

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