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EDUCATION-SIERRA LEONE: Government Ignores Demands for Additional Teachers

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Mar 17 2010 (IPS) - Ismail Conteh has been teaching for the past year-and-a-half at a primary school in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown – without receiving a single cent. He is one of hundreds of teachers recruited by schools to match the ever-growing number of pupils.

Since the country’s government started to aim for universal primary education in 2003, classes have continuously become larger, with an average of about 50 pupils per teacher. Yet, the national department of education has employed only few additional teachers so far.

Trying to fill the gap, numerous school authorities decided to hire teachers at their own discretion, instead of waiting for the education department to appoint more staff. Now, the education department is refusing to pay those teachers’ salaries.

About 3,000 teachers, including Conteh, have been working in public primary schools without receiving the 40 dollars due to them each month. Attempts by the national teachers union to negotiate payments with the education department have been unsuccessful.

The standoff has mainly been caused by lack of adequate planning from government side, unionists say. Having its eyes set on reaching Millennium Development Goal 2 – universal primary education – the government mainly focused on enrolling more children, while ignoring the fact that more teachers need to be employed to teach additional pupils.

Sierra Leone Teachers Union (SLTU) president Abdulai Brima Koroma calls for salaries to be paid out soonest: “These teachers are entitled to salaries. They have been giving their services to the state under very unattractive conditions and deserve to get paid at the end of every month.”

The SLTU held several meetings with education officials, Koroma says, but without results: “We have told ministry officials that standards in schools are falling, with students producing bad results. This is having a devastating impact on the very universal primary education we are trying to achieve.”

The education department, however, maintains it will not pay the salaries of teachers who were employed by schools. “We have a database of teachers recruited by the ministry, and we can only pay those teachers. The school authorities that recruited (additional) teachers will have to find a way of paying them,” said education, youth and sports minister Minkailu Bah.

Bah admits, however, that achieving universal primary education is not only about mass enrolment of children: “I agree that our schools are overcrowded and that we need more teachers. But it is the ministry that has to do the recruitment, with consideration of budgetary constraints.”

He says government chose to first focus on building more schools across the country: “You can find schools in virtually every town and village. We are paying exams fees and providing school materials, especially for the girl-child, and we are also encouraging enrolment of children.”

IPS was unable to obtain statistics on primary school enrolment, number of teachers or national education budgets from the department.

Teachers criticise government for focusing mainly on quantity, while letting the quality of education deteriorate. Joseph Kamara, head teacher at another public school in Freetown, says the education department is making short-sighted decisions: “The government is anxious to meet the MDG of universal primary education, and so it is enrolling more kids in schools.” But the finances to make this expansion possible have still not been made available, he says.

In the past two years, Sierra Leone recorded dismal results in the state-run, regional schools examinations in comparison to neighbour countries Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and the Gambia. The exams are conducted each year by Accra-based non-profit body West African Examination Council (WAEC).

This compelled Sierra Leone’s president Ernest Bai Koroma, who once worked himself as a teacher, to set up a commission of inquiry in late 2009 to investigate the causes of declining education standards.

The commission, which submitted its findings in early March, recommended the formation of a schools monitoring unit to make education more effective and results-oriented. It also suggested improving working conditions of teachers through better teaching materials and better pay.

Government says it is in the process of reviewing those recommendations, but until decisions are made, budgets approved and changes implemented, public school teachers will continue to work without salary.

“It is frustrating, to say the least. You can imagine how I barely survive with my wife and three children. We live in a two bedroom flat, and I pay about $50 rent a month. On top of that, I pay electricity as well as water bills,” said Conteh.

He says teachers’ morale is low: “I have seen dozens of colleagues leave for private schools where salaries are more attractive and paid promptly.”

The only money Conteh currently earns is from private lessons. His income is complemented by a few dollars his wife makes by selling vegetables, cooking oil and fish at a market. “But this is not enough to take care of my family,” he says.

Several other public school teachers told IPS they live in similarly difficult situations.

Lamented primary school teacher Michael Jones: “Classrooms are overcrowded, with more than 60 kids in one class in some cases. The children hardly concentrate, school materials are few and far between, and the teachers are not getting paid.”

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