By Ahmed Konneh
Every child deserves the opportunity to achieve their highest aspirations. For many, an education can empower them with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve those aspirations. Unfortunately, this pathway is a distant dream for most of Liberia’s youth today. The turbulent 14-year civil war destroyed the lives of countless child soldiers and today it continues to ruin the lives of children born long after the guns fell silent. In the aftermath of the war, schools remain unequipped to educate the country’s children.
The education system would take an eternity to heal without a drastic disruption of the status quo. There could not be a more promising indication of such a shift than the Partnership Schools for Liberia Initiative.
Set to begin in September under the direction of the Ministry of Education, private providers, such as Bridge International Academies, will serve as the technical administrators of at least 70 public schools throughout the country. The government will provide oversight for all schools, and teachers will remain on government payroll. However, Bridge will train teachers on classroom management and teaching methods. At the end of the pilot program, independent evaluators will determine whether or not Liberia should continue this model.
This initiative seeks to transform the education system. In 2013, before the setbacks of the Ebola crisis, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared that “the educational system is a mess.” The same year, Liberia was embarrassed before the world when not a single one of the 25,000 applicants passed the University of Liberia entrance exam. And, in 2014, less than half (47 percent) of the 27,651 students passed the Senior High School Exam.
It is indisputable that the current model fails Liberian students. Thankfully, the minister of education, George Werner, has come to this conclusion as well.
In a recent interview he stated, “If we went by the status quo to continue doing what we have been doing, it will take decades for Liberia to catch up.”
With the emergence of the public-private partnership with Bridge, there is a unique opportunity to try something that has immense potential for change. According to studies, students who attend Bridge schools in Kenya and Uganda significantly outperform those who attend government schools. Parents of these pupils are so impressed that they spend their hard earned money to send their children there instead of public schools.
In Liberia, the situation is different. The government has legislated that primary education will be free and compulsory for all under its jurisdiction. According to the terms of the pilot scheme, parents will not pay a single cent. Instead, philanthropic organizations interested in delivering high-quality, low-cost education through technology have committed to funding the project.
As a Liberian student leader, I believe this drastic reform is needed to bring about the change that will enable Liberian children to receive a quality education. I grew up in a shattered academic environment. My school lacked everything needed to facilitate quality education. Classrooms did not have electricity; bathrooms were filthy; we struggled to acquire basic supplies, such as chairs. Most of my teachers rarely showed up to class and those that did lacked the skills necessary to teach war-affected youth. Many of my classmates remain academically crippled; the few of us who narrowly escaped have come to know the transformative power of a quality education.
Liberia has every reason to adopt a new, albeit radical, approach to public education. The public-private partnership initiative provides a unique opportunity to redefine the current, failed model. It is a chance to develop a system that works for children whose pursuit of an education continues to be crippled by a war that ended before they were born.
There is everything to be excited about for this pilot project. If it works, it will change the lives of Liberian children and empower them to achieve their dreams. Let the work begin!
Ahmed Konneh is a student at the University of Liberia and the co-founder and national director of SMART Liberia.
[Photo courtesy of kennethharper]