Pupils return to Freetown Secondary School for Girls in October after lockdown
Pupils return to Freetown Secondary School for Girls in October after lockdown © AFP via Getty Images

Just over a year ago, Covid-19 drove the world into lockdown, leaving more than 1bn children and students in developing countries shut out of school. Many countries cut short the academic year, hundreds of thousands of teachers stayed at home, and governments froze education budgets or redirected funds to health programmes.

That leaves us needing to take swift action to avoid setting back progress towards access to universal education, and to ensure quality learning for all. In low and middle-income countries, the dangers of lost learning are particularly high for girls, who face greater risks of early marriage and teenage pregnancy.

So, as the world slowly reopens, now is the time to double down on our commitments to equitable education by increasing our budgets. This is not just prudent; it is just and cost effective — both for our countries’ broader development and to better prepare for future pandemics.

In Sierra Leone, President Julius Maada Bio has been pivotal in placing human capital at the centre of the government’s agenda, spreading a vision of inclusive national development through education. He made this a priority for ministers and officials in education and finance through regular, high-level meetings. This engagement has cemented strong relations with teachers.

As someone who grew up in a rural community, he will have seen the importance of schooling and the damage inflicted during the civil war of the 1990s. Conflict undermined the education system, and its heavy legacy today is reflected in low levels of adult literacy, which have constrained the country’s progress.

The government’s flagship project is the Free Quality School Education programme, launched in 2018, which has expanded universal access to public education to all pre-primary, primary and secondary school students.

The state pays for all exams, and for textbooks, exercise books and other learning materials including sports equipment in government-assisted schools. The government has also expanded school meal programmes in the most vulnerable chiefdoms across the country.

Sierra Leone is a low-income country with a significant debt burden and high needs for funding in every sector. Yet, since 2018, we have increased investment in education, which receives about 22 per cent of the annual discretionary budget. We have expanded the number of approved schools eligible for public financial support to three-fifths of the total, notably in rural areas.

We recruited more than 5,000 new teachers in 2019, raised all teaching salaries by 30 per cent in 2020 and, in March this year, completed the promotion and reassessment of more than 4,000 members of the teaching profession. Support for their wages, coupled with investment in continuing professional development, enhances essential human capital in the education sector.

We have already reaped returns, with more permanent classrooms built and enrolment up by a third in the past three years. We have achieved gender parity in primary and junior secondary schools, a greater focus on science and technology and improved outcomes as more students pass exams and progress through secondary and into tertiary education.

Every government should take the lead in funding and strengthening its own national education system. Support from other countries, charities and the private sector has also played an important role by adding resources and has proved invaluable in Sierra Leone.

Pupils in class in Kabala, northern Sierra Leone, before the pandemic © Belen B Massieu/Shutterstock

However, it is essential that — in all countries — these partners align their support with government programmes and priorities. To ensure the best results, they should offer complementary support to fill gaps while avoiding duplication or distraction, and demonstrate flexibility in their projects as our needs evolve.

For example, while the state has paid teachers, supported school meals and purchased teaching and learning materials, donors have helped with capital expenditure to build new classrooms and buy furniture. Local and international non-governmental partners and the private sector have supported community teachers.

During the pandemic, Sierra Leone paid the highest sum ever to support more than 400,000 candidates taking transitional exams to continue to the next stage of their education. With our development partners, we have explored the use of technology, such as radio-based teaching, by distributing solar-powered handsets to children — especially girls.

We closed schools in March 2020 when the first case of Covid-19 was recorded. While building our programme to support remote learning, our primary objective was the safe return to school. We provided face masks for all pupils, thermometers for each school and trained teachers in emergency response in preparation for reopening in early October 2020.

We have used the lockdown to introduce and promote a policy on radical inclusion in schools for girls, prioritising the poorest, those in rural areas, who are pregnant or who have disabilities. We will invest in girls’ boarding homes and hostels for vulnerable youth in cities.

We highlight these small positive steps to underscore that — now more than ever — we must invest in education and place equity at the centre of our recovery and development.

At a time when the entire school year has been cancelled in so many countries, it is important to consider the most vulnerable — for example, the poor rural girl with a disability. When we do this, our economies will be better off, human capacity enhanced and our countries more equipped to fight this scourge.

There are currently many demands on resources. But, if we delay because we think funding education today is expensive, it will only become more costly to tackle in two years’ time and still more so in a decade.

Governments must realise that investing in education is the best way to sustain our countries now and better prepare for health and development in the future.

David Moinina Sengeh is Sierra Leone’s minister of basic and senior secondary education and Jacob Jusu Saffa is minister of finance

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