Liberian diary

Published: 14 December 2017

A group of schoolchidren in Liberia
Some children at Siahn who insisted that I take their photograph, clearly now used to visitors
By Killian Troy-Donovan, Analyst at Social Finance 

In an effort to improve educational attainment in Liberia, Social Finance is supporting the Government of Liberia, and several funding partners, to manage and finance the Partnership School for Liberia (PSL) programme. PSL aims to bring free, quality education to Liberian children through a marketplace’ of government-regulated, high-performing school operators.

This is a diary from the past week that I spent visiting PSL schools from the rural River Cess County to inner-city Monrovia, joining our Liberian verification team for part of their five-day trip.

Day 1: Barclayville

We set off for Grand Bassa County on Sunday afternoon, in order to make sure we get to our first school in time for the start of Monday morning classes.

Along the coastal roads, we are constantly reminded of the impact of the Ebola epidemic, which only came to an end in 2016. Police officers stand at checkpoints bordering each county, monitoring the temperatures of travellers for indication of the virus, while large banners branded by a familiar array of aid agencies warn people to remain vigilant.

The verification team, Romelus and James, tell me how Ebola united rather than divided the country. Its spread forced people to communicate across communities, and sometimes languages, leaving behind a greater sense of shared responsibility for the nation’s wellbeing.

On Monday morning, we arrive at Barclayville, a Bridge-operated school in Grand Bassa. We are met by Principal Soloman Higgins, who takes us around the classrooms. Here, we see children and young adults buried in textbooks and exercise sheets, concentrating admirably despite the 90% humidity and 30-degree heat.

As we tour the school grounds, I ask him what, in his opinion, is the one thing that would help their students in their learning, and we get onto a discussion on feeding. He says that pupils started to leave mid-morning if they were not being fed. Although the World Food Programme supports a feeding programme at the school, the supplies it sent are based on last year’s enrolment numbers. Now the school is a Partnership School, many more children have signed up, resulting in significant food shortages.

Day 2: River Cess

We spend the night in Buchanan, before setting off the next morning for Siahn Public School in River Cess County, driving down the single road which connects River Cess to the rest of the country.

It is the dry season in Liberia, and yet there are many times when we stop to tow cars that have become stuck in the mud, or jump out to help push others that are struggling to start.

We also see countless groups of children walking along the roadside, making the long journey to school. Many of them carry textbooks and exercise books, while others balance bundles of sticks as they walk (likely firewood to support their school’s feeding programme, I am told.) I wonder how or whether they manage on the long walks to school when it rains, which it does regularly and heavily in River Cess and along the rest of the Atlantic coast.

By midday, we arrive at Siahn Public School, operated by Rising Academies, where we are greeted by an impressive third grader leading her class in singing the school anthem. We are Rising, we are Rising,” they chant, and we never give up.”

Nursery and Kindergarten classes are invariably bursting with children. The small ones sit around the teacher at the front, and some sit on the laps of their peers when there is no other space.

Things are rather quieter in later grades, where students sit diligently working on their algebra problems, or responding thoughtfully to questions from the teacher. The challenge is how few kids make it this far in the Liberian education system. Average enrolment for Grade 7 in PSL schools is 14 students, which is less than a quarter of the average Nursery class size.

The problem is particularly acute for girls. Already, data from school reports submitted at the start of term shows that the proportion of girls declines steadily through the primary grades. We hear stories from providers and principals about the high number of pregnancies, which cause many girls to drop out.

As is the case in many of the PSL schools that we visit, classes are taught by engaging young teachers, some of whom look not much older than the eldest students.

The principals both here and at Barclayville tell us how providers have helped in identifying teachers and bringing them into schools — many of them straight from teacher training courses in other parts of the country. Many schools have benefitted in this way from the removal of ghost teachers’ from government payroll, making way for 1,371 new graduates to enter the public school system.

As we talk to these teachers, several mention the need for more desks and seats in classrooms for students to work from. One option is to bring them in from the capital Monrovia, through large contracts. However, these can be slow to respond to demand and delivery takes time given the challenges of poor roads.

An alternative option is using the power of the community to support infrastructure improvements and repair classrooms. This can be very effective, as it draws on both the skills of people in the community, and their willingness to contribute to good education for their children.

However, labour and materials do not come for free. Paul, who has been driving us during the school visits, thinks that a small amount of money would enable local community members to build chairs and desks for students. There is willingness he says, but the schools themselves have no spending power to make decisions locally.

Day 3: Montserrado

On the third day, we return to Montserrado to visit Fofee Town School, operated by a third provider, More Than Me (MTM).

PSL is a multi-operator programme, with 7 providers managing 194 schools between them. One of the huge potential benefits of this structure is the opportunity to share knowledge and examples of best practice between providers, improving performance across the programme — and beyond.

One of the most tangible examples of this is the textbooks being used at Fofee Town. MTM, who manage 18 schools as part of PSL, are using textbooks developed by Bridge for their early years classes, and those developed by Rising Academies for Grades 1–6. Many teachers and principals tell me how the learning materials are a real boost for the school, and are the most important reason for improved learning outcomes.

As we leave Siahn, we see one small girl, no older than 7, setting off with her two smaller sisters. She guides them by the hand along the side of the road, balancing each of their exercise books on her head. One of the smaller girls mirrors her older sibling — practicing with a single pencil.

I ask the eldest if she enjoyed coming to school.

Yes,” she says, shyly.

What do you like about your school?

I like my class.”

Then, after a thoughtful pause, and I love my teacher.”

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