Our population is a young one - over 40% is below 15 years old. An increasingly youthful population is not exclusive to Sierra Leone. Africa has more people aged under 20 than anywhere in the world. UNICEF estimates that over the next four decades, 40% of the world’s children and roughly 25% of the global population will be in Africa.
The possible implications of this trend have polarised commentators. One camp frames our youthful populations as a great opportunity; the other as a great risk.
In the first scenario, our youth bulge is a competitive advantage that sets us apart from industrialised countries, many of which have rapidly aging populations. Those who take the opposite position argue that in an environment of unemployment, low wages, and the need for substantial ongoing investment in health, education, and infrastructure, our overwhelmingly youthful population is a potentially significant risk to political and economic stability.
For my Ministry and its stakeholders in the education sector, this is a time of great challenge, responsibility and opportunity. We know that education has the power to change nations. It can help prevent poverty and social exclusion, ensure human and civic values are maintained and help tackle all forms of discrimination. Educated citizens have the necessary skills to succeed in the labour market. They are key to improved economic growth and employment in Sierra Leone and in the sub-region.
Progress in recent years has been encouraging. Seventy-six percent of students finish primary school, which is above the average for Sub-Saharan Africa, and 77% of these advance to JSS level. Yet too many of our young people, especially in rural areas, still lack adequate access to really high quality learning and teaching. Take for example, the high level of repetition in primary schools. At 15.6%, this indicates a need to increase internal efficiency by further rebuilding infrastructure and increasing coverage.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the Teaching Service Commission are collaborating with national and international stakeholders and partners, to accelerate the modernisation of our education system. As part of this strategy, a Le257 billion ($34.3 million) investment in a series of urgent initiatives is being delivered under the President’s Recovery Priorities.
These are intended to rapidly improve learning outcomes. They include the construction of 500 classrooms across the country to reduce severe over-crowding in the worst affected schools; visiting schools nationwide to ensure they meet Government standards; and a national school-feeding programme for all GoSL/GoSL assisted primary schools.
The Accelerated Teaching syllabi that we produced in August 2015, was a successful response to the time lost due to Ebola. We are building on this with new lesson plans in language arts and mathematics, across all primary and JSS school grades. These give teachers the support they need to cover each element of the national curriculum and are complemented with training for in-service teachers.
Our teachers are the backbone of a strong and vibrant education system and the Teachers’ Payroll Verification and School Mapping Exercise will help our work in this area. It will support MEST in capturing, protecting and providing reliable information in the electronic environment. It is a critical step towards a strong financial and information management system which will lead to more effective teacher remuneration and professional development. This is essential to ensuring that we are allocating teaching and learning resources appropriately, where, how and to whom they are most needed.
MEST also uses a Situation Room to monitor progress at an individual school level using indicators such as: pupil and teacher attendance, condition of WASH facilities, and school feeding, etc. This allows us to identify and resolve impediments to teaching and learning.
The successful implementation of these initiatives will give the education sector an even stronger base from which we can progress towards the goals that we set out in the Agenda for Prosperity.