Author: Government of Sierra Leone
Site of publication: Unicef Sierra Leone
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: September 2022
The Sierra Leone Education Sector Plan 2022-2026: Transforming Learning for All (ESP) builds upon the achievements of the sector plan from 2018-2022 and focuses on improving learning outcomes for all children and youth. The current government’s education agenda is outlined in its Medium-Term National Development Strategy, which has two broad result areas in education:
- Ensuring free quality basic and senior secondary education; and
- Strengthening tertiary and higher education.
The Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) envisages that every child, regardless of circumstance, should have the opportunity to access and complete quality education, whilst showing proficiency in all assessed areas. To achieve this overall goal, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education (MTHE) will focus on nine core objectives:
- Strengthen the instructional core
- Recruit, retain, and support excellent educators
- Reduce gender and other disparities in educational access, experience, and outcomes for the most marginalized
- Provide safe, healthy, and conducive learning environments for all
- Strengthen governance, management, and accountability for performance
- Enhance emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery
- Eliminate corruption in education
- Strengthen partnerships in support of learning and work readiness
- Increase the use of data and technology to support learning and education service delivery.
Chapter 1: Socio-Economic, Political and Demographic Background
In 2019, the school-age population, composed of children and youth aged 3-24 years, reached 4.1 million (50% female), up from 3.3 million in 2011 and representing 52% of the total national population. Children eligible for basic and secondary education made up 74% of the schoolage population. Of the total population in the country, 59% live in rural areas, 51% are girls and women, 40% are below the age of 15 years, and 32% suffer from severe food insecurity.
Poverty and inequality
A recent study of the population of out-of-school children found that poverty plays an important role in determining whether children can attend school. Money, or lack thereof, was named as one of the top four priorities by 85% of survey participants. The DHS 2019 also shows large disparities in attendance rates based on wealth quintiles; the net attendance rate (NAR) in primary schools was 80% for children in the lowest wealth quintile and 92% for children in the highest wealth quintile. For secondary education, the gap was even larger, with 22% of children from households in the lowest wealth quintile, and 67% of children in the highest wealth quintile.
Despite making up just over half of the country’s population, girls and women remain marginalised across all sectors, and gender inequality and discrimination remain high. Sierra Leone regularly ranks at the bottom of global indices of gender inequality, such as the Gender Inequality Index (182 out of 189 in 2019). These indices are based on measures of health and survival, women’s empowerment, economic participation, and educational attainment.
In education, local councils are responsible for the management of basic education, whilst secondary and tertiary education is managed by the Central Ministry.
Chapter 2: Diagnosis of the Education System
Over the last six years, two major health emergencies impacted on education service delivery. The Ebola epidemic led to nearly 4,000 deaths and prolonged school closures for over nine months. Before the country had fully recovered from its aftermath, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020 and schools were closed for eight months, whilst movements of people and goods were restricted.
A recent study of the population of out-of-school children found that poverty plays an important role in determining whether children can attend school
The pandemic also resulted in a higher than usual number of students repeating a class. Almost all children returned to school after they reopened, but over a quarter of children repeated a class, with even higher repetition rates among children from poor and rural households. The repetition rates did not differ by gender.
The education system
The education system is divided into two main sectors: the formal and the non-formal.
The formal sector consists of pre-primary education (three years, starting at age three), primary education (six years, starting at age six), junior secondary education (three years, starting at age 12), senior secondary education, and higher education. Primary and junior secondary education together comprise basic education, which is compulsory for all children.
The non-formal sector caters to older children, youth, and adults who want an alternative to formal education. It includes programmes in functional literacy and numeracy, accelerated learning, and skills training. Non-formal programmes are typically offered through community learning centres (CLCs).
Despite making up just over half of the country’s population, girls and women remain marginalised across all sectors, and gender inequality and discrimination remain high
There are significant gender, geographical and socioeconomic disparities throughout the system, with poverty being the most discriminatory factor. The probability of accessing primary education is slightly higher for girls than for boys, but retention, completion, and transition rates from primary through senior secondary are still persistently lower for girls. Disparities by location and disability status are also significant and increase with the level of education attained.
Pre-primary, basic and secondary education
The ESA reveals that enrolment has grown at a higher pace than ever recorded, representing a 29% increase over a one-year period between 2018 and 2019. Between 2011 and 2019, the average annual growth rate of enrolment was 17% at the pre-primary level, 5% at the primary level, 8% at junior secondary level, and over 10% at the senior secondary level. Enrolment rates for girls are growing at a faster rate than boys during the same period, especially at the secondary levels.
A significant number of school-aged children remain out of school. In 2018, there were an estimated 524,000 children out of school, which represented 22% of children aged six to 18 years. Of the out-of-school children, two-thirds had never attended school whilst one third had dropped out prematurely. Some of the children who had never attended school may also enter late as overage enrolment is also prevalent. According to DHS 2019, there were more boys than girls in the 6–14-year-old age group who had never attended school, and no gender difference among the 15–19-year-olds who had never attended school.
Overall Repetition Rate is low. There has been a significant decrease in the level of repetition between 2011 and 2018, with only 2% of repeaters reported at the primary level in the latter year (12% in 2011), and 1% at the junior and senior secondary levels (8% and 7% respectively in 2011). Overall, repeaters attending the first grade of primary school appear to be much younger than non-repeaters, with 76% being five years old or younger. This phenomenon may be linked to the lack of preschool facilities available to meet the needs of younger children.
Completion rates have been increasing over time. The estimated primary completion rate in 2019 was 82% compared to 76% in 2011. Still, about 30% of students do not complete basic education, which, as mentioned earlier, is compulsory for all children. In addition, the probability of completing secondary school is much lower for girls (29%) than boys (44%).
There are inequities in participation based on gender, location, disability status, and household wealth, with increasing inequities further up the education ladder. The ESA found that there was a 14% point difference in the probability of completing primary education between the children from the poorest and richest households. There is also a 14% point difference in favour of urban children accessing primary school, which widens to 33% points at the end of the primary level.
Whilst there is gender parity at the primary level, girls are much less likely to complete secondary school and access tertiary education. The interaction of region, socioeconomic status, and gender results in poor girls from rural areas being the most disadvantaged in terms of schooling outcomes. Data on the disability status of students is not comprehensive, but household survey data shows that children with disabilities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, and cognition impairments, only have a 67% chance of being in school compared to 73% in those without a disability, with no significant gender difference.
The distribution of schools within districts largely matches their share of the population. In terms of the distribution of schools within districts, there are a few districts that have a greater share of schools than their share of the population (e.g. Western Area Urban accounts for about 6% of the population but has 8% of schools). There are also a few districts that are underrepresented in terms of schools (Bombali, Kailahun, and Pujehun). For most districts, however, the distribution of schools matches the distribution of the population. Differences are primarily found in the distribution of types of schools within districts. For example, in cities and towns, about 25% of schools are pre-primary, 40% are primary, 20% JSS, and 10% SSS. Meanwhile, in more rural districts, the distribution is skewed towards primary schools, with 10% pre-primary, 73% primary, 12% JSS, and 5% SSS. Districts with the most skewed distributions include Karene, where 92% of schools are primary schools, Kenema (85%), and Falaba (83%). In these districts, there are few opportunities for children to transition to secondary schools within their locality.
Resources for the sector come from the government, households, and external donors. Two main characteristics of public financing of education in Sierra Leone is that spending meets international standards, but the level of domestic resource mobilisation for the sector is low.
Education expenditures are below internationally recommended standards. In 2020, public expenditure on education represented 2.8% of the GDP29 , which is much lower than the 29 Data from Ministry of Finance 13 threshold of 4–6% of GDP recommended by the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) framework.
Public expenditure on education has increased, but very little is spent on capital expenditure. Public spending on education increased by more than 668 billion Leones (Le) over the nine-year period between 2011 and 2019, with an overall growth of 168% and annual average growth of 13.3%, reaching Le 1 trillion. However, most of this is used for recurrent items, such as salaries for teachers. In 2019, the GoSL spent Le 1.057 trillion on education, of which Le 1.046 trillion (99%) was spent on recurrent costs. The Le 11.1 billion in capital spending accounted for just 1% of total spending, implying that there was almost no spending on infrastructure investment. The surge in pupil enrolments at approved schools following the introduction of the FQSE programme in 2018 has created concerns that existing infrastructure challenges will risk its effective implementation, because of these low levels of capital spending. Education development partners attempt to fill in the gaps in capital spending through their various projects.
There are inequities in participation based on gender, location, disability status, and household wealth, with increasing inequities further up the education ladder
Household spending on education is significant. According to the SLIHS 2018, the average household spent about 10% of total household expenditure on education. Female-headed households spent more than male-headed households, and urban households spent the highest, likely due to the higher cost of transportation and private school enrolment. Urban households spent almost 3.5 times that of rural households and the richest households spent seven times more on education than the poorest households, likely exacerbating the inequalities. Household spending mostly goes to fees, tuition, uniforms and supplementary materials, and transport. Since this study was completed before the implementation of the FQSE, in which the government took on the cost of fees and core textbooks, further research will show its impact. ESA 2020 showed that families tend to spend equally on boys and girls except for the richest and poorest households. Among the poorest households, spending on girls is lower, but among the richest households, it is higher.
Despite recent improvements in learning outcomes, many students perform below grade-level expectations. Results from learning assessments conducted at the primary and secondary levels show low levels of performance by students. The 2021 National Early Grade 30 Statistics Sierra Leone, “Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey (SLIHS) Report 2018: Credible Data for National Development.” 9% 32% 37% 2% 20% Administration Pre-primary and Primary Secondary Tech Voc Higher Education Reading and Mathematics Assessments (EGRA and EGMA) showed that many students from grades 2 and 4 have not acquired foundational reading and mathematics skills. The percentage of students with zero scores in the EGRA subtasks was high for reading comprehension and phonetic awareness, with 81% of grade 2 students scoring zero in reading comprehension and 66% scoring zero in reading non-words (decoding).
Countless children and youth are attending schools and other educational institutions that are not safe or healthy. SGBV is a serious concern: according to the 2021 Out of School Study, sexual violence in and around schools was one of the main barriers to attending school, especially for girls. The study documented many instances of sexual violence and harassment that, as explained by survey participants. A national survey of school-related violence in 2010 found that about two-thirds of girls had experienced at least one or more forms of sexual violence. Whilst perpetrators of violence included peers, and older students, the study found that teachers were the main perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation.
In addition to SGBV, children also face incidences of violence and corporal punishment in and out of school, despite a ban on corporal punishment. About 47% of mothers or caretakers believed that physical punishment was necessary to raise or educate a child. According to the MICS 2017 report, approximately 86% of children (87% boys and 86% girls) between the ages of 1 and 14 experience some violent disciplinary method, whilst 80% (80% boys and 80% girls) experienced psychological aggression and 73% (74% boys and 72% girls) experienced physical aggression in their homes. With these prevailing practices occurring in the home, it is rare for parents to report incidences of psychological or physical violence in schools.
Many public school teachers are not on the government payroll. Teachers are one of the most important resources for improving the quality of educational systems. The ESA shows that only 46% of teachers in approved government and government-assisted schools are paid by the government. The non-payroll teachers are compensated by families and communities or from the tuition grants sent to schools.
Countless children and youth are attending schools and other educational institutions that are not safe or healthy
Many teachers do not have the required qualifications to teach. In 2019, 59% of teachers held the required qualification to teach at their education level, meaning that Sierra Leone is still far from achieving the 75% target set for the percentage of qualified teachers in the 2018– 2020 ESP. Half of pre-primary teachers are qualified to teach at that level. The highest share of qualified teachers is observed at the primary level, with 64% of teachers holding at least a Teachers’ Certificate (TC). At the secondary level, the lowest share of qualified teachers are in SSS, with two out of five teachers possessing the minimum qualification required for teaching at that level, compared to almost three out of five JSS teachers being qualified.
Access to higher education has increased markedly in recent years. Data from the 2020 NTHEC shows that enrolment in tertiary education increased from 89,592 to 129,196 between 2017 and 2019, a 44% jump. Of the 129,196 enrolled in tertiary education, 104,447 (80%) are enrolled in general programmes and only 20% in TVET programmes. Sierra Leone has a high access rate to tertiary education compared to other West African countries at 1,337 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to the average of 963 per 100,000.
Proportion of female enrolment in higher education is still less than male enrolment, but is increasing at a faster rate. In 2019, women made up 48% of enrolment in tertiary education, up from 43% in 2017. However, most women are enrolled in short-cycle tertiary education programmes (certificate and diplomas), and the share of enrolment goes down at higher levels.