President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her Annual Message to the nation on Monday named among her administration’s achievements over the past 11 years the rise in school enrollment to 1.5 million students. Spurred by this growing demand for education, the President further announced that students will now receive free and compulsory education from the first to the 12th grade.
“Today, over 1.5 million of our children – with parity between boys and girls – are in school. Thousands of our youth are pursuing technical and vocational training,” she said, adding that her administration has also empowered many women through the adult literacy program.
“Our mothers and sisters can do basic tasks in reading and writing,” the President reported.
In reaction, the spokesperson of the National Teachers Association (NTAL), Gabriel Paul, said the President’s pronouncement of free education to 12 grade level was welcomed, “because it would relieve parents of the financial burden they encounter to register their children and meet tuition costs.”
On the other hand, Mr. Paul said the President has encouraged drop-out students to re-enroll since the headache of finding money to register and pay other fees is no longer a barrier.
But opposition lawmaker Acarous Gray described the policy as a “copy cat” since it was already carved in the platform of the Coalition for Democratic Change, a merger of three political parties.
According to President Sirleaf, under her administration new school facilities were constructed, some with housing facilities for teachers.
She emphasized that education is a prime enabler of success, and that this has to be a high priority in government.
In 2006, she recalled how the country was in deep trouble, “because schools were destroyed, qualified teachers had fled the country, leaving only ‘volunteers’ to provide whatever academic instruction was possible for the thousands who tried to get an education without facilities or books, and thousands of others, who had never been to school.”
“This progress in education,” she said, was dampened by the poor quality of instruction, and exacerbated by the loss of an entire academic year, due to the Ebola virus.
“Liberia needed to adopt a more radical approach. We know that education is a long-term endeavor and more rapid results can only be achieved by departing from traditional structures,” she told the nation.
“For that reason, we adopted the Partnership School System for Liberia (PSL), with direct support from private partners, domestic and international partners.”
This system, the president explained, is aimed at rapid educational transformation through automation.
In addressing the concerns regarding the participation of private partners in the sector, the President said, “I remind you that, except for technology, there is little difference, because we have had a system of longstanding partnerships with inter-religious bodies and other private entities in the schooling of our children.”
She continued: “Preliminary results from the Partnership Schools are encouraging. The children and their families are the program’s strongest advocates, and that, to me, says it all.”
She said improving education must remain a priority, and that every Liberian must be committed to increase domestic spending for it, noting “This will be done as the economy improves, working with partners in line with international requirements.”
The President assured Liberians that her administration remains keenly aware of the need to respond to the issues of youth, who form the majority of the country’s population.
“Over 6,000 of our young people have benefited from scholarships provided by the government or its bilateral partners for studies in a wide range of disciplines that aim at strengthening public service delivery.”
Additionally, she said emphasis is placed on programs to address the thousands of unemployed youth, who have never had the opportunity of going to school or to access any form of education.
Currently, President Sirleaf said there are four major technical and vocational training institutions, with some technical training provided in several schools across the country.
“We are considering additional reform of the education system to allow those with different aptitudes to transit to technical and vocational training at an earlier phase of their schooling,” the President added.
She said, “Sport activities, like the county meet that bring out the best in our youth, should now be further addressed through budgetary support for a football academy that provides both quality education and sports training.
“In our desire to make higher education available throughout the country, we re-established and reconstructed the William V.S. Tubman University in Harper, Maryland County, as the second national university, and constructed new facilities at the University of Liberia’s Fendell Campus. We also established
Community Colleges in seven of the 15 counties with the intent to decentralize the school system.”
However, the President admitted that the effort has not produced the desired results due to resource constraints and poor management.
She said moving away from what is reported to be the international trend, her government now proposes to make all community colleges campuses of the University of Liberia.
This, she said, will be more cost-effective and will allow common rules and policies, under a common high leadership.
The President commended staff of the Straz Technical College of the University of Liberia in Sinje, Grand Cape Mount County, for “performing well attesting to the need for change.”
“We continue to keep our promise to our fellow women who, in large measure, have assured our success under several empowerment programs, which more than 11,000 of them have been trained in various skills; close to 250 homeless girls are receiving education at boarding schools,” Madam Sirleaf noted.
She said the cash transfer program that has been providing support to “extremely” poor households to increase school enrollment and improve health, has brought relief to over 3,000 households and 55,000 individuals in five vulnerable counties.