When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tapped CSA boss George Werner to head the Ministry of Education, it came as a surprise to many and perhaps the question on their minds was, "Is he the right one for the job?" The question stems from the fact that many of the “old and experienced hands” could not deliver on the task given them.
The Liberian education system is emerging from a prolonged and brutally destructive period of civil unrest. Liberia is significantly behind most other countries in the African region in nearly all education statistics.
After 14 years of civil war, which resulted in the destruction of much of the country’s trained workforce, the country is still in the process of rebuilding its educational system, according to the USAID.
To compound it all, in 2013, 25,000 persons who sat the University of Liberia exams failed miserably that it caught the attention of the world. President Sirleaf finally had to admit that the system is a "mess and requires a complete overhaul."
That Liberian students could not pass a university entrance without garnering headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons meant our education system has indeed faltered and is no longer in its pre-war years when it was second to none.
And even after the cessation of hostilities twelve years after and the appointments of seasoned educators, that sector continues to take a nosedive.
And so many are wondering about the background of the newly appointed minister and what has he to offer to our already broken system. Education, it seems, has been the lifeblood of this young man nearly all his life.
George Werner holds a BA in Education from the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome and a Master of Arts in social work (concentration in social policy) from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice while earning a cumulative GPA of 3.80. To sum it up, he studied didactics, (which is the science of teaching) as a one year non degree course at the University of South Africa, Pretoria. And he has taught across the world from Liberia, South Africa and the United States of America.
Prior to his appointment, he currently serves a Director general of the Civil Service Agency, one of the many government agencies that was dogged by the issues of ghost names, salaries etc. He spearheaded the Civil Service reform in an effort to regularize the civil service, optimize the size of government and professionalized the workforce for improved service delivery.
Lest we forget that he currently oversees the inter-ministerial scholarship from bilateral partners and under his watch, scholarships are given on merit, unlike the yesteryears when the doling out of scholarships was mired in the patronage system.
As mentioned supra, President Sirleaf has already claimed that our education system is a mess. And now that herculean task of dry cleaning that mess rests squarely on the shoulders of George Werner and his team of lieutenants.
First, he has to use his magic wand to clear the names of ghost teachers on the payroll, teachers receiving their salaries on time so it doesn’t obstruct teachings and teachers who are yearning for employment but are yet contracted.
Then there's the issue of competency of the teachers. Having an undergraduate degree doesn't necessarily mean you are qualified to teach. Teaching, like any profession, has ethics that govern the teachers.
Due to the fact the many of our teachers eschew teacher training, the line of demarcation between a teacher and a student, howbeit thin, is hardly ever seen. Hence, there are always reports of intimacy between teachers and students. Few years ago, a teacher of Cathedral Catholic School was remanded at the Monrovia Central Prison for having an intimate relationship with an underage female student. This is one area the incoming minister will have to apply fifty shades of gray.
In order for a student to compete with students from around the globe, he/she must be taught from a rather strong curriculum. Truth be told, Liberia's education curriculum is antiquated. When the trial exams of West African Senior School Certificate Examination were administered, it was only Elvis Juasemai, a student of the Soltiamon Christian School System, emerged by the skin of a flea with flying colors.
Another issue constantly overlooked but can certainly be given the limelight when Werner takes office is the absence of extracurricular activities in our schools. Extracurricular activities are those that fall outside the realm of school or university education. Most times students go into university without knowing what to do. That's because they never found their niche in high school, thanks to the lack of extracurricular activities in these schools.
In a commentary titled, "Neglecting Extra-curricular Activities Could Perpetuate Poor WAEC Results," Liberian journalist Momolu Dorley laments: "Extra-curricular activities is a crucial component to education in any successful country because it allows the student to learn about theatre, about passion, imagination and self-discovery. I am of the conviction that one of the joys of education is letting folks discover the pleasure of learning for them."
As a former teacher, Werner understands fully the significance of extracurricular activities and its contribution to the growth and development of students cannot be over emphasized.
Werner has an ambitious plan to get the education sector better than what it was during the prewar years. To have a smooth sailing, he needs the support of all and sundry. Currently, government spends 12% of its annual budget on education, a paltry sum when one compares it to Ghana which currently spends 33% of its annual budget on education.
Yes, the expectations are high and to whom much is given, much is also expected but we must be reminded by the words of the French playwright artist Jean Baptiste Poquelin, also known by his stage name as Moliere: “trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruits.”
About the author: Gboko John Stewart, a product of Monrovia College, is a freelance journalist and radio talk show host. He has been accepted to study at Quest University Canada. He runs an online petition on change.org and has gathered over 1000 signatures calling on the Canadian government to lift its visa ban on Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone so that he and others can travel there for studies.