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Youth Views on Quality Education in Sierra Leone
Addie Valcarcel, of the Sierra Leone National Commission for Children, discusses the consultations on education quality held with head boys and head girls around the country.
How often do we ask youth directly what they think about the quality of their own education? The answer is probably much less often than we should. Our young people have the right to participate in discussions on issues that affect their lives—this is one of the key principles found in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
In 2015, the National Commission for Children (NCC) decided to help Sierra Leone’s young people put this right into practice by consulting students directly about our national education system. Quality education was one of the three main priority issues the NCC had designated for our first year of operation. There was a general impression in the country that the quality of education was on the decline, but we did not want to base our initiative on speculation or only on our own ideas—we wanted to have first-hand information from the people actually involved: students.
Organizing the dialogues
The NCC is an independent commission, and we sought to gather independent information, externally from the Ministry of Education’s own processes of educational oversight. But we do not work in isolation. In this instance, we actively involved the Conference of Principals of Secondary Schools from the beginning as an advisor in the steps we should take to prepare our dialogues and inform the schools and parents. The Conference of Principals also participated in the dialogues, so that they could hear students’ comments directly.
We decided to have dialogue sessions with head boys and head girls all over the country. While we could not consult directly with all students, the head boys and head girls are able to communicate with their peers and gather their ideas. We held one dialogue session in each of the four regions of the country, so that we could get a comprehensive picture of the situation of our schools.
Students put the spotlight on learning issues
In each dialogue, after introductory remarks, we divided the head boys and head girls into four groups, each charged to discuss one thematic area: the school environment, the home and community, the roles and responsibilities of the child, and the contribution of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. Each group discussed the issues in their topic area that undermine quality education and presented recommendations to the rest of the attendees. In the future, we also plan to allow students to write down individual remarks related to any of the thematic areas, so they are free to express their concerns on any topic.
By and large, the issues students raised were already known, such as low support for learning in the home, overcrowded classrooms, unhygienic conditions, lack of learning materials, low teacher motivation, and even teachers demanding sex or money in exchange for grades. But it was beneficial to hear the students raise these problems themselves, and we encouraged them to present these issues directly to the Education Board of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. We brought the kids from all over the country, two representatives from each region, to present their reports to the Board.
Dialogue spurs a response from the Ministry of Education
There are many things going on within the country now that stem from the recommendations given by these head boys and head girls. For example, the Minister and senior staff of the Ministry have begun unannounced visits to schools to ensure that principals, teachers and pupils are present. Some work is also in progress with regards downsizing the number of pupils in classes, as overcrowding in the classrooms was a major concern raised by the children.
[Click here to read a blog post with the government’s response to the consultations with head boys and head girls: Government Responds to Youth Views on Education Quality in Sierra Leone]
In 2016, we have begun to repeat this process, with the new head boys and head girls, and with their deputies from the class below, so that these dialogues with students become a regular practice that we can carry forward into the future.
Contributed by : Addie Valcarel, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator, National Commission for Children