AD378: Majority of Sierra Leoneans like universal free education but call for greater investment

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Dispatches
2020
378
Fredline M'Cormack-Hale, Andrew Lavali

Sierra Leone is making significant gains in school enrollment, but learning outcomes, literacy levels, and skills acquisition are among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations Development Programme ( 2019) , Sierra Leone's Human Development Index values place close to the bottom – 181 st of 189 countries. While gender parity in enrollment has nearly been reached at the primary and junior secondary school level, girl completion rates still lag behind considerably at the senior secondary school level (Government of Sierra Leone, 2019a).

Although the 2004 Education Act provides for nine years of free and compulsory basic education and the 2007 Child Act recognizes the right to education for every child, free schooling was long limited to primary school. Moreover, parents complained of having to pay bribes and hidden fees to access school services that should have been free.

Since he came to power in 2018, President Julius Maada Bio has made human capital development the cornerstone of his administration’s priorities, and the launch of its flagship Free Quality School Education (FQSE) program in August 2018 fulfilled a key campaign promise (Sierra Leone People's Party, 2018) . The ambitious FQSE extended free education to the secondary school level. In addition to paying tuition fees, the plan committed to the provision of free textbooks and writing materials; expansion of school feeding at pre- and primary government and government-assisted schools; provision of specialized facilities to accommodate the most vulnerable, particularly girls and the disabled; and the elimination of exam malpractice and other corrupt practices through improved security and governance (Government of Sierra Leone, 2019a; Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, 2018) . Budgetary allocation to education is 22% of total primary expenditures in 2020 (Government of Sierra Leone, 2019b) , the highest it has been in years.

Findings from the most recent Afrobarometer survey show that most Sierra Leoneans support the FQSE policy. A large majority give the government positive ratings for its performance in addressing educational needs (at least before recent school closings due to COVID-19 presented a whole new set of challenges). However, they are split on the quality of education under FQSE and want the government to invest more resources to make the policy a success.