Speech: Liberia’s Messed Up Education

Keynote address by Journalist D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh, Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia at the Closing and Fund Raising program of the 2nd Providence Baptist School in Monrovia on July 7, 2013


It is with great pleasure, honor, and an opportunity that I stand here today to address you on this occasion. The invitation for this complicated task I am about to perform was extended my boss, Mr. Peter Quaqua, President of the PUL. 
But unfortunately, Mr. Quaqua is so engaged with previous invitations extended the Union and other pressing meetings and engagements that he could not be here today.
Because he considers this occasion very important, he asked me to fill in for him. That’s why you are having me standing before you. He has extended his sincere greetings to all of you beautiful people in here—the students, the school’s authorities, and the parents. He promised to collaborate with you in your endeavors.
Since I am not Peter Quaqua, I suspect that many of you, if not all, will be disappointed because you may not hear the kind of message you expect to hear from a tough-talking and well respected man like my boss. However, please bear with me and my limitation as I will try my best to do what I know how to do in his stead. I can assure you that in the next few minutes I will not be standing before you telling you what you do not want to hear. I promise you, I will not be long.
An occasion like this is always a happy one. It is often a happy one because it brings joy to students who have completed one level of their academic journey and are about to start a new one. It is at this point that the parents celebrate the achievements of their children whose school fees and tuition they have paid over the years. It is a joyous occasion because the teachers and the entire school administrators are elated that their students have excelled and made them proud. Indeed, it’s a happy moment.
It reminds me of my own days in high school more than 13 years ago—when we sat down and listen to speeches that told us how we were the future leaders. Those were speeches that praised parents and guardians, teachers and principals for the roles they respectively played in making/ensuring a vibrant educational system and producing productive graduates. Today it’s different, and that’s why I have come to make you sad or angry by speaking on the topic “A Messed Up Educational System: Who’s Responsible.”
Outlook of system
There is no argument that our educational system today is a complete messed up one. It doesn’t require a graduate from Harvard like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to determine how failing and appalling our learning system has gone—the outcomes are terrible. No, almost anyone who has acquired some level of quality education in the past can determine how the system is mess up and flawed today.
Corruption, greed, sex for grade or grade for sex, dishonesty, rudeness, disregard for order and policies, half-baked graduates, and criminal syndicates are among some of the unwholesome practices that have flooded they system today. It’s troubling and worrisome, and it signifies doom for a country and people who speak of hitting middle income status by 2030. Even 2099 will not take us there with our tattered educational system in this state, getting worse year by year.
Local and international surveys and reports have emphasized that the system is rotten and corrupt, and the evidence is glaring. The performances of our students and graduates are extremely poor to the extent that one would not hesitate to state that one out of every 10 high school graduate is up to the task.
Liberia’s education system has come under the spotlight as being substandard and poorly equipped as compared to education systems elsewhere in Africa, or as compared to what we had here before the war broke out in 1989.
Before the war, Liberia boasted of one of the soundest educational systems—one that attracted students and instructors from Africa and other nations. And I know that some of you want to ask me for the evidence of my statement.
Mapping of Corruption Risks in the Education Sector in Liberia, a survey sanctioned by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) in May this year revealed that the country’s educational system is completely corrupt and it signals danger for the future, unless stakeholders acted. The report backs President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s recent disdain over how the sector is mess up, proposing measures for a rebirth.

The survey confirmed that the education sector has actually broken down and Liberia is at greater danger due to rampant corruption in the sector at all levels. It is further confirmed by the performance of Liberian students in international exams, particularly the local West African Examination Council exams over the last few years. Liberia for the first time participated in the just ended West Africa Senior Secondary Exam administered in selected schools and the results shows another poor performance. Thousands of those who sit the University of Liberia’s entrance exam annually massively fail. Indeed, this shows that something is wrong with our educational system—it is messed up.
So, who’s Responsible?
Mr. Principal, teachers, parents and guardians and students, there is a big question we must all answer. And that million dollar question I want to ask today is who is responsible for the messed up system. Somebody must be, and as some of you are now guessing, you and I might just have the same answer.
I have done my own analysis and realized that almost every one of us in here is responsible. The Government, you the School Administrators, you the Parents, and you students—all are responsible. I know you want to know how, and I will briefly tell you.
The Government
It is the responsibility of every government to ensure that its people, especially the younger generation, are properly educated in a bid to ensure a nourishing functional society with literate citizens capable of making sound national decisions. Government does this, among others, by not only drawing up appropriate policies but ensuring that these crafted policies are fittingly implemented with moral and financial support.
Is this being done in our country? I say NO to a larger extent. What I have seen is that government has only often announced and pronounced its commitment to education, but has yet to practically put into place measures to back these flowery pronouncements. I know there are policies, sound policies on the shelves that could better up the system, but Government has failed to provide relevant oversight and funding to actualize these plans which I call “political policies good-for-nothing documents”. They are total lip service, charade, and figment of imagination. How will the system not be messed up?
Our education law states that about 25% of the National Budget should go to education, but in the last eight years, this has never happened (I stand to be correct, but my research didn’t find that). The much publicized free and compulsory primary education is not yielding its desired results as students sit on bare floors and in congested classrooms to take lessons, while teachers often leave the classrooms to protest for salaries. How will the system not be messed up?
At present, one can easily understand that the Ministry of Education is overburdened and has no capacity for the huge tasks at its feet. The incapacity of the Ministry, coupled with corruption at all levels in the school systems, and the lack of support to enhance quality, collectively form the mess in the system. With just few qualified teachers in the classrooms and a huge number of unqualified with very little experience and credentials, and limited wages, the outcome will be low output from the end of the teachers. Also with limited resources including tuition financing, textbooks and laboratory equipments students will obviously not perform as expected. Schools are not monitored, and they do their own things, whether accepted by the Ministry of Education or not. I see why the system is messed up.
The Governance Commission this year reported that the Ministry of Education lacks clear vision and leadership to improve the country’s education sector. It said the most underlying problem in the educational sector is “lack of clear vision and leadership”, something that has made the Ministry to perform below expectation. There is no evidence of good political oversight that is pro-actively handing the problems in the education sector. So, pretty tell me, how will the system not be messed up?
There is an overall lack of transparency in all aspects of managing the education sector. Audit reports, budgets, plans, etc. are not made available by the MOE to other stakeholders in the sector. The MOE is not pro-actively providing other stakeholders and the public with important information regarding the sector. All these make the system messed up, and its need to be cleaned up.
School Administrators/ Teachers
But it won’t be fair here to blame the Government or the Education Ministry alone for this national dilemma. You, you here listening to me—you the school owners, administrators and teachers—are of even great contributors to the problem. You are the ones producing those fake graduates, you are the ones preparing them for the future, you are the ones dealing with the students day after day and year in year out, and they are going out with what you teach them. If they perform poorly, it is you; if they perform excellently, it is you. They are your ambassadors, representing your image, your institutions. If they are messed up, you, too, are messed up.
In the past people established schools to provide quality education, today people are establishing schools make huge profits. Schools have become business institutions for maximizing profits and not academic institutions for maximizing knowledge. Principals and proprietors are measuring their successes and strength on the quantity of students they take in and not the quality of students they put out. Tell me, in the midst of this, how will the system not be messed up?
Unlike the past, principals of today do not check the back grounds of students who enter their schools. They careless to know if the new student was demoted in the previous school, or whether he/she was given an NTR. It’s none of their business. All they want is the school and tuition fees. No report card, no transcript, nothing! Just pay your money. I see what they system is messed up.
Most of the teachers in our schools are not professional, though some may be qualified. Many of them do not know their purposes in the classrooms. So, they run after little boys and girls for sex in exchange of grades. Those who cannot succumb to sex-for-grade have to pay money, and the highest bidders get the highest grades. Are they teachers? Yes, teachers of immoralities. What a doom for a country like ours.
They teach students to grow up with the knowledge that in our society people do not get things or get to places by merit, but through dishonesty, bribery, sex and other immoral acts. No wonder our education system is messed up, leading to a messed up society. No wonder sex for jobs is reportedly on the rise.
But the mess in the education system does not only rests with government and school authorities, but with you the parents and guardians. Many of you are not playing the required roles, but are helping to destroy the system. Paying your children’s school and tuition fees is not all to educating them. You need to make follow-ups on their progress in school and work with the schools to ensure that they perform better.
How many of you in here, sitting under my voice, do that? What many of you are noted for doing is to ensure that you children get to the next class, whether they are fit or not. That’s why some parents bribe teachers and other school authorities to ensure that their children get promoted. How will the system not be messed up when you do that—when you promote corruption, dishonesty, and encourage your children not to do the right things to be successful? You are damaging the system, making it rotten and more messed up, and you must stop.
You, too, the students are making the system messed up. Because your government is preaching lip service, because your teachers are not properly playing their roles, because your parents are misleading you and corrupting the system, you have also become both victims and perpetrators. Many of you fail to study your lessons; you know little about you school and classroom activities. You know little about your country and leaders. You don’t know who the first president is or Flag Day anymore; you can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing the ‘Lone Star Forever’ or recite the national anthem, and many more. How can the system not be messed up when you do not know these simple things you should have at the tip of your fingers as students? How do you expect to pass national exams when question are posed to you on these topics? That’s why many of you fail in public exams—you are not just preparing yourselves for the future.

Many of you today are distracted from learning as a result of modernity. Instead of you taking advantages of the positive sides of technology to enhance your learning, you are on the negative side—watching movies and playing music on you phones in class as the lesson goes on. I am wondering whether such a students will ever learn anything.

Most of the male students know all the big football players in the world, their birthdays, country of origin, and their salaries. They know the clubs these players play for, the positions they play and the number of goals they score, but little they say about their lesson. This is troubling! On the other hand, our female students know everything about the latest African movies and those acting in them. They will tell you about God Father, and Mama-G and the rest; they will explain the latest western Movie about Clara and Mara, and not their history and Language Arts notes. That’s why many of you perform so poorly. Yes, you, too, are part of the messed up system.

Way Forward
However, this is not the end of the road. We can make amends, I mean, better they system when we commit ourselves to doing so—all of us: Government, Schools/teachers, parents and students.
Our education sector needs a complete overhaul and realignment and that action needs to be taken against corrupt persons. It is in dire need of libration and forward match.
Like the Liberian leader has said unless all stakeholders can redirect their time, energy and resources, Liberia will continue to face problems in providing quality education, and this is unacceptable. This is therefore a compound problem that needs to be solved with the government, school authorities and teachers and parents in a single network to clean the mess. Yet, it is the responsibility of the government to take the lead by providing decisive policy directions that decentralizes the governance of the education sector.
It needs real commitment because we cannot clean the mess when government is not adequately playing its role, not committing required funding to the sector; not providing subsidies to private schools. No, when government, our lawmakers, are passing useless greedy laws that will give about US$2 million in taxpayers’ moneys to support so called political parties. Such amount of money could buy hundreds of thousands of chairs for our kids who sit on bare floors to take lesson; it could build latrines and hand pumps for schools; it could expand the number of class rooms and build new schools in areas where there are no schools.
We cannot clean the mess unless school proprietors see schools as intuitions intended to provide knowledge rather than business entities to generate funds; when teachers do not know their purpose of being in the classrooms, when they spend times asking boys and girls for sex and money for grades. No, the system cannot be cleaned that way!
We cannot fix this spoiled system when our parents and guardians will not stop conniving with corrupt teachers and school authorities to pollute the system through bribery to ensure the passing of their kids/wards. It will get better when parents check on their children in schools and work with teachers to make them better. It will not be changed unless students consider themselves as students and as people who want to learn properly to become future leaders. When we consider this, only then will our messed up educational system be cleaned and once more competitive.
Finally, I wish all of you young graduates the best as you move forward with you academic journey in a messed up system. You are just stepping out of one shoe to step into another one, probably a big one that will take you a step further.
This journey has never been easy. It will never be. You will have to sacrifice and burry your heads in your books, cut down the too many plays and video clubbing. There is coming a time for all that and you will have all, the whole world, at your disposal, but for now, you must learn to the best of your abilities.
Liberia needs your more than ever before and you must get prepared to serve her well by learning properly. My key message to you the graduates of today is keep seeking higher education. Study, study, study, study and study! Congratulations, and I thank you for listening.


Author: D K Sengbeh

Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh (author of Sengbeh's Weblog) is a respected and renowned Liberian journalist, poet and writer with with journalism experience since 2001, of working both as a mainstream journalist and a communication/media consultant in Liberia. He is Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia (elected Dec 2013). He was Assistant Secretary General of the Union Dec 2011 to Dec 2013. He is also Editor-In-Chief of The Informer Newspaper—one of Liberia’s credible dailies. Before joining the Informer, Danicius had served as reporter, chief reporter, sub-editor and News Editor at The Independent Newspaper between 2002 and 2006. Before then, he was reporter at the defunct Patriot Newspaper and Kiss FM 2001-2002. Danicius is a UN Media Fellow and Liberia’s first UN Medal Award-winning journalist for his contribution to journalism and for being the second Liberian journalist in 15 years to qualify for and successfully attended the United Nations’ Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist Fellowship Program in New York and Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. He earned a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of Liberia and a Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. He holds several awards and recognitions both in and outside of journalism, and carries dozens of certificates in journalism and communication from studies in Ghana, China, United States and Switzerland, among others. He volunteers as Chair of the Information and Communication Committee of his local Bardnersville community. He can be quickly reached via (+231) 886586531/777586531/777464018/ dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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