Liberia: As Schools Outsourcing Experiment Falters Teachers Say It’s Time to Give Counties Control￼
In part two of this two-part series with New Narratives Eric Opa Doue finds widespread opposition from teachers and civil society to government’s privatization of schools and a plea to government to abandon the scheme and let counties take charge.
YARPAH TOWN, River Cess County – Emmanuel Yarbah squeezes onto a desk next to a classmate here in Togar Macintosh school. With a bare dirt floor and no ceiling, it is swelteringly hot. There are about 17 children in the classroom but only ten old desks. Not that it really matters. Even if it were a good setting for learning, there are no teachers.
Report by Eric Opa Doue with New Narratives
Five of eleven teachers assigned to this school, which has been run by US-based for-profit Bridge International since 2016, school laid down their chalk in 2021 demanding salaries they say government owes them. The school is now being run by the vice principal for administration and four teachers. Many of the problems such as poor teacher training and no teaching materials have been laid at the feet of Bridge but the government is not meeting its obligations either.
“The government is disappointing us,” says Sam Farley, head of the Parent Teachers Association here. “How will a principal be teaching in the school, that man will come here from 7:30am to 4 he will be on the school campus, then you go put ‘hold’ to the man check? Now our children now suffering. Not only the principal, but the other people also are not taking pay. All the teachers that came here, all of them gone and it affect us a lot.”
The problems were the same in all Bridge schools visited by FPA/New Narratives in River Cess, Grand Bassa, Lofa and rural Montserrado. Critics of the Sirleaf government’s radical 2016 plan to outsource the education sector say they are not surprised by the outcome. The Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), the accountability civil society organization then headed by Thomas Nah, (now head of the Liberian Revenue Authority) was a vocal opponent. Anderson Miamen, the current Cental head, says there is no quick fix to Liberia’s education problems. It needs serious investment and higher teacher salaries than the $150 a month on average they are currently paid.
Miamen says government should have increased education spending to at least 20 percent of the country’s budget. (In 2022 the entire education system – primary through tertiary – received $92.3m or 11.7 per cent of the total budget.) Miamen says the government should decentralize the sector by creating and supporting county school boards.
“We need to fix the public school system in a holistic way. Everybody needs to have an equal chance of accessing quality education,” says Miamen. “And the way to do it is not to introduce a program that will be discriminatory in terms of how it is rolled out. We don’t need a partner that will shield information from the communities, from the school authorities and even from the students, so that they cannot demand what is theirs.”
Miamen says teacher training institutes in places like Maryland, Kakata and Lofa are training too few teachers. “So, you still have major, major gaps when it comes to trained and qualified. But then when you train the teachers you also have to motivate them. They have to be handsomely rewarded for their services. You have to create the enabling environment for them to move to the counties.”
Attracting and retaining good teachers has been a major challenge in all of the rural schools visited by FPA/New Narratives in this investigation – whether they were part of LEAP or not. In many cases teachers had left simply because the government had never managed to get them onto the payroll system.
Togar Macintosh was one of the first 23 schools given to Bridge in 2016 with promises of a big turnaround. Six years on that turnaround has never arrived. Buildings are crumbling, there aren’t enough teachers and Bridge is yet to supply teaching materials.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and Bridge stipulated that Bridge was to provide training for teachers and as well learning materials, while government was responsible for maintenance of the schools. Neither side was living up to their side of the deal at the Bridge controlled schools visited by NN/FPA during this investigation.
“They can just come on the campus at time and promise,” says Moses Gbah, Vice Principal for Administration at Togar MacIntosh. “But we don’t know what is unfolding that they have not started with the maintenance of the school building.”
Neither the Ministry of Education nor Bridge agreed to interviews for this article. After a series of broken appointment dates, Maxim Bleetem, head of communication at the Ministry of Education, referred this reporter to Gbovadeh Gbilia, Bridge’s Executive Director. In a WhatsApp chat Gbilia wrote that Bridge schools are the best in the country.
“Well, you are telling me about teachers and CSOs and putting story in FrontPage,” Gbilia wrote. “Of course schools are dissatisfied with one thing or another. It’s one sided if you aren’t balancing it with schools that are praising us for our interventions. Especially the many, many Bridge schools who have 100% pass rate from the recently released 3rd and 6th grades WEAC results.” Gbilia referred this reporter to Barkedu Public School in Lofa as an example of Bridge success.
However, FPA/New Narratives found the same problems at Barkedu. According to Principal Allieu V. Dulleh Barkedu has teacher shortages and limited teaching materials. Of 12 teachers in the school, the principal says only three are on the government’s payroll. The rest are volunteers.
“Before Bridge took over, there were five government teachers,” said Dulleh by mobile phone. “So, out of the five, one person was retired by the government, and one other person was deleted from the payroll and up till now he has not been put back.”
Dulleh said textbooks supplied by Bridge are not in line with the Liberian curriculum so teachers have to find their own materials to prepare students. Dulleh rejected Gbilia’s claim about students’ West Africa Examination Council results. No third graders from his school sat the WAEC exams because parents could not afford the fees. Despite the limited materials, Dulleh says, 14 out of 15 sixth graders who sat the test passed successfully. He says that was because of the extra efforts by teachers, not because of Bridge.
“The way we do it required a thorough research by the staff and the school administration,” said Dulleh. “Because we need to make sure that those necessary materials, we get to other schools to get some of the materials to go the children.”
Some government-run public schools performed well in the WEAC with no external support. For instance, 50 students from Bassa Demonstration School in Buchanan – in the same compound with Bridge school Sarah Sampson George – and 26 students from Gbediah Public School in Central River Cess all passed successfully.
Principal Peter Gargar, of Gbediah Public School, is president of the River Cess branch of the National Teachers’ Association Liberia (NTAL). He also says there is no need for LEAP. “The non-LEAP schools’ students are performing well as compared to their LEAP counterparts,” says Gargar. “That is because what they are teaching the children is different. They are not going by the curriculum.”
Teachers have been opposed to LEAP from the start. In April 2020 the NTAL and eleven civil society organizations, joined with teacher organizations from Kenya, Nigeria, South African and Uganda to petition government to abandon LEAP.
“Lack of independent evidence, transparency, and accountability,” on the part of government and the providers were among issues raised in the petition. But Samuel Johnson, Secretary General of the NTAL, says till now the government is yet to respond.
Johnson agrees with Cental’s Miamen that the system should be put in the hands of counties.
“Every county get their own school system and they pay teachers according to qualification,” says Johnson. “They do continual professional development to train people who are already in their area. When you improve all of these things, as it is done in our neighboring countries, the sector will improve.”
For now, students like Yarbah are paying a price for failures in Liberia’s education system. And another generation of students risks being left behind.
This two-part series was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The donor had no say in the story’s content.