In 2003 in Liberia, after 14 years of civil conflict, nearly 500,000 children were out of school. Most of our schools were damaged or destroyed and our teaching core was decimated. Given that war truncated or stalled so many children’s education, some might have felt that getting our youth back in school was all that we could hope for. However, it is precisely because we had so much to achieve that Liberia committed to a higher vision.
Liberia has made great strides. Starting in 2005, the government’s allocation to education has grown significantly. We have constructed over 220 schools since 2006, opened five community colleges — with plans to have one in each of the 15 counties. We rehabilitated Rural Teacher Training Institutes (RTTIs) and this has increased the percentage of trained teachers dramatically. We distributed 1.2 million teachers’ guides and textbooks between 2008 and 2009. Primary enrolment grew more than 9 percent a year beginning in 2005, and as a result the Gross Enrolment Ratio in primary education reached an estimated 94 percent in 2008. There are more children, especially girls, in school than at any other time in our history. We are on the right track, but we still have far to go.
It is not enough that our children are in school; we must ensure that all children have access to quality education that provides them with literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and other competences for the 21st century. The early grade reading and math assessments we have done at the lower primary level show that our sixth and ninth graders are below average in math and reading, and that our twelfth graders rank near the bottom.
Given these challenges—and finite resources—how should Liberia effectively invest in quality education? Evidence shows that investments in three areas can be catalytic: (1) early childhood learning; (2) foundational skills in early grades; and (3) the transition to relevant post-primary education.
Our Early Childhood Education Policy works across sectors, bringing in the Ministries of Health and Social Welfare, and Gender and Development, given that early childhood centers have such an important impact on health and social development. We have built and equipped some centers, yet we have to ensure that all children have access. These programs build children’s social and emotional aptitude, which is crucial for future academic success. Enrolment in early childhood programs is linked with lower rates of repetition and attrition and better reading and math test scores.
The early years of primary school are critical for the development of foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Yet children cannot learn without good teachers. The teaching force, and especially the qualified teaching core, was depleted during the war. In 2006, 60.4 percent of public primary school teachers were unqualified. Through the introduction of assessments in classrooms, we have begun to pinpoint which interventions impart the skills teachers need, including in-service teacher training for teachers in urban and rural areas. We continue this work, knowing that so many of our teachers still require training, support and materials for their classrooms. Early learning success in reading, writing and mathematics contributes to greater learning over time and higher retention rates.
Even as we work to increase quality and access at the primary level, our attention is also directed at the post-primary level. To promote post-primary transitions, we extended the basic education system to include grade seven through nine. Where possible, we hope to build lower secondary schools next to primary schools so that students are encouraged to stay in the school system. Still, the majority of children do not enroll in secondary school. Therefore, we work to reach out-of-school youth, helping them to improve their livelihoods while building skills, although there are more out-of-school youth than we can currently reach.
With over 60 percent of our citizens below the age of thirty-five, Liberia has one of the world’s youngest populations. As we rebuild our country, we are investing heavily in infrastructure, energy and other sectors of the economy that are crucial for growth. These efforts will not be successful if we do not invest in our most important resource: our people and especially our youth. Over the next six years, we will focus on the quality of our education system, ensuring equitable learning and improving standards so our graduates can compete with their counterparts across the region. It is not beyond our grasp to have every child in school and every young person with skills with which they can earn a living and contribute to the country’s future.
Although the challenges we face in getting all our children learning well are great, our resolve is even greater. We know that quality learning for all children is the path to development, peace and prosperity for Liberia. Children deserve an education that imparts knowledge, skills, and an understanding of how to promote peace and be a global citizen. I welcome the Secretary-General’s initiative, Education First, as a bold next step in the global movement for education.
This article, by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, appears in “This Is Africa,” a Global Perspective Special Report prepared by FT Business, an output of The Financial Times. The article was prepared in connection with the launch, on the margins of the 67th United Nations General Assembly Session, by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of his Education First Initiative.