By George Werner
Every child deserves a great education – one that allows her to follow her dreams and achieve her potential. And yet in Liberia we are failing too many of our children. Our teachers, our schools and our system all face deep and embedded challenges. Unfortunately, it is in the poorest communities where those challenges are greatest.
We have a big challenge to solve
It is a significant success that 1.5 million children are now enrolled in primary school. But 42 percent of primary age children remain out of school. And most of those who are enrolled are simply not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need. This is an injustice, an injustice that needs to be addressed. The futures of our children, communities and nation are at stake. Things must change.
Change is not easy. The public system alone cannot address these challenges singlehandedly. We have some great public schools in Liberia but we have far too few of them. And we already have a diverse set of school operators from government and non-government sectors in our education system. We must work together and draw on the best of both sectors if we are to achieve the results we want to see. While the government will always remain responsible for ensuring every child’s right to education, we need to work far more collaboratively with others to strengthen our public schooling sector. This must happen fast. We cannot risk failing another generation of children.
We need to be bold
Last week I convened a meeting of more than 30 non-government educators to discuss an exciting new pilot project. In attendance at the meeting were faith-based, private, NGO and community organizations working with different schooling models in different communities to improve the quality of education delivered to children in Liberia.
This new project, launching in September, aims to bring lessons from elsewhere in the world, including South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK, to Liberia. We have learned from these models and are adapting them to our own unique context. The project is called Partnership Schools for Liberia. The Ministry of Education will contract operators from within and outside of Liberia to run public primary schools. The schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors. Together, we will bring new ideas, new capacity, new systems and new expertise to a system that is struggling to deliver.
Partnership Schools has one overriding mission: to provide every child, regardless of family background or income, access to high-quality education. All Partnership Schools will be free and non-selective. No tuition fees will be charged. Instead non-government operators will be funded by government and donors, and they will be accountable to government for the results they deliver.
Her Excellency the President and I share the belief that Partnership Schools has great potential to deliver enduring impact on our system. But we both know there are no silver bullets and no panacea in education. So we must proceed with caution. The pilot project will start with up to 120 schools, just three percent of all public schools. And we must generate evidence before we scale further: an independent body will be commissioned to evaluate the outcomes of the pilot program.
We need to strengthen the public sector
Partnership Schools will be models of excellence, acting as innovation hubs from which to strengthen the whole system. Technologies, pedagogies and other models tested in Partnership Schools can be scaled to other public schools.
Take teacher training and professional development. For many teachers the greatest frustration is that, despite best intentions, they receive little training or support. It is a simple truth that no education system can exceed the quality of its teaching. Yet the government does not have the resources, the expertise nor the structures to routinely train all our 19,200 teachers. Partnership Schools offers a model to change that. Partnership Schools will employ existing government teachers but will harness the teacher training expertise and capacity present in the non-government sector to help improve government teachers. The teachers and children in those schools will benefit, but the wider system can benefit too.
A truly Liberian program, drawing inspiration from education systems around the world
Our first inspiration for Partnership Schools came from an unlikely place: New Orleans, in Louisiana, USA. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, New Orleans’ education system lay in tatters. The city government made the bold decision not to rebuild the monopoly of public sector provision. Instead they partnered with non-government operators to create a diverse ecosystem with a range of school operators, known as “charter schools”. And it worked. Despite huge economic and social challenges in New Orleans, charter schools have delivered higher completion rates and better learning outcomes. Importantly, the poorest children in New Orleans have benefited most.
This model does not just exist in the USA. 15 percent of all schools in the UK are now “academies”. And in January this year, the provincial government of the Western Cape in South Africa launched their own ‘Collaboration Schools’ project, where the government funds non-government operators to manage public schools. The city government of Nairobi, Kenya, is exploring a similar solution. In all these cases schools are not private schools. They are part of the public system.
Please join us on this important journey
In the coming weeks the Ministry will release an expression of interest for non-government organisations interested in participating in the Partnership Schools for Liberia pilot. Those who educate our children shoulder a great responsibility. So we will run a competitive process to select the best operators able to partner with us to manage our public schools. We want to find high performing organisations that share our mission and are excited about joining a genuine and innovative partnership to bring new expertise and new opportunities into the public system.
No single intervention can solve all our education challenges. But thousands of children in Liberia are leaving school every year without basic mastery of numeracy or literacy. We owe it to them to be bold. We owe it to them to try new ways to solve the challenges we are facing. We owe it to them to evaluate these efforts rigorously and objectively.
Every child has the right to a decent education. Partnership Schools offers the chance to make meaningful change now to the education of our children and the future of our nation. To not act would be an injustice.
George Kronnisanyon Werner, Minister of Education