Partnership Schools for Liberia — On the ground

Thursday, 17th May 2018

By Killian Troy-Donovan, Analyst at Social Finance

In an effort to catalyse a rapid improvement in education outcomes in Liberia, Social Finance is supporting the Government of Liberia, and several funding partners, to manage and finance the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) programme. Through PSL, the Ministry of Education aims to bring free, quality education to Liberian children in partnership with seven government-regulated, high-performing school operators.

This post follows our previous blog from December about PSL.

The School building at Gbalaken, built by community members.

Harper is a city in South-East Liberia and the capital of the once independent Maryland county. It sits on Liberia’s Atlantic coast, 15 miles from the border of Ivory Coast and a two-day drive from the capital during the dry season. The small city is lined by decaying mansions reminiscent of the American South from where some of its 19th century occupiers arrived.

Social Finance visited this remote county in April 2018 to better understand the impact that PSL was having on more rural schools and communities. To supplement the reporting and verification activities we use to monitor provider performance, we wanted to get a feel for how the programme was received by parents, teachers, and communities; and to feed into the government’s thinking around how PSL can continue to improve.

We also wanted to understand the reality of delivering education in hard to reach parts of the country. One of the central aims in PSL’s second year was to spread provider expertise and resources beyond the capital and surrounding counties, an aim which has been bolstered by the new administration’s “pro-poor” agenda. PSL is now operating in all 15 counties, including 36 schools in Maryland at the tip of the South-East (and furthest away from the capital).

Harper at the southern tip of Liberia, and Monrovia the capital where we travelled from. Photo: UN
Harper’s striking and crumbling grandeur.

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The heat is oppressive in April, with humidity sweating the walls and thickening the air. On the first leg of the trip, I visited some schools in and around Harper.

At Pleebo Demonstration, the largest PSL school with over 1,000 students, I’ve arrived in the middle of a teacher training session run by Street Child, the provider managing the school. The three-day training covers phonics, year planning, lesson planning and delivery, and behaviour management.

Training programmes like this one have been rolled out for all 194 PSL schools this year, with many operators, like Street Child, running multiple sessions throughout the year.

Street Child’s Nicholas delivering a lecture on year planning.

Street Child are particularly focused on reading, adding phonics into their training this year as part of a drive to help all children achieve a basic level of competency. According to the latest UNESCO data, 49% of young people (aged 15–24) were literate, against 68% in Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole[1]. “Reading is the biggest challenge in Liberia,” Amos, one of Street Child’s Community Engagement leads, tells me. “Children really struggle”.

The challenge in the wider system is that many teachers themselves have poor literacy skills. The new government have identified teacher training as one of their core priorities in order to tackle poor literacy, aiming to build a more comprehensive ongoing training programme and enhanced monitoring of teachers.

Amos, one of Street Child’s Community Engagement leads. Photo: Street Child

At Pleebo most of the teachers are actively engaged in the exercises, apart from one or two near the back who are languishing in the heat. One teacher queries the instructor about the curriculum, asking whether they should be teaching pronouns before indefinite nouns.

Street Child have also tried to shift teachers to a focus on learning outcomes. “You need to ask yourself, ‘what have my class and I achieved?’” Nicholas tells the group. “Many teachers don’t usually ask themselves that question”.

A young teacher feeding back on the curriculum.

Bridge International Academies, a PSL school operator which manages 21 schools in Maryland and 68 across the country, have also been training teachers and trying to work out what makes them effective. They agree with Street Child that reading is the biggest challenge they are facing from a pedagogical perspective.

Griffin, Bridge’s Schools Director, accompanied me to a couple of schools, and talks about what Bridge have learned from their teacher training programmes. “It is hard to tell who will be a good teacher at the start,” he says. “Some of our worst performers, once they get a base level of confidence, rocket. Our top three teachers were not the top three from the recruitment exercise.”

Griffin, left, with principal Lawrence D. Sankon of John Hillary Tubman Elementary and Mohammed Awesome Konneh, Bridge’s ICT lead in Harper.

I asked Griffin if he felt Bridge’s model was already having a significant impact on children’s learning, or if the real benefits of the model would come further down the line. He is reflective on how PSL can best drive learning outcomes. “It seems to be that there is initial excitement, which drives good progress at the start, then slower progress until children reach basic level of learning,” he said.

“It is at that point that we see divergence amongst the students. Some improve dramatically from the base level, while others plateau or even regress. We are working out why.”

A boy walking to class at A. Dash Wilson Public School, operated by Bridge International Academies.

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In the next leg of the trip we set off early to visit a school run by Rising Academies close to the border of River Gee county and north of Harper. Rising operate four schools in the area, as well as 11 further up the coast in Sinoe and 29 across the country.

Our first stop is Gbalaken, which is a 45-minute drive from the main road down a dirt track. Along this dirt track we pass a few slowly moving motorcycles with two or more people and piled high with timber or food, and a couple of middle aged farmers by the road with machetes slung over their shoulders. Wesseh, Rising’s School Performance Manager for the area, tells me that during the rainy season the road takes on different shapes which can make some sections un-traversable.

The road to Gbalaken Public School, managed by Rising Academies through PSL
Climbing to the school at Gbalaken.

The air in the school is dense and humid, with walls built from clay and the principal’s office humming with flies. I sit down for a conversation with six teachers and the principal about challenges getting onto government payroll. Two of them had made it onto the payroll system, while the others were still waiting to hear back, having started teaching at the school six months ago.

The government are currently undertaking a payroll reform programme to try to free up more places for teachers like those at Gbalaken. A teacher vetting programme has been successful in opening up over 1,371 spaces on the main payroll for new graduates through the removal of “ghost” teachers from the system. The government also recently completed teacher testing across all counties, with 49% of teachers failing the test. The challenge faced is to set the right threshold for those who cannot be brought up to a minimum standard through training, and whether they can be removed to open up space for qualified replacements.

Despite the frustrations over payroll, the teachers remain highly committed to the school. Rising’s Wesseh told me that the school had been hugely successful in delivering quality education due primarily to the commitment of five young teachers who had joined the school. “They’re young men with nothing else to do down here,” he tells me, “so they can completely commit to teaching”.

One of the teachers feeds back suggested changes on the lesson plans that Rising have provided. The school’s “Master Teacher” tells me that he was appointed by Rising to support other teachers, which he finds hard but rewarding work.

One teacher is keen to tell me that about his commitment to education and PSL. I am only here because I love what we are trying to do, he says. But the motivations are more complicated than that. The teachers seem to be willing to stay through both a hope that they will get onto the government payroll, and a feeling that they have already committed so much by moving from more urban areas around Monrovia to a rural community.

Principal Ezekiel J. Topaye, Teachers, and Wesseh at Gbalaken Public School. 78% of PSL teachers are male, according to our latest data, despite the student population nearing gender parity (48% girls).

Another reason for the school’s success, according to Wesseh, is the commitment of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at the school. It was the PTA who built the school in the first place. I sit down with them, and speak about their role and perception of PSL.

The Chair told me how the PTA went “door to door” at the start of each Semester, finding children and bringing them to the school. He told me that every child in the community was attending the school. As well as the PTA’s recruiting of students, another reason for increased attendance amongst girls is the perceived safety in the school. This wasn’t always the case, according to another member of the PTA. Since it became a PSL school, parents are confident that their children are safe to attend.

More broadly the PTA felt that a significant challenge they were facing was a lack of uniforms. No PSL school is allowed to turn a child away due to not having a uniform. However, children from poor families are not able to afford the uniforms, another of the PTA members told me, meaning that they felt less part of the school than children from other families. “We need free uniforms for all children,” he said.

The Parent-Teacher Association at Gbalaken School.

Wesseh tells me that another key reason for high enrolment at Gbalaken is that PSL has encouraged parents to send all their children to school, not just the boys. PSL is free for all children, with some schools having the additional incentive of free school feeding programmes. If they had to pay, sometimes only the boys would go, Wesseh says. “That’s what it is like living in our patriarchal system”.

Rising Academies’ Peter Wesseh overseeing a community meeting. Photo: Rising Academies Network

These thoughts brought me back to a conversation I had with Street Child’s Amos about his work supporting communities to be more involved in their children’s education.

Amos told a story of one community he is working with who are implementing a system to encourage parents to send their children to school. The community already have mechanisms for incentivising cooperative behaviour outside of school. In one example, if someone offends a woman they are asked to pay a fine of one goat, a gallon of gasoline, and 100 USD. The women then come together for a feast using the resources.

Amos asked the community members, “why can’t you do the same thing for parents not sending their children to school?” The community are now trialling the approach led by the school’s PTA.

[1] http://uis.unesco.org/country/LR, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.ZS?locations=ZF

Note that Sub-Saharan Africa here excludes high-income countries. Data from 2007.