By David Archer, Action Aid
There are some major challenges in access, quality and equity in the Liberian education system – but is privatisation the right solution? Of the total population, 47% of Liberia have received no education and over 18% of primary aged children today are not enrolled in school. A huge number of those enrolled are over-age and just 54% of those who do enrol, complete primary school. There is a huge gulf between the performance of girls from low income families in rural communities and boys from wealthier urban families. To confront these multiple challenges the government has developed a new Education Sector Plan “Getting to Best” which outlines some credible ideas for systemic reform. However, the process of developing the plan has not been as transparent and inclusive as it should have been, there are serious gaps in the projected domestic financing of education and the plan includes a disproportionate focus on the “Partnership Schools for Liberia” pilot programme. This controversial public private partnership involves 8 different private providers in 94 schools and is designed in such a distorted way as to make it impossible to scale up across the system.
According to guidelines from the Global Partnership for Education, education sector plans should be developed through a transparent, inclusive process with governments in the driving seat, working with in-country donors, national civil society and teacher unions. In the case of Liberia many concerns have been expressed. Some of the key documents were not available to everyone in a timely fashion and yet a rushed decision for approval of the plan was sought. It was not clear how the government intends to incorporate constructive feedback on the plan or what the status is of the controversial pilot programme – and so at this stage the plan cannot be said to have broad or full ownership across society, seriously limiting the feasibility of implementing it.
One clear problem with the Education Sector Plan is that it does not include adequate commitments of domestic financing. At present 13.5% of the national budget is spent on education and this is predicted to rise only to 15% and then fall again to 14.5% in the following years – all of which falls far short of the widely recognised benchmark of 20%. Spending on primary education is also predicted to remain at just 40% (short of the recommended 45%) whilst higher education spending is projected to rise. With these figures it will be difficult to persuade the Global Partnership for Education to provide the provisionally allocated support of $11 million to Liberia next year.
There are many good ideas in the Education Sector Plan, including proposed programmes to reach out of school children, address the crisis in over-age enrolment, improve the teacher workforce, develop policies on girls’ education, strengthen quality standards, establish school improvement grants, deepen school accountability and improve early childhood education. However, most of these programmes are seriously under-resourced. The only programme that seems to have full resourcing is the controversial public private partnership of the “Partnership Schools for Liberia” (PSL) pilot programme. This pilot concentrates very significant resources and political energy on a pilot involving just 94 public schools (about 3% of public schools – that are not evenly spread across the country). The same funds could make a significant difference to some of the urgently needed systemic reform programmes flagged above that would benefit all Liberian schools.
There are eight different providers involved in PSL: Bridge International Academies (24 schools), BRAC Liberia (20 schools), Omega (19 schools), Street Child (12), Rising Academies (5), More than Me (6), Stella Maris (4) and Liberian Youth Network (4). It is not clear what agreements have been reached with each provider but it seems that the contract with Bridge is for $8 million – a substantial sum given the total education budget of Liberia is only $41 million.
There are plans for a major Randomised Control Trial evaluation of PSL that will track progress of this pilot over the coming three years. However there are serious concerns over whether the evaluation of PSL can be truly objective or generate any useful learning when PSL schools are receiving significantly more funding than the government control schools against which they will be compared. Indeed, the PSL schools not only have more money ($50 per child – that government schools do not get), but also smaller classes (capped at 45 per class – with many children thus excluded from their local school) and significantly more political and managerial attention from the Ministry. There seem to be various dubious ways in which some providers have been selective of the schools they took on (Bridge demanded schools on accessible roads, with electricity and internet connectivity – which is highly atypical) and even selective of the children, teachers and principals in their schools. How will the government of Liberia or anyone else learn anything, other than the already evident truth that if you select the best schools, spend more money per student and have smaller class sizes you will get better results?
In the coming weeks and months there is an urgent need for civil society organisations in Liberia to gather independent data about the PSL pilot and collate evidence from the field in a systematic way. There are already many anecdotes, photos, interviews with parents and teachers and this material needs to be catalogued, synthesised and analysed. But it also needs to be complemented by some detailed qualitative research on a selection of the PSL schools –in order to get a full picture of the impact of the pilot (including tracking the children excluded from these formerly public schools). It is likely that public education will become a major issue in the 2017 Presidential elections and there may even be legal challenges to the privatisation programme. For those interested in defending quality public education, Liberia is a country to watch closely!