Liberia launches a bold new plan for its schools

It’s the week before school opens in Liberia, and staff in Cecelia A. Dunbar School in Todee district are preparing for something completely new. For the past few years, the school’s problems have been typical of Liberia’s education system: ‘ghost’ teachers collect a government pay-cheque without coming to work, children struggle to make sufficient progress in class, and even the simplest of equipment is scarce – “the children bring their own chairs to school” says principal Ezequiel.

But this school has been given a fresh lease of life since school operator Rising Academies became involved a few weeks ago. Ghost teachers have been removed from payroll, new teachers have been recruited, furniture is being delivered, and teaching techniques have been mastered. The community is “very, very excited” about this transformation, says Ezequiel. In fact, they’re expecting an extra 100 pupils to enrol.

Cecelia A. Dunbar isn’t the only school to be experiencing this revolution. In September 2016, 93 other schools across Liberia also opened with new operators. The government aims for these schools to become hubs of innovation and educational excellence. This is Partnership Schools for Liberia - an ambitious pilot programme, which Ark’s Education Partnerships Group (EPG) is proud to be part of.

Children playing outside of Bogbeh Public school

Since January when the initial plan was announced, EPG has been helping the Liberian Ministry of Education design and implement the programme. Eight school operators have now been chosen to run 2% of Liberia’s primary schools over a three-year trial period. This model is aimed at increasing healthy competition and driving innovation, with the transparent bidding process being fundamental to making sure the right groups are running schools.

“We worked hard to ensure that all operators were strongly mission-aligned” says Joe Collins, Manager at EPG. “We’re delighted we have such a diverse set of operators - including local NGOs, international chains, and one of the world’s largest NGOs in BRAC - and we have been very impressed by the commitment shown from everyone to make sure that Partnership Schools is a success, despite the tight timelines."

The partnership schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government and free to all students. The model draws on lessons learnt from the academies programme in the UK and charter schools in the US.

However, Liberia’s education problems run much deeper than the UK or the US. After years of civil war (in which 80% of schools were destroyed or damaged), the recent Ebola virus outbreak, and ongoing failings in the education system, the state of Liberia’s schools require urgent attention: According to UNICEF, 62% of primary age children remain out of school (the highest percentage in the world), and most who are enrolled are not receiving the quality of education they need.

It’s not just a problem of getting the pupils to come to school; often the teachers are absent as well. Difficulties with getting teachers signed on to government payroll systems mean some don’t turn up, and only 40% of those that do are trained to teach.

Nobody is more aware of the challenges ahead than Liberia’s Education Minister George Werner, whose team are implementing this bold plan. “Our challenge to fix education is gigantic,” says Werner. “Partnership Schools offers us an unprecedented opportunity to confront and fix as many broken pieces as we possibly can.”

The problems that school operators face range from a lack of teacher ability, poor school infrastructure, and having little control over which staff are on payroll. One of the most visible changes that has been implemented, however, is the removal of hidden fees - which often make schools prohibitively expensive for local communities. Given that access to school is one of Liberia’s main challenges, Partnership Schools is already delivering on one if its key aims. Some schools are even reporting double the number of registered children as last year.

Early signals have been good, but Minister Werner and his team have sought to build a rigorous evaluation into the programme from the start. With Ark’s help, the Ministry of Education has commissioned a randomised control trial of the schools involved. This is the first randomised control trial of public schools under private management in Africa, and the only such project in the world to incorporate such a high level of rigorous evaluation from the very start.

This will give the government robust data to help decide whether to expand the programme to schools across the country after the three-year trial.

Ark Education Partnerships Group chair David Laws said: “Partnership Schools for Liberia is a very impressive programme which has the potential to help transform the quality of education in this country. The government is to be congratulated for this bold initiative and for ensuring that it is fully and rigorously evaluated.”

To find out how you can support this programme, please contact Sarah Harwood, Head of Development.