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Sierra Leone invests $1.5 million to bring education innovation to schools for better learning outcomes

A national education dashboard released last month by Sierra Leone’s agency for technology and innovation and the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) showed that schools and students across the country are failing in national exams. To roll back this trend, the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation with support from donor partners are investing $1.5 million into an Education Innovation Challenge (EIC) that will impact 170 schools in all but one district. 

The national exam pass rate for all students is 55%. Two-thirds of students pass at the primary level, but by the time they take the national school-leaving exam at the senior secondary level less than a third pass. More years in school does not result in more learning. 

The World Bank’s 2018-Learning to Realize Education’s Promise reports that “125 million children across the world are not acquiring functional literacy or numeracy, even after spending at least four years in school.” Sierra Leone’s children match this statistic. The latest early grade math and reading assessment results for students in primary class 2 and class 4 show that students are not learning. 

Precisely, it is estimated that 97% of students in class 2 in Sierra Leone, don’t know how to read according to the most current Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) done in 2014. The EGRA is an individually administered oral assessment of the most basic foundation skills for literacy acquisition in early grades, while the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) measures numeracy. Sixty percent of students still score zero on the same EGRA reading comprehension test in class 4. Early math learning outcomes are just as poor. Only 10% of grade 2 students and 30% of grade 4 students can do basic subtraction.

The government of Sierra Leone launched its Free Quality School Education Program in August 2018; the first year focused on access. Year two, which began in August this year, is where the Education Innovation Challenge (EIC) comes in. The EIC is under the technical supervision of the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation’s Human Capital Development Incubator. Its primary aim is to find new ways to improve learning outcomes at primary schools. 

Five organizations in the education sector were chosen through a competitive process out of 20 to implement their innovative approaches.

Save the Children-Sierra Leone, Rising Academy Networks, EducAid, National Youth Awareness Forum Sierra Leone (NYAFSL), and World Vision, will trial their interventions in 170 schools randomly selected across all regions for the 2019-2020 school year. The Education Innovation Challenge is being supported with over $1,5 million of external funding in the first year. The Government of Sierra Leone through MBSSE is providing critical support to the service providers.

“We put out a call for innovative ideas in education under the Education Innovation Challenge,” said Aissatou Bah, Head of Global Partnerships, DSTI. She explained the selection process to education stakeholders at the Northern Region Education Innovation Challenge workshop held in Makeni, Bombali District, in the Northern Province last Thursday. Similar engagements were held in the Eastern and Southern Provinces and the Western Area that brought together all Head Teachers, District Directors of Education, and other staff in one room.

“The five winners of the challenge will run concurrent nationwide experiments in every district except for Falaba due to logistic reasons. We believe that our partners selected through the EIC will help us find solutions to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes in the 170 selected schools.” 

The first phase of the EIC in this pilot edition is with 170 schools. These schools were chosen using the data from the Annual School Census of MBSSE. Data and policy experts at the HCD Incubator, MBSSE and DSTI will continue to provide technical leadership in support of the EIC. An external assessment will be done at the end of this academic year in addition to a baseline assessment to evaluate impact. The results will inform the design of Phase II, a broader 2-year pilot that will run nationwide from 2020 – 2022. The results of the pilot will be used to inform a national scale-up of successful approaches from the EIC. 

Human capital development is the cornerstone of President Bio’s New Direction for Sierra Leone. He promised that education must not only be free, but it must be of a high standard of quality. The Human Capital Development Incubator launched by President Bio in December 2018 at Global Citizen in South Africa promotes innovation in government.

“The incubator is a unique initiative that will bring together the private sector, academia, and government agencies. Partners will share data, build models, develop hypotheses, and test pilot projects to inform government investments in human capital,” said Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer.

“Sierra Leoneans will feel the increased benefits of innovation in their lives.” 

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Sierra Leone turns to technology and analytics to put quality back into education

Today, an estimated 2 million students return to school for the second year of the Free Quality School Education (FQSE) Program. The Government of Sierra Leone commits 21% of the national annual budget to the education sector as part of this historic initiative.  Last year’s focus was on universal access – tuition subsidies and learning materials. This year, policymakers will use data science and analytics to focus on quality to improve learning outcomes.

Click to view this visualization in the education hub

The FQSE Program is part of Sierra Leone’s larger national development plan which focuses on human capital development. Sierra Leone currently ranks 151 out of 157 countries on the Human Capital Index (HCI), which measures the level of productivity a child born today can expect to attain by the age of 18. The primary indicators are health and education. Children are expected to complete 9 years of basic (primary and junior secondary) education in Sierra Leone. A child born today will produce at 35% of his or her potential at 18 years if he or she had quality education and good health. However, for half of that time, students are enrolled but are not learning. Sierra Leone has a learning gap of 4.4 years according to the most recent HCI

The Government of Sierra Leone wants to change this statistic.

A new national Education Data Hub (www.educationdatahub.dsti.gov.sl) developed by the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) in partnership with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) shows that at least 80% of students across Sierra Leone failed the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Exam (WASSCE) between 2016-2018. 

Click to view this visualization in the Education Hub

Five districts: Bo, Bombali, Bonthe, Moyamba, and Pujehun have reported fail rates greater than 96%. While student performance drops slightly from the primary to junior secondary level, performance declines dramatically from junior to senior secondary school. The Education Data Hub includes data from the Annual School Census (Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, 2018) and the National Examination Results (West African Examination Council, 2016-2018) for all three national exams (NPSE, BECE and WASSCE). 

The Minister of Basic Senior and Secondary Education (MBSSE) says they can now make better decisions and inform education policy because of data analysis and visualization available via the education data hub.

“For the President’s vision of Human Capital development to materialize, agriculture is involved, health is involved, but the narrative starts with education,” said Mr. Alpha Osman Timbo, Minister, MBSSE at a recent Ministry leadership workshop.

The Minister said that the availability of data will allow decision-makers like him to change the way they plan, how they spend, and where they invest government resources. The data hub will ensure that beyond making education free and accessible for all children, quality takes focus. Citizens too can use the data to hold policymakers and educators accountable when students fail and to also directly support their schools thereby increasing accountability. 

The Chief Innovation Officer of DSTI, Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, says the data casts a dark shadow over the nation’s recent educational past and its current state. He recently did a demonstration of the education data hub showing never before seen linked data to all Deputy Directors of Education from all districts, Free Quality School Education (FQSE) program heads, leaders of the Teaching Service Commission, and the leadership of MBSSE at the regional consultative workshop for the FQSE Implementation Plan.

“While most people had an idea that our education system had challenges, they believed that their districts, schools, and children were doing well because they did not look at the entire data. But when you see the numbers, it becomes clear that something major is wrong and that education over the years has been a disaster in Sierra Leone,”  said Dr. Sengeh.

“For example, the WASSCE pass rate for Pujehun district – where my parents come from –  was 1% last year. We cannot have our children spending twelve years in school and have none of them pass to go to university. What is discouraging is that the fail rates happened repeatedly and yet no known changes of impact were made by parents, educators or the government at the time.”

A team of data and computer scientists at DSTI prepared the data and led the development of the hub and its dashboards with partners over eight months starting in January 2019. The hub data includes (10,747 schools) every school in Sierra Leone that responded to the Annual School Census in 2018. National Examination data records were also obtained from the West African Examination Council for the 2016-2018 period. Linking these records and validating population data from Statistics Sierra Leone allows for deeper research and analysis of a variety of indicators that may have an impact on student learning outcomes.

“For the first time in history, we can begin to understand the effect of having bathrooms in good condition on examination performance. Being able to visualize the distribution of schools that have computers or bank accounts, or need classrooms, allows decision-makers to now interact with data to inform policies,” said Kumba Musa, Data Scientist, DSTI.

“The combination of datasets also helps the Ministry understand the distribution of children that are out of school across the country, map the distances students have to commute to access school and visualize poorly performing schools against their approval statuses,” said Ms. Musa. 

To prepare, clean, and validate the data, scientists at DSTI worked in close collaboration with staff at the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, particularly the Policy Unit headed by Mrs Adama Momoh. Mrs Momoh heads a team of experts within the Ministry who lead the digital collection of the school census and have technical knowledge on the education sector. Missing data, invalid entries, misspellings, and several other structural challenges made it tedious to clean the datasets. However, through the power of data analytics algorithms and from the lessons learned, the team at DSTI have developed models to expedite the cleaning of the 2019 data.

The hub and dashboard show that Sierra Leone’s commitment to education goes beyond getting students into school buildings. Year one of the previously seemingly impossible Free Quality School Education Program launched by H.E President Bio focused on access. Now, the country can begin to explore quality education by using data to optimize the learning outcomes of Sierra Leonean children so that they can become productive adults engaged in national development.

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