By George Kronnisanyon Werner
In the age of big data, statistics have power. Recently, we saw an alarming statistic from one of our development partners in education indicating that Liberia was home to the highest proportion of out-of-school children with nearly two-thirds of primary-aged children not accessing school.
We may legitimately start wondering – why are so many of our children out of school? Are they just roaming the streets of Liberia? What’s our Ministry of Education doing to deal with this problem? However, before we rush into conclusions and towards unproven solutions, we need to unpack the sometimes oversimplifying and even sensationalizing headline type statistics and look at the information in context.
Here are the facts on out of school children in Liberia. First, there are about 707,000 children of primary school going age (between the ages of 6 and 11) in Liberia. Of this number, only about one third are enrolled in primary school. In addition, another 351,000 children, or half of this age group are enrolled in Early Childhood Education (ECE) schools – nursery or kindergarten.
Put another away, nearly half the children who should be enrolled in primary school are enrolled in ECE. This leaves us with an estimated 118,000 children who aren’t in school (approximately 17% of children in this age group or one out of every six children).
So where does the two thirds figure come from? The most reliable source of data used by the Ministry and by our partners is the 2014 household survey conducted by the Liberia Institute of Statistics & Geo-Information Services (LISGIS). Although this survey could not be completed because of the Ebola Epidemic, we have enough information to draw initial conclusions for the country as a whole.
The survey asked a simple question – “Does your child go to primary or secondary school or university and above?” Nearly two thirds of the relevant sub group for primary school (6 to 11 year old children) were not enrolled in primary school.
This is where the two thirds out of school children figure comes from. However, the very next question asked by the survey was “Why does your child not go to school?” and it turns out that more than 3 out of 4 children who didn’t go to primary school were still in nursery or kindergarten. The rest were out of school.
Of course, 17% of primary school going age children out of school is still 17% too many and the Ministry is fully committed to addressing this issue. We are working with other stakeholders in the education system to provide these children with access to alternative education programs and ensure that they don’t miss out on the opportunity to have education.
My broader concern with the ‘two thirds of the children are out of school’ statistic is that it diverts our attention from other challenges that our Ministry faces. We shouldn’t be focusing all our attention only on children who aren’t in school, but we should also be concerned with children who are ‘at risk’ of dropping out and the fact that even when children are in school, they aren’t getting as much out of it as they should.
The MoE sees overage enrollment as a particularly critical issue. International evidence and local experiences indicate that students who are overage are more vulnerable, may drop out of school altogether or miss classes due to their responsibilities back home.
These children are at risk of not acquiring the badly needed literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed in life. And so, we are working to improve on-time enrollment, reduce drop out and improve learning in early grades. The situation has been improving over time. As the graph below shows, we have made considerable strides since 2008 and the average age at each grade level has reduced from 12.91 years (in 2008) to 10.99 years (in 2016).
However, more needs to be done. The Ministry remains committed towards providing our children with the opportunity to access and complete affordable education of a quality, relevance and appropriateness that meets their needs and that of the nation.
Over the last year, the Ministry has been finalizing the ‘Getting to Best’ Education Strategic Plan (ESP) which will help us address the challenges in the education sector till the end of this decade.
Our ESP takes a holistic view of the education sector and aims to address all forms of exclusion (gender, poverty, distance to schools etc.) through improving infrastructure, accountability, incentives and skills of teachers, and of local/central education authorities. With your support, we will take our education system and the children of Liberia to be the very best that the world can offer.
George Kronnisanyon Werner is Liberia’s Minister of Education.