Improving secondary education in Sierra Leone

We are leading the monitoring, evaluation and research delivery of a five year programme to improve secondary education and long term growth in Sierra Leone

Project team members

'Leh wi Lan' (krio for 'Let us Learn') is a five year, UKaid-funded programme started in November 2016, at a time when Sierra Leone was still in its post-Ebola recovery period. It was a time when secondary education had not been a major beneficiary of any significant donor support and the wider economy was constantly faced with the vagaries of global commodity price shocks in the iron ore market.

We, in consortium with Mott Macdonald / Cambridge Education, have led the monitoring, evaluation, and research delivery of Leh wi Lan. Initial evaluations focused on the effectiveness of various education interventions launched under the post-Ebola Presidential priorities, and subsequently have transitioned to working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Education towards longer-term national and district system strengthening in areas of policy, research and assessments.

The Challenge

The post-Ebola education system presented a particularly challenging programming context. Ebola, which took nearly 4000 lives and had 8500 confirmed cases in Sierra Leone, and absorbed majority of the government and international community resources in an already cash-strapped economy and struggling public service delivery setup.

Ebola particularly left deep imprints on the education system. Schools were closed for nearly 10 months to contain virus transmission and used as Ebola treatment centres. Orphanhood from Ebola deaths and forced absence from schools led to a range of social and economic consequences, particularly for female students including sexual harassment and teenage pregnancies. An accelerated curriculum was delivered across the country via radio, with mixed anecdotal evidence on its effectiveness.

Unfortunately the challenges of Leh wi Lan’s programming context did not start with Ebola – there is also a long history of war, neglect, and systemic issues in the education sector in Sierra Leone.

Our Approach

Secondary grade learning levels in Sierra Leone are extremely low. Each year the Sierra Leonean school system produces less than 2,000 young people with a credit grade in Maths (7% of exam takers). This compares with pass rates in maths and English of between 50% - 60% in Nigeria and Ghana. These learning deficiencies do not start at secondary level, but are already present in early and primary grades. With weak foundations in literacy and numeracy, students struggle to acquire new learning from each additional year of schooling.

How much does a country like Sierra Leone know about the actual skills and competencies of its secondary school pupils?

One in three countries lack data on the reading and mathematics learning outcomes of children at the end of primary school, and even more lacked this data for the end of lower secondary school. Even fewer actually use this data – if they have it through examinations and learning assessments – to guide evidence-based policy planning. It is particularly rare, therefore, that rigorous data is used to pivot the entire education system towards inclusive learning.

We collaborated with the Ministry of Education to start the ‘annual secondary grade learning assessments’, or SGLAs, in 2017 with the aim of annually reporting on learning levels in secondary grades. This is technically complex and politically challenging;undoubtedly, these processes lead to exposing fault lines in the system but are eventually an important step in challenging the status quo and achieving any long-term vision of growth in Sierra Leone.

Outcomes and wider impacts

Impact of our work

The learning assessment data is both complementing and challenging the erstwhile holy grail of national examinations data.

At the national level, it is:

  • enabling the ministry to monitor district performance in a decentralised service delivery model;
  • identifying pockets of good performance (‘positive deviance’) in districts and understanding why;
  • realising system (in)efficiency through low classroom instructional hours; and
  • eventually setting up a national assessment unit to sustain data-led decision making after project completion.

At the district level, individual district data is being used to support localised action plans and performance monitoring. The data is also being used at classroom level to develop a granular understanding of what foundational skills are lacking in pupils, and developing pupil remediation tools.

Contributions to system strengthening:
  • Using data to improve understanding of learning outcomes, with evidence used for targeted support to improve teaching and inclusive learning
  • Using data to improve national and district level policy and action planning processes
  • Using data to identify existing pockets of best practice across Districts and within schools, by establishing a system of sharing learning across the education system as a basis for performance improvements
  • Using regular data generation cycles to incrementally develop long-lasting national and sub-national capacity to run a national assessment unit

A mixed-methods ‘Back to School study’ was conducted by OPM under the Leh wi Lan programme nationally across secondary schools in Sierra Leone immediately after they resumed in October 2020. The Back to School study provides a unique opportunity to collect robust estimates of the learning and child well-being impacts of the COVID-19 shock to Sierra Leone’s education system.

Read more about our key findings on pupil learning outcomes and child safety and well-being in Sierra Leone during COVID-19 school closure.

Header photo: Sourovi De

Areas of expertise