According to the News Watch Newspaper, Sierra Leone’s children are not acquiring functional literacy or numeracy, even after spending at least four years in school, according to a recently released report from the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), UNICEF and Montrose consultants.

The latest early grade math and reading assessment results for students in primary class 2 and class 4 show 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. 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 Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), with support from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has launched a report on the National Early Grade Reading Assessment/Early Grade Mathematics Assessment study, which was undertaken last year.

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.

The assessment was conducted among 476 teachers, 244 head teachers and 4,729 students (50% girls) from 260 schools from across all the 16 districts, with the aim to understand the systemic issues that affect children’s learning at school, district, and national level.
According to the consultant’s situation assessment;
• Learning outcomes in Sierra Leonean primary schools are poor, which has far reaching implications throughout the education system and society.
• Early grade reading assessments conducted in Sierra Leone in 2014 showed that few primary students have the basic reading skills needed for academic and life success.
• The majority of grade 2 children scored zero on key reading skills and lack skills in simple mathematics.
As part of a $17.2 million USD project, Montrose through UNICEF attempted to assess competencies in key foundational skills in literacy and numeracy for grades 2 and 4; and
to identify the enabling factors (school, classroom and instructional conditions) that are likely to impact learning.
“We intend to seize upon this opportunity that the EGRA/EGMA studies offers to understand better our educational stresses in these early grades with renewed determination to close these gaps and improve on these shortfalls,” said David Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education.

Students in class 2 and 4, don’t understand many words and content is limited, as is their conceptual ability to apply skills they have learned to other tasks.

Learners’ experience of math instruction is more about memorisation of facts and rules than development of strategies to find answers to problems.

Many learners are an average of two years older than they should be in both grade 2 and grade 4. Only 1 in 4 learners attended nursery school before starting primary school. A substantial number of grade 2 learners (about 16-18%) are aged 9-10 when they should be 7-8 years, while many grade 4 learners (about 22-24%) are aged 11-13 (when they should be 9-10 years).

“UNICEF believes that improving the numeracy and literacy skills of students from early primary grades, lays the right foundation for improved academic performance of students in the future,” said UNICEF Representative, (OIC) Liv Elin Indreiten.

From a secondary school assessment in 2017, 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.

About 30% of learners reported speaking their local language in school during class instruction, meaning their exposure to English listening and speaking tasks is likely diminished, as is their ability to read and write in the language. Speaking English at school demonstrates a positive correlation with learning achievement, while speaking Krio or another local language has the opposite effect. A total of 75% of learners reported speaking their local language at home with family, while another 50% use Krio. Very few learners reported speaking English at home, meaning that the only exposure most learners get to this language of instruction is at school.

About 50% of learners’ fathers and 40% of their mothers are literate. 75% of learners reported reading and studying at home with a range of other family members and friends. Most learners read with their siblings. Just over 30% take books home from school to read – mostly maths (47%) and letter writing and composition (54%), while over 50% reported having other reading books at home already, namely storybooks (40%). Reading at home had a position correlation with better performance on the EGRA and EGMA. Interestingly, analysis also showed that mothers reading at home with their children had the greatest statistically significant impact on learner performance, followed by reading with fathers; reading with a sibling corresponded to negative impacts on learning.

Other key findings from the 2021 study, include only one in four students attended pre-primary school before starting primary school. The report also highlights a diminishing trend in enrollment between early grades and grade six, an indication of a high drop-out rate from lower to upper primary and an indication of high rates of students repeating grades throughout the primary cycle – especially in grade one.

“This report brings important insight into the challenges on early grade learning in Sierra Leone,” said Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of Global Partnership for Education.

In 2017, the first Secondary Grade Learning Assessment (SGLA) measured English and mathematics skills of JSS2 and SSS2 students in Sierra Leonean schools. The results showed that most pupils only show basic English and maths skills, even though they have completed eight (JSS2) to 11 (SSS2) years of formal education and have passed various exams like the NPSE and BECE. This is possible because the exams mostly test memory but the SGLA tests skills. Girls, poorer pupils and pupils in remote schools tended to do worse.

Results shows that 60% of JSS2 pupils and over 40% of SSS2 pupils are able to demonstrate English language skills expected from a primary-grade pupil, but very unlikely to demonstrate skills expected from any higher grades than primary level. In other words, these JSS2 and SSS2 pupils have fallen behind curriculum expectations by around two and five years respectively. Around 10% of JSS2 pupils showed English language skills as expected from a JSS2 pupil and a small percentage (2%) showed skills exceeding expectations.

Results shows that almost 70% of JSS2 pupils and 50% of SSS2 pupils are able to demonstrate maths skills expected at primary-grade level but not any higher skills. They have fallen behind by two and five years respectively. Only 5% of JSS2 pupils show maths skills as expected from a JSS2 pupil and a small percentage (1%) showed skills exceeding expectations. Ultimately, almost half of these SSS2 pupils have fallen behind by up to four years. In the SGLA test, only 4% of SSS2 pupils are able to show skills expected at the end of JSS3 and none show SSS1 level maths skills.

The 2021 study was conducted by Montrose International, was overseen by a learning assessment Technical Steering Committee (SC) led by the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) and comprising members from the Directorates of Planning and Policy, and Quality Assurance at MBSSE, the Change Unit, GPE Coordinator, representatives from universities and pre-service teacher training institutions and UNICEF.