Sierra Leone United Methodist University has established a new department to address the massive failures of students taking the high school exit exams.
Over 95% of Sierra Leonean students who took the 2019 West African Senior School Certificate Examinations, conducted by the West Africa Examinations Council, failed to score high enough to meet university requirements. The scores were the worst in at least three decades.
Only 3.4% of those who took the exams — 4,000 out of 115,098 students — scored the five credits needed to be admitted into universities.
The dismal scores were blamed, in part, on poor preparation of candidates at the school level and the over-reliance of students on examination malpractices, which had become a national problem until a new government policy clamped down on cheating.
“Cheating in examinations has to stop because it destroys the educational system in the country,” said Albert Kawa, director of studies for the new United Methodist University Preparatory Program, speaking on a local television show. He encouraged parents and guardians to enroll their children in the program so that they could be properly prepared to pass their exams.
At an orientation on the newly refurbished campus in western Freetown in November, Professor George Carew, the university’s vice chancellor, explained that three years ago when he was approached to set up the Sierra Leone United Methodist University, his first task was to do a 10-year analysis of the post-conflict Sierra Leone educational policies.
“And I came out with shocking, shocking results,” Carew said. “I found out that 75% of students who had tested (on the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations) had failed to make the grade over the last 10 years.
“So, it is not just this year that people have failed. The massive failure this year, in fact, was an accident waiting to happen. So, we decided of a new university … to focus not on those successes but … on the failures.”
Carew said the students failed because the system was not working for them.
“My strategy was to have a preparatory program of two years” to prepare them to retake their tests and enroll in a four-year university.
He said that included bringing in students from the 50 United Methodist high schools across the country as feeder institutions to the university, along with any others who wanted to come through the program.
Carew said the United Methodist Preparatory Program was not a knee-jerk reaction to the alarming failure rate but was planned from the budding stages of the university.
“As a faith-based institution, we believe every student should have a second chance. More importantly, in a broken system such as ours, it’s unfair to blame the victims for their lack of performance. … So our proposed solution now is how to address a confluence of factors that have impeded learning in our society,” he said.
Professor Ekundayor Thompson, who heads the counseling unit at the university, said the goal of the program is for students to not only pass their exams but pass with high marks.
He said in the past, Sierra Leone was known for its top-notch academics.
“We are here to go back to those days where there was passion for excellence. We are here to provide nothing but the best,” he said.
Students in the United Methodist University Preparatory Program who spoke to UM News were highly optimistic about the education they have been receiving since the program launched three months ago.
Joshua Yaffa, who attended St. Edward Secondary School, a Catholic school in western Freetown, passed a few subjects in 2019 but not all.
“I believe that with the level of teaching we’re getting here, if I take the exams again, I’ll pass. Unlike in my previous school, we are doing a lot of exercises here. And I believe the more one practices, the better you get to know the subjects,” he said.
Alimatu Sandy’s 2019 exams results were withheld for suspected examination malpractice. She described the experience as bewildering. She said she gave up on her dream of continuing her education until she heard about the United Methodist University Preparatory Program on the radio. Her parents enrolled her and she started in November.
“It’s a good program. The learning environment is conducive, quiet and clean. … In my previous school, if a student arrived late … they would have to stand for the rest of the class because there were not enough chairs and desks for everyone. Here, we have enough chairs and tables (and) classrooms that are not jam-packed,” she said.
In her previous school, there would be about 150 students per class, she said. At the preparatory program, the average is 45.
Zainab Saidu, 19, who also attended a Catholic school, said the teachers in the prep program are more effective.
“They make sure that everyone attends their classes. … We are encouraged to share knowledge with friends who don’t understand certain topics,” she said. “Unlike our previous schools, where teachers are not monitored and they are likely to teach irrelevant topics, here there’s a rigid monitoring system to make sure that teachers go strictly by the syllabus for the WASSCE exams.”
Emmanuel Braima, said learning was “10 times better” at the preparatory program because there was commitment on the side of the teachers, which was never the case at his previous, government-run school.
However, he thinks efforts in mathematics, physics and chemistry need to be strengthened.
Catherine Harding, campus coordinator at the university, said the school is addressing those curriculum concerns. She said the teaching staff is rising to the challenge of covering a lot of material in a short amount of time.
“We have less than a year to cover three years’ syllabuses. So, we’re doing our best actually to see how far we can do.”
She said it is difficult to say how well students will do on examination day, but she’s hopeful.
“Some of them are ambitious; others are lackadaisical. … It’s not the normal school where they put on uniforms. Some of the rules are that they are attentive in class and come to school regularly. We do roll calls every day.”
She said parents are updated regularly on their children’s progress.
It is her hope that other faith-based institutions will offer similar programs in the future to help rescue the falling standards of education before it is too late.
Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone.
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