I started my education in a non-state pre-primary and primary school before enrolling in a state secondary school in Sierra Leone, continued through on scholarships to world class non-state universities in the United States and then to a multinational company as a research scientist in Kenya. I am now channelling all I learned during this mix of private and public education and life choices into the combined roles I have in the Sierra Leonean government on education and innovation.
As a Cabinet Minister, I have the responsibility for overseeing such a mix of state and non-state actors working with me on educating the children of our country. While some people seem to pretend that non-state actors do not or should not play a role in education today, the fact of the matter is that they do already and will continue to do so tomorrow. In Sierra Leone, for example, 60% of all schools are owned by religious missions, and 15% are owned by the private sector. The new 2021/2 Global Education Monitoring Report on non-state actors in education just released on this subject shows clearly that there is no part of education that non-state actors are not involved in. If non-state actors somehow disappeared tomorrow, the education of no fewer than 350 million children would fall to the responsibility of the state.
You can try, but it’s also extremely difficult these days to make clear distinctions between public and private. If most statistics on this matter tend to look at management and ownership, the new report shows how intertwined the two are in financing. Governments financially support non-state schools in 171 out of 204 countries: these include private schools in 115 countries, faith-based schools in 120 countries; and non-governmental organization and community schools in 81 countries. This makes the arguments that stake positions on clear dichotomies between either private-or-public increasingly irrelevant.
In this context, our role is to make sure that we design our governance and regulations in a way that ensures that all these actors pull in the same direction. This means strong oversight on the core values we committed to as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably equity and quality. Yet, the GEM Report’s PEER website shows that countries’ regulations are least likely to focus on quality or equity: 67% regulate fee setting, 55% prevent selective student admission procedures in non-state schools, 27% ban profit making and only 7% have quotas supporting access of disadvantaged groups.
Along with setting explicit rules and regulations that clearly outline our vision to all actors, I agree with the report when it says that collaboration is key to making sure that we deliver on this agenda. This means creating spaces and setting the conditions for a variety of actors to interact. There is much to be gained from putting all parties’ expertise to good use. One of the first things that we did when I left the private sector to come to this office, for instance, was to put together a new curriculum framework relevant to the 21st century. We built teacher training modules based on real needs. This report calls for all countries to pick up on such practices. Skills development systems that feed on contributions from governments, employers and the workers themselves are far more likely to keep pace with labour market needs.
Anyone in government knows that public education is not easily reformed. But with the fast and furious changes in the world, education systems need to keep up. More than that, they have a lot to gain if they do so. Partnerships with the private sector can help bring resources and expertise and encourage initiatives at a pace governments may be unlikely to achieve on their own. We recently issued tablets to administrators to help them track grades, enrolment, attendance and budgets. We have a fully digitized school census data going right back to 2015 that we now interrogate to track those left behind. All these enhance our ability to make impact at scale within the public sector.
But I also welcome the warning sounded in the new GEM Report for governments as they navigate these partnerships. What strategic interests are our partners putting first? Does their support align with government priorities, does it avoid duplication or distraction, and will it be flexible to our evolving needs? The questions the report asks are important for all of us to consider. ‘Who is choosing?’, we are asked. Sometimes it might not be clear. ‘Who is losing?’, it asks again. Why is it always the same groups?
It shouldn’t matter to an education minister where children are educated. Governments must show they care equally for all children’s education no matter the choices made and to apply the same quality standards, monitoring and accountability mechanisms across all providers. In Sierra Leone, the government pays exam fees for all children including those in private schools, for instance. We also provide training and assistance on emergency responses across all schools, and endeavour to increase our support on teacher training in private schools in the future. We are all party to making sure that our education system works for all. Whether you are in the private or public sector, I encourage you to read the 2021/2 GEM Report recommendations to be sure you are not left behind on the vision it has for change.