Management of school-fee subsidies faces huge governance challenges
By Ibrahim Joenal Sesay
An orphan girl named Salimata, age 11 who is in class five at the Roman Catholic Mission Primary School in Port Loko, said every Monday, their teachers ask them to carry firewood from their homes to the school and if they fail, they would be driven from school until they come with their firewood. Her guardian, who said she is aware of the fee subsidy, confirmed this. She commended the government for the initiative but accused the school authorities of excess charges despite the school-fee subsidy.
Just like many other children in that District, Salimata lacked knowledge about a school-fee subsidy. She said whatever message her teacher tells her relating to money or any other thing she conveys to her guardian.
The question about how school-fee subsidies are being managed has been on the lips of many people, especially when there are threats of strikes in some parts of Sierra Leone.
According to the Inspectorate at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Mohamed Sillah Sesay, the school-fee subsidies program is aimed at ensuring greater access to primary education at the national level.
School-fee subsidies are, in part, fulfillment of the second of the eight Millennium Development Goals, to achieve universal primary education. The subsidy is meant to augment some of the expenses incurred by school authorities for the running of the schools during the academic year, as well as a strategic step toward the development of Sierra Leone, Mr. Sesay said.
Sierra Leone has consistently been ranked with a high percentage of illiterate according to the United Nations Human Development Report in 2007 and 2008. Sierra Leone has come last in the UN Development Programme ranking of human development indicators of 179 countries. Just half of Sierra Leone’s primary schools are functioning, many of them in inadequate conditions, and secondary school attendance is still only at 44 percent, according to the UN report.
The school-fee subsidy is an undeniable need because Sierra Leone is a country that has a literacy rate of over 59%, according to Transparency International Sierra Leone (TISL). Some parents in rural areas give their children to people in urban areas just for them to be educated as they cannot afford to support the school fees. Poverty remains widespread with more than 60% of the population living on less than US$ 1.25 per day, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report for Sierra Leone.
In order to address this problem, the government introduced the free education policy wherein pupils are not supposed to be charged fees in their various schools said Desk Officer Ibrahim GibrilBureh of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Local Government Finance Department and the Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC) document on corruption of school- fee subsidies.
The school authorities are supposed to use the money allocated for the running of the schools to buy school materials, do maintenance or any other things that are important for the running of the school.
The school-fee subsidy is meant for Primary School pupils aged from six to twelve. Initially, a child had only Le. 2,000 (less than $1) per term. However, for the 2013-2014 academic year, the government increased this fee to Le.5,000 ($1) per term.
Most of the children interviewed for this report in Freetown and Port Loko District lacked knowledge about the school-fee subsidy program. They said they were never briefed about the school-fee subsidies.
Famata toed the line of other parents who have been complaining that the government is providing school subsidies but the schools’ authorities have always been asking for more money and this has resulted in many parents deciding to take their children out of school.
The Minister of Finance and Economic Development on December 6,, 2013 read the 2014 Annual Budget in the Hall of Parliament stating that the government will provide school fee subsidies for about 1,350,000 school children, which is the equivalent of Le.10.2 Billion ($20,400). An additional Le.1.2 Billion ($2,400) is allocated for teaching and learning materials and Le.1.7 Billion ($3,400) is allocated for text books for primary schools.
Finance Officer of the Freetown City Council (FCC) Education Department, Abdurrahman Savage explained that the schools, when approved by the Ministry of Education, will send their attendance list to the Council with the number of pupils in their school and Council in turn will send the count to the Local Government Finance Department, that department he said will process it and made payment to the schools.
“The Local Council opened an account for school fee subsidies, which requires four signatories before any disbursement takes place. We have the Deputy Director of Education who is the sector head, Chief Finance Officer, Chief Administrator and the Mayor,” said Mr. Savage.
The payment process
Mr. Savage further explained that the government disburses the money through the Local Government Finance Department to the account of the Councils. At the same time, the Local Government Finance Department sends notification via the Chief Administrator that they have credited the Councils’ accounts with the requested amount.
The school will forward their account number to the Council who will classify it and make payment through a letter that will be used for the payment for the term.
Mr. Savage said after the four signatories have signed, they will disburse the funds to the various schools. He said that the FCC is dealing with 329 Primary Schools and they are doing their monitoring six times every school year. He said they have a team of four departments that includes Inspectors from the Education Ministry and Councilors.
This exercise of monitoring has exposed, according to Mr. Savage, some inflation in the number of enrolled students by some schools in Freetown but the schools are quick to cast the blame on late payment.
“The cause of the late payment is that we are not getting a response from the schools early. We have now instituted a law that if any school fails to come with their response early, we will not pay that school.”
The Finance Officer of FCC added: “It starts from where the money is coming. The Government is not paying on time, so if the money came late the school is expected to send their return late.” He said there is no laid-down law or policy for the school-fee subsidy by the Ministry.
“We have now planned on our next year budget to train [the] SMC Chairman, [the] Community Teacher Association (CTA) Chairman. We have already trained two batches of Head Teachers to tell them that their role is not to get 50% but for them to see that they use the money to repair the school. We are getting some problems between the school Head Teachers and the Chairman about the use of the money,” added Mr. Savage.
The Desk Officer of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Local Government Finance Department, Ibrahim GibrilBureh said they used to send the fees to the Local Councils’ Administrative Account who in turn would credit various schools’ accounts with the stated amount. This disbursement is accompanied with details of the number of schools and enrollment.
“Usually when the funds are available, they will go on the radio and make the announcement for the schools to send their request on what they want to do with the money, for the schools to send their returns and some time we do on the spot check.” Mr. Bureh added.
He stressed that three signatories should sign, the Head Teacher, CSM Chairman and Community Representative and at least two are supposed to sign for disbursement.
Extra charges being collected
Famata, looking depressed even when school is not in session at this time, said the situation has caused a huge dropout in Pork Loko District because not all parents can afford to send their children to school. She said the teachers ask for money from the pupils and at times during their Parent-Teachers Meetings.
“If they did not ask for money for toilets, they will ask for money for food. Not everybody can afford some of these charges they levy on us,” she complained.
Famata said they used to pay Le. 5,000 (USD $1) per term for food and now the school authority has increased it to Le. 30,000 (USD $6) starting from this academic year.
She pointed out that they ask them to pay for any activity the school wants to undertake and if a parent fails to pay for his or her child, that child will face punishment.
She said the charges made her transfer one of her daughters to another school.
The most shocking thing for Famata now is the additional cost levied on them by the school authorities in order to pay rent for the school premises and prevent eviction for non-payment of rent though this rent was supposed to be paid for by the subsidy.
The Head Teacher of Roman Catholic Mission Primary, Mrs. Theresa S. Bangura said they are negotiating with the landlord. She explained that during the days of the early white settlers in that part of the country, they leased the land to the Paramount Chief (PC), PC Sankoh who has since passed away but proper documentation was not made at the time.
According to her, the family is now asking them to pay for the land. She is optimistic that after the Ebola crisis a final round of negotiations will take place which will produce a solution. She pointed out that they informed the parents about this situation and told each parent what to pay.
Eight out of ten parents interviewed by this journalist in Port Loko District stressed the extra charges from schools authorities. Some of the teachers denied the allegations while others confirmed it, explaining that the money serves to repair benches, organize school games and, at times, compensate for their personal needs because their salaries are not enough.
Aminata Conteh, a class four teacher at Faredugu Buya Romende Chiefdom, Port Loko District described the teaching profession as one that hardly provides sufficient income for her. She said they only survive through extra charges from children. Mrs. Aminata added that some of the teachers get involved directly in the administration of their schools and that is why some of the teachers raised the alarm when the subsidy was not forthcoming.
They described their relationship with the Head Teachers and the parents as a cordial one. “At time[s] we experience some challenges on the side of parents for their children but at the end we sort it out with them.”
Some of the challenges most of the teachers said they are faced with regarding the school-fee subsidy include late payment of the subsidy, the number on the enrollment count not matching the actual number of pupils and, above all, the amount of money is too small for a child.
The regulations not followed, policies not clear!
Transparency International Sierra Leone (TISL), which focuses on promoting transparency and accountability within the private and the public sector, did a survey on the management and use of school-fee subsidies. The project was focused on two districts: Kenema and Tonkolili District Councils.
The Senior Program Officer of TISL, Edward Koroma, told this medium that they started with a Public Finance Dialogue Forum and discovered during the forum that most of the schools selected for participation in the Forum do not have proper plans for the regulation of the school-fee subsidies.
He said according to the financial regulations, every school is supposed to have a draft plan about how the subsidies will be regulated before the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development disburses the money.
He mentioned that some of the schools that have plans don’t utilize the money for the purpose of undertaking development projects for schools but rather they spend the money on irrelevant programs.
Mr. Koroma explained that before starting to use the funds, one must develop a plan on how they should use the money. He said some head teachers use the funds to construct structures that are not of use of the pupils. “We are talking about value for money; additional classroom blocks wherein there are other pressing things to take care of is irrelevant.”
He further explained that most of the money goes to paying off debt as the schools have borrowed money to run the school.
Another problem he highlighted is that most schools do not have a proper record-keeping system that provides information on how they use the subsidies. There is also a lack of collaboration between the School Management Committee (SMC) and School Authority in terms of the use of the school-fees subsidies.
One of the SMC chairmen Mohamed Sankoh, who is attached to Movement of Faith Primary School, said they are experiencing some problems with some Head Teachers especially when the money is available. He went on to say that some Head Teachers who were expected to set up a plan before the fees are paid, failed to do so.
Mr. Koroma went on to say that they did a follow up to see how some of the recommendations made by the monitors and their field officers were incorporated. What they discovered in the monitoring exercise within the two districts was that most of the schools lack supporting documents for the use of the school-fee subsidies.
“Because if you say you are using X, Y, and Z money to do X, Y, and Z thing, you should have supporting documents like receipt to show that this is the money used and this is the supporting document,” he commented.
In Tonkolili, Mr. Koroma alleged that some members of the Tonkolili District Council are demanding that a certain percentage be paid to them.
“The fee subsidy is paid on a terminal basis. All the schools within the Tonkolili District Councils are been asked to pay a certain amount to the Education Committee and a receipt is being given to them. Some show us the receipt.”
He explained further that the receipt does not bear the name of the council but that of Tonkolili Education Committee and the chairman of that committee signed it.
“What happens, most of the time is members of the SMC will chip to fix the problem in the school and if an individual is chipping in, the authority will have to pay back when the money is available.”
He disclosed that there is an increase in ghost pupils, which he said is the normal allegation of officials of the Ministry of Education who argue that it is one of the reasons for late payment.
Most of the teachers explained that they are collecting extra charges as a way of addressing some of their personal needs or, at times, to solve some urgent problems in their schools.
At the Sierra Leone Muslim Brotherhood Primary School at Niambana Street, Freetown, parents complained of extortion. Every Wednesday, the school’s Head Teachers collect Le. 500 (USD $.12) for 13 weeks from every child in the school for two supplementary teachers.
If a child pays Le. 500 (USD $.12) every Wednesday for 13 weeks it would amount to Le. 6,500 (USD $1.54) per child in the above school with 485 pupils.
When asked how he came to the decision to collect such an amount from the parents, the Head Teachers said they met with the parents and made the decision unilaterally. When further asked if the Ministry was represented, he denied. He was further asked if he got the consent of the Ministry of Education, as he must be employed with education policy, he said policy or no policy the supporting teachers must live.
Even though the government has for three terms paid a subsidy for the 485 children who are non-existent according to the school record displayed to this medium, which amounts to Le. 7,275.00, he gave no account of how the additional money was spent.
For the National Primary School Examination (NPSE), despite the government’s instructions that no extra charges be levied, Mr. Koroma collected Le. 70,000 (USD $14) from the pupils. The school, as indicated by a close source, has just over 200 pupils that were not verified as the pupils and teachers were not visible. This can only be verified by the report cards prepared this year.
Most of the schools visited in Port Loko are not up to standard. Some of the Head Teachers cannot explain properly what they are using the school-fee subsidy for and some schools don’t have a development plan because some of them failed to sit with the SMC and decide what to do.
They said, however, that they raised funds for the school through musical shows, concerts, and film shows and by taxing parents at times.
Head Teachers of Roman Catholic Mission Primary Mrs. Theresa S. Bangura and Famata Kamara said the Roman Catholic Primary School has a total of 517 pupils. They failed to explain why there are extra charges and what the charges are meant for but stressed that they only took over during the third term of the school year.
Mamood S. Koroma, Head Master Port Loko Teachers College Primary School, said his school has a special committee from the College in addition to the SMC that is looking at the affairs of the school.
He said he could not remember the last time the government supplied textbooks to them.
He accepted that some Head Teachers are inflating the number of pupils but for him he said he is under serious monitoring. Mr. Koroma said the 405 pupils that were on the roll that he sent in for the subsidy received their money.
He then advised, “It is necessary for the Government to introduce a policy. The money the government is giving us should be used for its right purpose. We are receiving our salaries as teachers from the government beside of the school-fee subsidy,” he said.
Rosaline Y. Kamara, Head Teacher and Chairperson of the Council of Head Teachers Port Loko District, said out of the 479 pupils that are on her roll, half of that number was paid for by the subsidy in this academic year. She said her school normally sends its roll very early but there are some delays from those that are in the villages.
She said the supervisors in that District are not enough, stressing the need for a head count on the spot.
Stronger measures expected from government expected
An Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Mohamed Sillah Sesay pointed out that they are only playing an overall supervising role.
He said that the “school-fee subsidy is not even in the Education Ministry budget. It is [the] Local Government Ministry [that] pays, [and] we have never [paid].”
Port Loko District Council Supervisor on Education,Alhaji M.F. Kamara produces some documents of the returns some schools gave to the Council and receipts of how they utilize the money. He said if they don’t account for how the money is spent they will not receive the next tranche of funds.
Pork Loko District Mafoki Chiefdom has 512 Primary Schools and there are 11 Chiefdoms. He said there are 118,793 children on the roll but not all of them are benefiting from the subsidy as some are attending private schools.
He said they are faced with some constraints, as the money is not enough and the Government is not paying according to the roll they are given. He said they are still using the old enrollment numbers, which needs to be updated.
He said some schools are misusing the money when they go out to check but they have put stiff measures in place for any defaulter.
He said they have found over five schools in that situation. “They will repay if we are not satisfied with the purchase Order and if we don’t have an authentic report from the School Management Committee.”
He said the amount per child is nothing to write home about and the late payment is also giving them problems supervising the schools properly. “A policy has to be followed but if there is no policy they will just do what they want,” he said.
Desk Officer of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Local Government Finance Department Ibrahim GibrilBureh said the cause of the delay in payment is that Councils are not sending their returns early.
“The Councils will not come out clearly to you, during 2012/2013 academic year, the Councils were behind, they could not give us return that affected us.”
The Desk Officer condemned any form of policy on the fee subsidy.
“There is no policy on school-fee subsidies and there will be none, the fee is flexible to use, if there is a policy on that, there should be policy on the subvention as well. A school-fee subsidy is the same as we use to pay when we were in school by our parents, now government is saying they are going to step in while the parents step out of the payment.”
He said initially the school-fee subsidy was only paid to government assisted schools but over the period there are other schools that were not approved by the Ministry of Education but through the intervention of the Minster of Finance they added hosts of unapproved schools to the approved list.
This, he said, made the situation worse for them as some people decided to misused that facility.
“They started to inflate the number of children where they have 100 pupils they will now send 150 pupils because the amount they get is the factor of the number of pupils they submit.”
This report was produced by Ibrahim Joenal Sesay with support from Partners for Democratic Change and from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. It is part of the Access Nigeria/ Sierra Leone program funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.