CAPITOL INSIDER: Welcome to Capitol Insider, Honorable Minister.
GEORGE WERNER: My pleasure, as always.
CAPITOL INSIDER: How did you come with this catchy phrase: “Getting to Best”?
GEORGE WERNER: A young Liberian, who is a Facebook fan, shortly after the nomination to be Minister of Education, wrote on Facebook that we would take the system from mess to best; it caught my attention and defined for me what the vision for reform was. Overtime, the Cabinet, with the President and the Vice President, advised that we change it to Getting to Best.
CAPITOL INSIDER: You’ve been at the helm of one of the nation’s most challenging sector ministries for little less than a year now. On the other hand, the clock is ticking slowly closer to the end of the tenure of the Sirleaf administration. In terms of numbers, what can you point to as those significant achievements your Ministry has undertaken since you took over?
GEORGE WERNER: Since 2006, we have been working to improve access, quality, and governance. Access matters because every Liberian child has the right to an education. Today, over 1.5 million children are in school – one and a half times as many as in 2006.48.5% of them are girls, and we are moving slowly towards parity. I have to admit that the number of children out of school is still unacceptably high – between 300,000 to 500,000 by most estimates, and access does not equal learning outcomes.But it is worth celebrating that majority of our children are in school.
We are supporting schools by providing over US$2 million in grants to 2,579 public and government-owned community schools in 2015. We are improving school facilities so that schools can care for every child in a safe learning environment. Under the Global Partnership for Education project and, with money from the Government of Liberia, we have renovated over 125 schools in the last year alone and built over 26 new schools, not counting schools constructed by other partners, such as UNICEF through Japanese support,including 4 Early Childhood Education (ECE) schools. These newly constructed schools have housing units for teachers. There are at least 15 schools under construction in River Gee, Maryland, Grand Gedeh and elsewhere in the country.
We are giving schools and teachers the learning resources they need to be efficient and effective in the classroom. We distributed more than a million textbooks and 20,000 teacher’s guides.For the first time in years, every child in grades 5-9 is being given his or her own subject specific textbooks. We also distributed more than 1.3 million supplementary readers for Grades 1–4 (1,389,910), and more than 1.4 million learning aids for classrooms, including dictionaries, globes and charts, and magnets) (1,418,870).We have also set up 9 learning resource centers in the counties, with computers, battery banks, and local area networks, for access to electronic resources. These counties are Lofa, Bong, Grand Bassa, Grand Gedeh, , Sinoe , River Cess, Maryland, and two in River Gee (Fish Town and Webbo) (all other centers in county capitals).
We are training and supporting our teachers in psychosocial support and pedagogy across the country: 636 CEOs, DEOs and school administrators; 8,290 teachers and PTA members. We are preparing school-based guidance counsellors to support students who have experienced trauma during the Ebola crisis. The Peace Corps, who are returning to Liberia in full force and readiness, have collaborated with the Ministry to train nearly all school administrators.
We are making our education system accountable through payroll verification: 5,128 staff across Bong, Montserrado and Nimba screened. This exercise, which began late 2015, has helped us, in the counties completed thus far, to discover737 persons in possession of fake credentials or lacking credentials; other staff who did not attend vetting are being investigated. We should remember, too, that this vetting exercise also uncovered hundreds of teachers who were being underpaid (total number 1843). There were many who did not show up, and the exercise will now proceed to the 12 remaining counties.
Paying teachers on time without interrupting service delivery in the remotest parts of the country remains a challenge. The banking system has not been able to help us resolve this issues as expected. So we are exploring other ways to be more efficient and effective in paying our teachers.
Rebuilding the education system is a daunting task, for we are not merely rebuilding what was here before the civil crisis or before Ebola: we must build something better.That is why we call our reform agenda ‘Getting to Best’.We have made significant gains since 2006. If we are to succeed, the support of everyone will be required. What we have achieved together is remarkable: more schools built and renovated to improve education infrastructure, at least 1.5 million children in school, around 48% of whom are girls, text books and teaching materials in schools, ongoing teacher training. There is still more to be done, but we are set for better learning outcomes.
CAPITOL INSIDER: Regarding challenges, how are you coping?
GEORGE WERNER: To be honest, I am coping well. We are glad to hear people discussing education, but the conversation has to be more policy-based and balanced between what has been achieved and existing challenges. Educating our children is everybody’s business; parents and the community must work with us, and we must expect more of ourselves. The challenges are many, and we won’t be able to achieve all that we have outlined as priorities for the next 2-5 years. As you know, however, the Liberian education system does not provide all children with the opportunity to learn and become active and productive citizens. In some parts of the country, Grand Kru and Gbapolu, the system is dysfunctional.
Over 313,000 children aged between 6 and 11 years are believed to be out-of-school, and we are going to begin addressing this challenge in the next academic year with a GoL/EU 12 million dollar Ready4Life program. Many more are irregularly attending even if they are in school. At the current rate, only 20% of those who enrolled in grade 1 in September 2015 will stay in school until grade 12. With the successes scored in Access, we need to build more schools, train more teachers (in subject didactics) and source more education materials necessary to provide students with a quality education.
The Ministry of Educationis responsible for delivering a national education system, but it does not currently have the funds or financial capacity to do so. The education budget in 2016 totaled $40 million, of which $38 million is required for teacher salaries. This has left only $2 million available to run the national education system.
While education is a public good and a basic human right, of which the government is a duty bearer, governments everywhere are struggling to support public education adequately. Support from development partners is therefore necessary to improve the quality of education service delivery in Liberia. Funding, however, must be aligned with government priorities and be delivered in a sustainable manner and build the capacity of the Ministry of Education. Given the Ministry’s limited capacity and weak financial management systems, direct budgetary support is not currently an option for many donors. The Ministry is therefore seeking alternative financing mechanisms to attract and manage donor funds.
With the generous support of Big Win Philanthropy, the Ministry of Education has secured funding for a consultant to work on identifying the most appropriate, usable and cost-effective financial mechanism which will enable the Ministry to finance its priorities and manage donor funding. Possible options include:
• Investing in the capacity of the MoE’s financial oversight office: analysis, on-the-job training, and equipment, system-building and technical assistance over one year.
• Reform the Ministry of Education Pool Fund: established in 2008, the Education Pool Fund (EPF) attracted and distributed nearly $20m to fund school construction, textbooks procurement and the teacher training institutes. This is a parallel structure to the MoE finance department, used to attract and manage donor funding. A reform of the Pool Fund will build on the lessons learnt from the first phase and will be expected to be established by January 2017.
• New financial mechanism which will enable donors to directly support the MoE’s priority projects through a program delivery unit within the Ministry, with an external accounting system. A similar structure is currently used to manage funds from UN partners. This will be developed to improve the quality of program delivery. Technical assistance will be sought to build the capacity of MoE staff.
These are the immediate challenges facing the Ministry, and we are trying to address them one after the other.
CAPITOL INSIDER: The last time you spoke with The Capitol Insider, you voiced serious concern about decentralization, especially regarding construction of housing units for teachers in the leeward counties. What is the level of progress on that?
GEORGE WERNER: All of the new schools we are building, around 41 of them under the GPE/GoL project alone, have fine housing units attached to them for teachers, and these are being furnished by the project. We should build on this, with the National Housing Authority and through public private partnerships, to advance this initiative nationwide.
Decentralization is a noble concept; we want services delivered to our people where they are. We want their active participation in decision making. We want them to feel a part of their government, but we need to do it carefully. If we are going to give counties their education budgets, for example, we need to delineate the roles of all county officials, from County Education Officers, District Education Officers, to county leadership. I do not believe, as a government, we have addressed this challenge yet. Sometimes it seems to me that we are importing Monrovia into the counties, duplication of functions, too many unnecessary jobs from various ministries, agencies, and commissions, and the reporting channels are still blurred. De-concentration is not devolution: implementing decisions taken by central government is not the same as making those decisions yourself. But is a step by step process to help people manage things, to see what it means to live within your means or live with little.
You’ve been holding a lot of discussions with stakeholders on improving the sector. Tell us more about the latest Public/Private Partnership initiative. It will interest you to know that people have already started talking that government is about to privatize public schools.
As stated earlier, we are working to resolve the outstanding issues of access, equity, quality, safety, learning outcomes, and accountability in our educational system. 2015 was a year of significant transition and intensive consultations around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). President Sirleaf led many of the conversations universally, and I was sometimes with her. In it all, the world recognized the potential of education to drive progress and underpin stability and peace which confers wellbeing and without which we cannot have sustained economic growth. In the SDGs, the international community set out a very broad, ambitious agenda for education, as articulated in SDG4. So education is in a state of change, a state of strengthening. With that comes the challenge of financing.
We in Liberia believe that we need partnerships, within and without, to meaningfully address our education deficits to achieve better learning outcomes for all Liberia children. This is why, at short notice, the President and I invited many stakeholders to explore, backed by the GoL PPP policy, such partnerships for education, particularly, ECD and primary education. We want to do this in order to urgently improve the learning outcomes of children leaving primary school. We need to find models that work in Liberia. We believe a PPP, with clear outcomes to be achieved, ensures providers have incentives to innovate and get results. The PPP model we are exploring covers curriculum learning materials, teacher recruitment, basic teacher training, teacher accountability, buildings and maintenance, amongst other vital education areas in Liberia’s plan – ‘Getting to Best’. For this to be achieved, the Liberian government will need to put in place a much stronger monitoring and accountability system to ensure that the outcomes providers commit to are being met. The local accountability system and assessment of learning outcomes have long been an area of improvement the Ministry has wanted to address and we feel the PPP aligns well with our objectives.
When we invest in education, we are buying HOPE for the future, we are making the country stable and peaceful. Measurable learning outcomes allow us to explain the results of our investments to all stakeholders, and this is something the private sector is very good at.
CAPITOL INSIDER: How have your international development partners taken to this new initiative, in terms of support?
GEORGE WERNER: This initiative is new and bold, and all recognize that. There some, however, who support it (with financial contributions) but have relevant questions about the Ministry’s capacity to manage a PPP, including a stronger M & E regime. Others are still devoted to the status quo. We have to bring them around. In all, there are many aspects of this initiative that need to be resolved, and we are working on them feverishly with stakeholders. We want to begin in September 2016, and I will, permitted by the President, and counting on her transferred trust, credibility and networks, spend time out of Liberia raising funding for this initiative.
CAPITOL INSIDER: The Government of Liberia, through the Ministry of Education, remains the highest provider of scholarships to students. But there have been criticisms in some quarters lately that government scholarships are largely awarded on “who knows you” basis. What is the reality when it comes to such criticisms?
GEORGE WERNER: Since we began keeping good records about the bilateral scholarship program in March of 2010, over 500 young Liberians have benefited through a transparent, merit-based, and gender responsive policy. Domestically, over 12, 000 students received financial assistance through the Ministry, and we continue to help many in local colleges and universities. None of these beneficiaries is a relative of the President, a Cabinet Minister, and/or a legislator. We advertise all scholarships offers from friendly countries and they are involved in the vetting processes, desired applicant profile requiring high GPA (at least 3.0), community service, writing samples, panel interviews, background searches with police reports, etc. Government ministries also give institution specific scholarships to build their capacities, and this is consistent with policy about reinforcing the Civil Service, in harmony with the National Capacity Development Strategy.
CAPITOL INSIDER: One of the challenges government usually faces with its scholarship program is keeping check on recipients after graduation. How do you ensure scholarship beneficiaries serve the country in exchange for the support they received?
GEORGE WERNER: Since 2010, 242 (two hundred forty-two) have returned with degrees in disciplines such as Medicine/Public Health, Engineering, Education, Public Policy, Natural Resource Management, Environmental Science and, Geology. Of the 242 returned students, 239 have been placed in government and the private sector. Of the 239 placements, males constitute 184 (one hundred eighty-four) amounting to 77%, while their female counterparts constitute 55 equaling 23% of the total. When we educate, we have to place appropriately. We are encouraging our beneficiaries to better position themselves for private sector opportunities. The capacity of the public sector it absorb all beneficiaries is very limited due to longstanding policy to control the wage bill.
CAPITOL INSIDER: Action, they say, speaks louder than words. The last time you granted us an interview, you were deeply concerned about the low budgetary support the sector is receiving. Has there been any significant improvement in this direction?
GEORGE WERNER: The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) has been very supportive. We are working with our counterparts at the MFDP to make sure that, even with the current economic constraints, we send a message to Liberians and others that education remains a priority for this government. The Ministry of Education gets a lion share of the national budget, but we need to do more to curb excesses in personnel and administrative costs and show results for the investments being made.
CAPITOL INSIDER: With few months left to the 2017 elections, what should the public expect to see as lasting legacy that your administration will leave in getting education to best?
GEORGE WERNER: Looking ahead to the next two years, it would be worth celebrating if we achieved the following:
• Maintaining current gains in access and increasing them with evidence-based learning outcomes. I am hoping that the Ready4Life Program, which targets out of school children, will increase the number of children in school in Liberia;
• Developing a credible, robust education sector plan that is based on sound analysis and includes tertiary and TVET. This will allow us to cost education, from ECD to tertiary, and be more realistic about cost and expected outcomes;
• Providing every public school with text books and learning materials and trained and disciplined teachers and administrators;
• Making sure that the benefits of advances made in technology are found in all public high schools. For example, through LIBTELCO, putting computers in every public high school and using technology to improve teachers’ performance, accountability, M & E, and governance;
• An increased role of the private sector in partnership with government to improve learning outcomes.
• Better school infrastructure, more teachers’ housing, at least 40 newly constructed schools.
• Making sure that all the technical high schools, also called multi-laterals, are resourced, reformed, and rethinking the 3 teacher training institutes to cover early childhood, basic and secondary, and TVET and STEMeducation.
CAPITOL INSIDER: Any last word?
GEORGE WERNER: As always, thank you for the opportunity to address many of the issues raised. I think we are at a place where we can be confident that our education system is no longer a mess. The proof is contained in the gains we have made: more than 1.5 million children in school, more than 26 new high schools constructed and at least 15 new schools being constructed now, at least 15,000 teachers trained in psychosocial counseling skills and pedagogy, school administrators trained with the support of the Peace Corps who are returning with renewed vigor and purpose, the introduction of the B certificate program with the support of the EU. We are tackling challenges related to quality and lifelong learning with measurable outcomes. We know what our responsibilities are as a government, but we also recognize that financing education will require meaningful partnerships. We are set for success, which we know will not come easily.