Too old for school? Tackling Liberia’s overage school problem

30 September 2022

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©Ministry of Education, Republic of Liberia

Early childhood education helps lays the foundation for learning and development for years to come. But what happens when an enrolling student is above the average age? In Liberia, this is a common reality, and there are knock-on effects for the rest of the education system. In fact, 92 percent of all primary school children are too old for their grade.

However, this could change course as Liberia has launched its new Education Sector Plan for the next five years (2022-2027) on its national Flag Day (24 August), with technical support from IIEP-UNESCO. The plan outlines a range of new approaches and strategies to tackle long-standing challenges, like over-age enrolment, which is legacy of Liberia’s civil war years.

“The critical task of this ESP,” writes the President of Liberia George Manneh Weah in the plan’s foreword, “is to bring many more children if not all, especially those from poorer, underserved areas, into the education system at the right age and ensure that they progress through and complete school on time in a healthy, safe, protective environment, and leave with 21st century foundational skills.”

In Liberia’s underserved communities, over two-thirds – or 71 per cent – of students are three years older than the appropriate age for their grade. Often, the problem starts right in the beginning of one’s educational journey. Nearly 40 per cent of children in early childhood education in Liberia are between six and 11 years old. While there are number factors behind this, some parents will delay enrollment until their child can walk themselves to school. Costs are also a major issue, as early childhood education (ECE) is not fee-free.

Older children in the classroom can have a negative impact on learning and can give rise to in-class tensions and security concerns. The overaged learners are also more likely to drop out of school, raising the stakes for efficiency and equitable access to learning.

Tackling longstanding challenges 

The new ESP recognizes the major efforts required to address overaged learners, as well as other challenges, like reaching those who never even enroll in school. The Ministry of Education also makes clear that these ripple effects from civil wars will take more than five years to undo.

However, the architects and partners behind the plan have stressed that the participatory nature of the planning process has set the country up to address these deep-seated challenges with strengthened capacities.

“Having the government on board and in the driver's seat is what defined vision for the future and drive the reflections on where education is - and should be - in Liberia today,” explains Diane Coury, IIEP programme specialist who supported Liberia’s Ministry of Education during the eight-month process.

“The participatory and learning-by-doing approach contributed to a sense of ownership and collaboration among the Ministry officials, and this is what sets the foundation for strong implementation.”

The proposed actions include enforcing the age-appropriate enrollment policy, investing in public ECE, so parents are more inclined to register children at the right age, getting rid of grade repetition in ECE and lower basic levels, diverting older children to accelerated learning programmes, and dramatically scaling up these classes and providing more incentives for their teachers.

According to the plan, leaving this problem unchecked will only make this challenge unsurmountable in the years to come and undermine other progress taking place in the education system. Therefore, the plan seeks to “trigger a long-overdue initial shock to begin the process of eradicating over-age enrollment, starting at the ECE and primary levels, to put the Ministry of Education onto a pathway that will, ultimately, lead to a more rational distribution of children at each level.”

Bold actions to improve learning, address gender violence and climate change  

In this context, the plan outlines bold actions to achieve three overarching goals: to increase equitable access; to improve the quality and relevance of teaching and learning; and to strengthen the efficiency of the system. It also pays particular attention to reducing gender and regional disparities through strategies such as providing gender-responsive water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities and subsidizing private schools in areas not covered by public schools.

For gender specifically, the ESP mainstreams gender throughout all the priority programmes outlined and aligns with the new national girl’s education strategy. This emphasis goes beyond access for girls to include concrete solutions that address violence against girls and women and the overall perception of women in society.

For the first time, the sector plan also includes measures to strengthen the resilience of the education system, so that learning can continue even during difficult times. The growing reality of climate change coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and Liberia’s earlier Ebola outbreak in 2014 revealed the importance of being prepared and having a contingency plan.

In the Greater Monrovia area, rising sea levels could put some 675,000 Liberians at risk. For education, this could be devastating, as the projected 16-centimeter rise could damage schools and could cause high rates of absence among teachers and students.

To respond, the Ministry has proactively included the development of a policy framework on disaster risk reduction and climate-change adaptation and mitigation in the ESP, for the first time. A range of actions for coordinated mitigation and response are also included, so that no matter what is on the horizon, education service delivery can be maintained and accessible to all.

Supporting Liberia with its new Education Sector Plan

As a technical partner in the development of Liberia’s new education sector plan, the support provided included:

  • Technical assistance throughout all phases of the plan development phases of the planning cycle, from the diagnoses of the sector (the education sector analysis) through to the plan development.
  • An approach that ensures that the plan development is government-led and participatory.
  • Capacity development to equip Ministry of Education officials take the lead in a continuous planning cycle. 
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