Full Transcript: Min. George Werner’s Interview about Partnership Schools for Liberia

The Bush Chicken interviewed Minister of Education George Werner about his proposed Partnership Schools for Liberia initiative. During the interview, Werner had the opportunity to address some of the top critiques about his program. Below is a transcript.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I just want to give you the chance to talk about how this public-private partnership fits into your overall educational policy you have for the country.

Thank you, Bush Chicken for the invitation. Look, we do have a huge problem. Over the past nine years or so, we have done our very best to reset the entire education sector – to point it in the right direction. And that means investing in early childhood education, investing in primary education – in fact, making early childhood and primary education free and legislating that.

But, despite our best efforts, training teachers, building new schools, renovating schools, we still have a challenge. We cannot explain the investment that has been made, in terms of quality in the classroom and the learning outcomes. So when you counterbalance everything, checking Liberia against its regional counterparts, you find that Liberia is still lacking behind.

And if we went by the status quo to continue doing what we have been doing, it will take decades for Liberia to catch up. So we’re looking at ways that will not compromise the principles – free education, government oversight, and regulations, community ownership, the involvement of parents and school boards – we’re not compromising these.

But there are things that the private sector does very well – management systems, accountable systems – we should leverage this to improve learning outcomes in an accelerated way. This is the context of the Partnership Schools for Liberia initiative.

What is the ultimate goal of this program?

We do have a pilot, and it should start in September, and as I said earlier, the government has a responsibility that it is not neglecting. The pilot will run for one year, and it will be independently evaluated.

The results of the evaluation will point us in the direction as to whether or not we want to scale or leave the system as it is. What I do know from having studied other systems that had similar interventions from the US to East Africa and… [inaudible] …is that there’s been very good results.

In certain counties or places, it’s been mixed, and those are mainly about management, not so much about the program itself. But in New Orleans, for example, it’s an improvement in student learning outcomes. In East Africa, similarly, under Bridge International Academies, there’s been improvements in students’ learning outcomes.

What we’re doing in Liberia is unique. It is not a privatization. The government will continue to own the schools. The teachers will be paid by the government. There will be no fees charged. In fact, uniforms will be cheaper than they are now. The idea is to produce low-cost but quality education. And that’s what we’re experimenting with.

If it goes well, we will for the first time be able to know, for example, how much you pay per student per year – not just for the secondary school but we want to eventually see how much do we need per student per year at the tertiary level, to cost university education the way we should.

So there are lots of things we’re looking at in this pilot program, and if everything comes together the way we want to, it will help us with program budgeting in the Liberian government budget.

Something you mentioned and I just want to clear this out because there have been lots of articles where they have said, this is not going to be free. It’s going to be US$6 a month to parents. Can you just clarify, besides uniforms, are there other expenses that parents will be expected to pay for their children. And if so, how is that different from what they have to pay right now at other public schools?

So this pilot – all 20,000 students in this pilot – is free education. As I said earlier, Liberia, under this president, legislated that into law. So it’s free! And the pilot is targeting early childhood to grade six. That’s our investment because we believe starting at that level, you will build a new group of Liberian students, who by the time, let’s say if the pilot is killed, they get to the 9th-grade level, they can read and write with critical understanding.

So this is free. The pilot is free. The money is coming from private philanthropy; the government will not pay a cent, except government will take care of infrastructure and teacher payments. Those are already covered in our budget, so there’s no new payment from the government.

What were the criteria and process used to decide to go with this method, first of all, and then with Bridge International Academies?

So, two things in response to that – both the president and I went to East Africa. I went first, and I went to Uganda, and I went to Nairobi, just to look at what Bridge was doing, and I was awed by what I saw. I myself, having been a classroom teacher for a number of years – at least ten years across Africa: Kenya itself, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana. So I have a good sense of what classroom organization and teaching should look like.

So I saw what Bridge is doing there, and I came back and did a report for the president. She read my report. And while she was visiting her counterpart in Kenya, we decided to take time out to go see. I brought her to see for herself, and she focused her assessment on parents and their stories, on the students and their stories.

And then she said to me, “Talk to your Kenyan counterpart to get their own views about this program.” So I met my counterpart in Nairobi, and he had two concerns, all of them based on standards – standards for teacher education, and the curriculum standards. He believed that Bridge was using high school graduates – it’s a primary school – smart high school graduates and giving them training and then giving them tablets.

The traditional model is to send teachers to universities for degrees and for everything. But my question was if you believe that they’re not following your standards, how is it that their students are outperforming yours? How is it that the poor parents in the slum areas are spending 6-7 dollars a month just to send their kids to school in the Bridge Academy? And they couldn’t answer these questions. And by the way, those who talk about the $6, it’s currently what Bridge charges in Kenya per pupil per month. In Liberia, they will not charge. And even in the agreement, Bridge will not open private schools in Liberia.

Was there a process to invite other companies to compete?

We saw this model and around Christmas and New Year, I started reflecting. And I have a vast network introduced to me by the president, of course, of private donors and philanthropists and foundations, so I wrote all of them. I said, “Listen, I’m inviting all of you to a stakeholder meeting. Stakeholders within Liberia and those outside.” I said, “Come to Liberia, let’s talk about a partnership that we want to forge. Bridge is the provider that we currently know, but we’re open to ideas.”

So at the Bella Casa Hotel, I think on the 24th and 25th of January, there were close to 100 people, donors, everybody gathered from within and from without. People flew here to talk about the idea because it was unique and for two days, we deliberated and out of that came a concern that people wanted competition. They wanted to get involved. So we said, I am not going to abandon Bridge – I believe in my heart that it is only Bridge that does what it does very well. There may be other providers, and I’ve come to know about BRAC, about Aga Khan, about others and they’re welcome to compete but Bridge, I signed with Bridge 50 schools.

So there is another group out of the UK called Ark. Ark said we can help you to really raise funds for the other competitors. Call them local providers. Local doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily Liberian. They may be an NGO operating within Liberia. So you have Streetchild for example, that has schools in Sierra Leone, but none in Liberia but wants to get in. So we’ve had multiple meetings with these people. Last I checked, there were about 40-50 of them in the room at Bella Casa, looking at what the landscape would look like.

At the moment, we’re just about finalizing the criteria, both for the site selection for the schools, and the criteria for who would become a provider – how do you choose the provider? I just sent a letter to the Minister of Finance as part of the procurement process, indicating to the minister that we’re about to put out an expression of interest in the papers.

But to do that, I need a confirmation that the government will meet with its side of the bargain – pay the teachers and maintain the schools that will be selected. All of this is in the budget, but we need to put this in writing in order for the Public Procurement Commission to say yes, you’re free to go ahead.

Is the agreement with Bridge being conducted as a Concession agreement? Which law or policy of the Liberian government allows you to be able to enter such MOU?

No, it’s just an MOU. The Act creating the Ministry of Education gives the minister the authority to establish partnerships. We do that all the time with our partners in the field, whether you’re talking about UNICEF or USAID, we’re always forming partnerships with them.

Are you not paying Bridge Anything?

No. If Jeff loves Bridge, Jeff is telling me, look, George, I like your message, and I like your vision for education in Liberia, but I’m not throwing money at the status quo. I want you to pilot this in your own way. I will give Bridge the money directly for the pilot. So there is not one cent coming to the Government of Liberia. Those who believe in the Bridge model as helping to accelerate learning outcomes will give the money directly to Bridge. That’s how it works.

So who are these people who are giving the money? I know that the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and the World Bank through IFC are investors in Bridge.

I have not spoken to any of those people or institutions mentioned. I have not spoken to the World Bank, in terms of funding this. I have not spoken to Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates about this yet. But I am connected to other foundations. One of them published recently so I can talk about it – Mulago – and I was in San Francisco, actually to meet them. There is the Vito foundation out of the UK. And there are others coming in. There’s ELMA – there are the various groups coming in.

Between now and September, I must work very hard to raise the $10 million plus or so required to fund the pilot. At the moment, we’re pretty much about halfway there, which allows companies like Bridge to come in and do the research and development.

One of the other things about this is to have a very thorough, comprehensive monitoring and evaluation mechanism. And it has to be independently done. I am thinking I should approach the Brookings Institution. There’s a lady there that I like working with a lot – Rebecca Winthrop. She knows Liberia well; she’s worked in Liberia before. Now she heads Brookings Education.

There is Georgetown University, there’s Harvard, there’s Oxford. I know there are various interests from the development partners in terms of funding the monitoring and evaluation because we need to know.

What Liberia is doing here and the reason it’s taking everybody by some kind of surprise and the world by storm is because it’s unique. If it works here, I have a firm belief that you’ll hear about it in Sierra Leone. You’ll hear about it in other countries. So many people are watching to see what we’ll do here, and I do believe that we have a huge problem.

This is just a pilot, and the noise is good if it is a conversation that is substantive. But if it is to just talk and not do anything about the big problem, I would rather do something than just sit here.

Just to expand on something you said earlier – you’re working to raise the $10 million. If this is something that the Ministry of Education would spend on teachers and on schools anyway, I’m curious why do you have to raise this amount?

Look, you notice that I never mentioned USAID. USAID’s budget for education is very substantial in Liberia. A very substantial investment. The same is true for the EU. The EU has 12 million euros to target out of school children in the southeast. They also have 20 million euros for TVET, technical and vocational education.

And then you’re bringing in UNICEF, the World Bank, and other UN systems and what they give. They’re not committing to this pilot. And I’m not asking them to commit to this pilot. I’m just asking them to be open-minded. So that the result of the pilot will communicate something to all of us. So they’re not giving money to the pilot. Therefore, their money is directed at the status quo. Because I want this very much, to prove a point that I believe in, I have to find the money for it, outside of that system. Both the government and the traditional donor system.

I’m now curious, what’s the percentage of the Ministry of Education’s budget, especially for schools and teachers, that’s funded by USAID, EU, and these organizations that may not necessarily be supporting this project.

I don’t know the percentage and can’t give it to you right now.

Do you have any range?

Let me give you an idea. The national budget for the Ministry of education, not for the educational sector, is currently around $42 million. Of that $42 million, between $35-38 million is just salaries. You see what I’m talking about? It’s just salaries. So you don’t have any money left to train your teachers and do all the things you want to do – school infrastructure – there’s nothing left. So much of the sector still relies on donors. So let’s say – I’m just saying hypothetically – USAID has $80 million, that’s almost twice for the national budget for education. Let’s say EU has 32 million euros. That’s almost the national budget for education.

So what the donors do and contribute is very substantial. At the moment, we have a very intense conversation with the donors because we want to see their interventions more clearly aligned with the ministry’s priorities. And so there’s that back and forth. And the conversation is positive – I hope – it’s going the right direction. Because at the end of my time here, however, long or short that time is, I want to be able to explain the impact of the investment, both from the government and from the donor community.

So you’re going to find this $10 million somewhere. If you can find this for this project, that’s only going to impact 50 schools for now

At least 70 schools. Bridge will have 50 and others; they’ll have more.

Why not channel that money toward other efforts, like your effort to get the ghost employees cleaned out?

That’s already funded, Jeff. And it’s funded through another philanthropy. It’s about a million dollars to clean the payroll. USAID started that and did a substantive job. You know Montserrado, Bong, and Nimba were verified. We called it the verification exercise. We biometrically enrolled teachers, and we found that over 2,500 never showed up. So we’re deleting them off the payroll – call them ghosts.

So within the ministry, we’re setting up a project implementation unit, and it’s also funded by the private philanthropy. We recruited through a merit-based project. There’ll be a project manager and an accounts person, and that’s a million dollars. That funder said, looking at our priorities, look, I’m not putting my money in your little experiment, but I’m giving it to the reform of the workforce, beginning with the verification exercise.

Then also, you have the three teacher training institutes. There’s Zorzor, there’s Kakata, and there’s Webbo. We’re partnering with UNESCO to computerize all of them so that all teachers going through those institutions will become trained in technologies and other things. So that they can take this back to the classroom. So there are various partnerships, other efforts that are on-going.

If the USAID project, for example, works, we will set up an accreditation center within the ministry that will be able to give licenses to all schools that operate within the land. If it works in the school in which the programs will be targeted, we will train all of the teachers in those schools. So these are programs that are tracking the traditional way we’ve been doing it.

What I do believe is this. There is no way the public sector can do it alone. The government cannot do it alone. You must leverage the best technology available. And as you know, Liberia is last in many ways. But because we’re last, we can be first. And we’re being first by first changing the content of the conversation about education, not just in Liberia, but universally. That’s my goal. Let’s rethink education, not just in Liberia, but universally.

There’s a school that’s afraid of the private sector because they believe the private sector’s motive is profit. I don’t believe that. Yes, somebody must make a little bit of money, but we don’t just educate Jeff to work in the public sector. We educate a majority of our children to work in the private sector. So the private sector must have a stake in how we educate.

This overall program is generally more expensive per student than what we have right now, right?

Or more accurate.

Call it accurate, but it’s also more expensive, right?

Yes, but it’s also more accurate, Jeff. If you consider, right now, our regional counterparts are spending at least $100 per student per year. Liberia is spending around $40. So in this pilot, we have calculated the amount that should actually be spent per pupil per year, so that you get everything you need to get in the classroom to improve quality. That’s the idea. So that makes it more expensive, but it makes it more realistic in terms of where Liberia should be to meet others in the sub-region.

Once we have this in place – donors like to go to what’s sexy – how can we keep funding something like this that’s clearly a lot more expensive than the model we have right now? And I understand that the model is not working, but it’s something we have to acknowledge.

If the model works, and parents want it, and communities want it, the government will need to find a way to fund it. There are various suggestions on the table. You can do it through taxes. I suggest, as others have, tax alcohol, tax tobacco, and tax gambling, and create an education trust fund out of that. That’s one way.

The other way, if you continue with the status quo, is to incrementally give three percent of the national budget to education over, say five years. You could fund this. So while on surface viewing, it looks expensive, it actually accurately predicts what your spending limits should be if you want to improve quality in your schools. In fact, there are international requirements that you must spend x percentage of your budget on education. At the moment, Liberia is woefully behind that, and that may cause us to lose even grants, internationally.

Which international requirement is that?

For example, the Global Partnership for Education requires Liberia to spend 45% of the education budget on primary education. And right now, they’re not. And so we are supposed to apply for a grant of almost $12 million. It’s a major requirement. I sit on the board, and I was one of those who made the decision to deny Congo-Brazzaville that because the government sought to spend more on sports than on education. So, my government may face that same kind of challenge too.

I read the MOU, and one thing I noted is that classroom sizes are going to be between 40-50 students, even for early childhood education classes. That’s something that experts in that field don’t agree with because younger children need more attention, and sometimes they need a little bit of individualized attention. What’s your response to that?

That stipulation within the MOU has some flexibility. But we wanted to make sure that across the country, as you saw, the ratio of pupil to teachers in many places is 75:1 or 100:1. So we want to, in a gradual way, reduce the class sizes to a level where the number is more manageable by the teacher. So that range you’ve been given is a flexible range within which the provider can work.

This 75:1 – that’s not an average, right?

That’s not an average but in many parts of the country, we have enrollment to that level.

What would you consider the average to be? Just a general estimate?

So that’s what we just gave you, the 50. It should be around there. The primary schools are filled to capacity, and they’re overflowing, in fact. Look, in the schools in which I’ve worked, and when I taught in Liberia, my classroom size was around that. St. Michael’s Catholic High School and Sister Shirley Kolmer Memorial Catholic School in Bardnesville. In South Africa, when I taught, it was at most 25. It was an elite, well-established school. In the US, it was 35 to 40 at a catholic school. So, I don’t know when we’ll get to those numbers – 25 and 35. We need to build more schools, we need to train more teachers, we need to provide more incentives for teachers. And until we do those things, our numbers, in terms of students to teacher ratio will continue to be very high.

Speaking of teachers, I noticed that the teachers’ association, they seem to not be supporting a lot of your initiatives. This PPP initiative, in addition to the testing. So I just want to ask you, as a human being, what are some of the challenges you face in doing your job and trying to get from ‘mess to best?’ What are some of the pushbacks from, not necessarily only the teachers but other aspects of society? What type of challenges do you face?

When I came to public service a little over five years ago, I was pretty naïve. I was in the background, doing things technical and my boss took political cover of me. Even up to the president. And then, at some point, the president decided to take me out the shadow, to make me an institutional head.

By then, my technical hat was thrown out of the window because now, I’m managing a political institution that came about through political ideology, say the legislature and everybody. So I think now, I am more realistic about public sectors reforms. I know the inherent dangers and in fact, my life has been threatened to the degree that government had to provide security because I wrote to everybody – the US and everybody.

We’re proud of what we have done, in terms of public sector reforms. I’ve worked with the National Teachers Association of Liberia to reform pay, to the degree now that you don’t see them holding placards in from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and at the Civil Service Agency. There was a time, not too long ago, when many teachers were coming from the counties to Monrovia to take their pay. Right now, they all enjoy direct deposit, mainly in the counties. There are still challenges there. Some of the banks don’t work, and all of those things. We still have to resolve them and also talking to my counterparts, my colleagues, to see where they have concerns with insurance issues, all of those issues, to resolve them. So we have by and by a good relationship.

What is happening in education is very interesting. On the one hand, you know, Jeff, teachers’ unions exist to improve their own welfare, and that’s good. Many teachers have come out of poverty because of that, and we do want that to continue. On the other hand, there will be disagreement about quality in the classroom.

My vision of teaching in Liberia is that it becomes licensed – that you hold teachers accountable for the profession they have, and to be proud of themselves in delivering and forming the minds and hearts of future leaders of this country. To do that, we must start with testing where they are, to gauge their learning needs. I can’t train anybody without knowing where they are – baselines. So the tests are to establish a baseline and to determine training needs.

The second part and the pain for them is we’re cleaning the payroll, and there are some quite frankly who are ghosts on the payroll, and particularly within the leadership of the teachers’ union. And so if you feel that for a long time you’ve enjoyed this sense of government not holding you accountable and now there’s a system being put in place to hold you accountable, you have every reason to fight that system.

But there’s another element to it. The teachers’ unions across this world are united, pretty much. And they have a parent company called Education International. It’s housed in Brussels. Before this initiative was launched, they sent a team here to educate their counterparts on how to oppose it. They don’t see eye-to-eye with Bridge International Academies. You know why? In Bridge schools, there are no teachers’ unions. No teachers’ unions in Bridge Schools in East Africa.

But that’s illegal in Liberia, per the new labor law.

Yes, that’s one of the differences that they’re not seeing. That we’re different in Liberia. But Bridge operates as a private provider in Kenya. And one of the paralyzing element of providing education in East and Southern Africa is the teachers’ union. When they go on strike for their own pay, nothing happens in the classrooms. While that happens, the students in Bridge International Academies – their learning goes on. The teachers stay there. So that’s one of the disagreements that is antagonizing them about Bridge.

You talked about teachers but are there other challenges you face in doing your job besides teachers?

Look, as I said, I am relatively new. Five years isn’t a long time in public service, and one of the surprising things to a lot of people is how fast I came up the ladder, to be where I am, in part, due to the president’s confidence, which I am thankful for. That means that there are many things I still need to learn.

The other challenge is sometimes I don’t speak like a politician. So, I need to, for example, improve my relationship with the legislature. Because, with the legislature, you have to continue to massage their views and their needs, to the degree possible allowed by the law. Help them to communicate well with their constituencies.

I don’t think I’m able to do that yet, and I think that is a constant source of tension between them and myself. So I have hired a legislative liaison to help me, which is the position Mr. Sam Bondo was in before he become County Education Officer of River Cess County. So we just hired a legislative liaison, a former legislator, to help improve that relationship.

Generally, I like my job. I come from a background where I’ve always wanted to see change. I’ve never been happy with the status quo. I am an institutional rebel, and I have a cause. My goal, as long as I’m here, is that the child somewhere, wherever – upcountry, in the village – has as much access to quality education as does a child in Monrovia. And that requires a lot of thinking, a lot of courage, to be able to challenge what Monrovians believe is rightly theirs. To bring it to the countryside, so to speak, and let others enjoy it as they do.

Featured photo by Amelia Bangura

Jefferson is a co-founder of The Bush Chicken. He has a Masters in Transportation Infrastructure and Systems Engineering and previously worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, DC.

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