After 65 percent of senior high school students failed the 2017/2018 West African Senior Secondary Certification Exams and only half of test takers passed the University of Liberia’s latest entrance examinations, the Coalition for Democratic Change government has received a reminder that the education system it has inherited remains messy, as was described by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But this messy system is being propped up by a messy labor sub-sector, especially in the private sector. Despite the increasingly high fees required by mostly private schools, these school owners and administrators have abandoned the welfare of teachers. These professionals, who are responsible for imparting knowledge to students to prepare them for life, remain the lowest paid among the working class of the country.
The government and concession companies have worked to improve teachers’ salaries at their schools. However, many private schools continue to pay teachers little or nothing. Meanwhile, these schools have refused to improve the conditions for teachers. For example, there are often no teachers’ lounges or hospital benefits for private school teachers.
A science instructor at a Monrovia junior high school once told me that his monthly salary is US$53, and he holds an employment contract of 10 months a year. This means he is only paid when school is in session.
This is the case at nearly all private schools in Liberia – schools offer teachers only 10-month contracts during the calendar year. During vacations, these teachers, already on low wages, must look elsewhere to care for their families.
This practice not only undermines the dignity of teachers but also encourages indecent behavior in the sector. Moreover, it violates the Decent Work Act.
The law requires a minimum wage of US$5.50 per day for skilled workers, which would mean at least US$110 monthly for teachers. It also says that “any provision in a contract of employment for the payment of wages less than the rate fixed in a minimum wage order shall be null and void.”
These bad labor practices push qualified teachers away from the classrooms and into more profitable professions. Meanwhile, those still engaged in the teaching field are pressured into illegal activities to care for their families.
We frequently hear of teachers engaging in bribery or collecting unannounced dubious fees for activities that should be bundled within the general school fees. Additionally, many teachers serve multiple schools simultaneously to enable them to generate enough income.
All this results in a degradation of the quality of learning for students. A teacher teaching at multiple schools may not have the time to handle a heavy workload. As a result, that teacher may not develop lesson plans that are well thought out or effective. Moreover, the teacher will be less capable of properly evaluating students. Tests administered by this teacher will most likely be multiple choice, which can be easier to grade but does not provide a rigorous enough test of critical thinking skills.
The teacher, unable to mark all tests alone, will likely involve a much less qualified helper. Assignments and quizzes, which are meant to strengthen the capacity of students, will become less frequent.
In their quest to pay teachers as little as possible, many schools then hire unqualified or untrained teachers to serve as classroom teachers and administrators of schools.
At some institutions, high school graduates without any experience are teaching senior high subjects.
School operation has simply become just a way to generate profit, with little concern for the educational outcomes of students.
But this “messy” education sector does not have to stay this way. In order to improve conditions for teachers, I strongly recommend the following:
- The Ministry of Education should direct all schools, particularly private schools, to abolish the hiring of teachers on a contractual basis and encourage them to give those teachers full employment;
- The Ministry of Education should increase the level of monitoring or inspection of schools to ensure that teachers’ needs are being properly met;
- The Ministry of Education should provide subsidies to private schools to enable them to recruit and employ qualified teaching staff.
- The Ministry of Labour should regularly inspect private schools in the country to ensure that they are in compliance with the Decent Work Act of 2015, particularly as it relates the Minimum Wage and Employment Contracts provisions.
It is my strong conviction that if teachers in private schools are paid decent wages and provided job security by granting them full employment status, it will go a long way in addressing the “messy” education sector.