Primary school years
By the age of six, young children have put behind them the years of greatest vulnerability to disease, and have reached the stage in life when they are keen to learn and to play with some degree of independence from parents. In Liberia, like many developing nations, it is also the age when children begin to help with household chores, such as fetching water, and to assist with light farm work, such as scaring birds away from newly planted seeds.
The range of ages at which Liberian children enter primary school makes it hard to look at primary education for the age-group (6-11) for which the six grades of primary schooling are intended. A large majority of six year old Liberian children who should be entering grade one of primary school are still in pre-school education (rather than at the intended age of two or three).
The 2010/2011 National School Census reported a Net Enrolment Rate (NER) for primary education at 44% (46% for boys and 42% for girls) and Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) at was 111%. There are ‘children’ aged over 20 still in primary school, even in Grade 1. This shows a huge hunger for education, a hunger not being satisfied.
During the 14-year civil conflict which ended in 2003, 80% of schools were destroyed or damaged; many had roofs, furniture and supplies looted. Since government investment in basic education outside the capital city was low before the war, and despite a brief window of reconstructive effort between 1999-2000, further conflict and the operational cessation of the Ministry of Education left schooling in a parlous condition. A rapid assessment in 2004 showed that only 24% of children in public primary school had desks or benches and that there were 27 children to each book.
There is no question that education is wanted, even demanded, by Liberian parents on behalf of their children. However, many parents are not in a position to provide a conducive physical and psycho-social environment for the children to learn.
There are no lights or desks at home where children can study and do their homework, and few parents have experience of education that they can share. This can be worse for those living with peers or in other households. Children can be put under pressure once their guardians realise that their priorities are changing and children in school have less time to work on the farms and contribute to household income.
But the problem of extremely low quality schooling – schools not able to teach students enough to reach Grade 4 – is ultimately more significant. Of those teaching in primary schools, only 40% are trained, and many also have to teach at pre-primary and at high school levels. Of all primary teachers, trained and untrained, only 12% are female.
Children aged between 6-11 and regarded as ‘working’ by the Liberian Labour Force Survey were mostly at the sides of their farmer, forester and fisher parents, and there were more children in this age-group doing this kind of work, paid and unpaid, than in older age-groups. This work is regarded in Liberia as permissible even for young children as long as they do not absent themselves from school to undertake it.
But that is not always the case because over a quarter of a million 6 to 11 year old children have never been to school as per the UNESCO and UNICEF Out-of-School Study of 2011.