I should perhaps start with a bit of background. Education in Sierra Leone didn’t really happen for a whole generation of the population, due to the Civil War and then the Ebola crisis. Now, many of those who had their own schooling disrupted are parents themselves, and they are determined to give their children the opportunity to learn that they did not have.
This powerful aspiration is backed by the country’s president Julius Maado Bio and his government, who have made education a top priority. At the heart of the flagship Free Quality School Education programme sits the Leh Wi Lan (Let’s Learn) programme, funded by UK aid, which is focused on improving learning outcomes in secondary schools, especially for girls and students with disabilities.
And a cornerstone of Leh Wi Lan is the provision of handbooks to every junior secondary and senior secondary school student in the country. These lesson companions for maths and English classes are designed to support the curriculum and improve the examination pass rate. The vision of the Ministry for Basic and Senior Secondary Education is that children and parents take ownership of these books, looking after them at home to encourage community engagement in education. The books, which also have Braille versions, are then passed on every year, creating a cascade of learning. From the president to the poorest village people, these books are seen as a tangible symbol of hope.
Accountable for change
Our role at Cambridge Education was to deliver all 2.7 million books to their final destination in a fully transparent and accountable way. That qualifier was the most important part. Sadly, there are too many episodes in development history of containers dumped on the quayside, pallets abandoned in depots or whole dispatches stolen in transit. Our brief was to place the books in the hands of those who would learn from them.
The sheer volume of 2.7 million books needs to be seen to be believed. Getting them through customs was a challenge in itself. Next, we shifted them to the central receiving warehouse, before countless lorry loads transported the books to 14 vast depots, which became their staging post for the journey out to the 16 districts. Maintaining 24-hour security was integral to the success of the programme. This was probably our most vulnerable stage, in terms of upholding full accountability.
The unprecedented size of the load meant we needed to learn fast. For example, we employed and trained large gangs of workers on how to safely stack and then unload vast towers of book cartons. There was no guarantee of the number of books per carton, so the only sure solution was to count all 2.7 million individually by hand. We also had to check every book for printing defects before handing them over in the schools. I can now add deep, practical experience in spreadsheets and document management to my professional resume!
Reliant on local support
The programme for distribution was made easier by the team of 150 Sierra Leonean district and local school support officers, who were fantastic at preparing the route and also readying the schools for the arrival of their books. Their biggest task, however, is yet to come, as they will be responsible for monitoring the use of books and teaching, which is currently at a very low standard. We were also responsible for printing and distributing lesson plan manuals, which are fully aligned with the pupil handbooks. The support officers will help train the teachers on how to use them effectively.
While many of the recipient schools were in densely populated areas such as Freetown, Leh wi Lan’s commitment to every government and government-assisted school in the country meant getting the books to children in even the most remote, rural areas. So, their cartons were transported by a variety of truck, minibus, off-road motorbike, 4x4, ferry, speedboat, dug-out canoe, and eventually carried by hand when the road or river ran out.
This is a beautiful country, with terrain ranging from mountains and island beaches to swampy mangroves and thick jungle. Travel in this humid climate is always dusty and energy-sapping. We made a film of the distribution, following the books to the farthest reaches of the country. Again, this was entirely reliant on the local knowledge and connections of the district support officers and the Sierra Leonean production crew.
Part of the success of this programme was the support and good relations with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education. The President hosted a two-hour book launch in Freetown, with music and entertainment, before regional Ministers held their own celebrations. This gave widespread coverage in all the media: the schools were expecting us.
I won’t miss the spreadsheets, but the logistical challenge was weirdly satisfying. Part of the reason I enjoy this profession is the sheer variety of assignments and there’s something very direct about putting a book into the hands of a child who has never owned one before. A book can spark a revolution, but it takes hard work to see it through.
Having witnessed the positive reaction among pupils, parents and teachers – and the commitment of the government and school officers – I’m really excited to see how the people of Sierra Leone rise to this challenge.