By Sonkarley Tiatun Beaie
The decision regarding the “First Day of School” is crucial, and practically has numerous implications on a society. Generally, “it is the first day when a school opens after the summer vacation, but varies in different areas around the world because of the differences in weather, climate, season, and culture “ . (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_day_of_school)
The first day of school was earlier set for Liberia from late February or early March to December with a mid-year break from mid July to early August, but the calendar was changed to coincide with other countries in the world during the course of the prolonged civil war in Liberia. This had prompted argument and debates among many Liberians home and abroad as to the fundamental reasons for which the system was adopted in Liberia, incompatible to other countries, particularly in south Saharan Africa. The main objectives of this article are:
JUSTIFICATION OF THE CHANGE
Three main reasons prompted the Liberia’s Ministry of Education to recommend change in the early March to December school calendar to September to June. These include:
Earlier, Liberia had accreditation system in which national exams were administered to grades 6, 9 and 12 by an independent national examination body known as the National Examination Council. Within the course of times this national body was changed and replaced with a regional governing council called “West Africa Examination Council” (WAEC). One main reason was to enable Liberia to benefit from the membership of the regional grouping in West Africa, but a key requirement for such merger was a change in the school calendar from the beginning of the year to from September to June of the succeeding year practiced in the other member states.
Avoidance of Bad Weather Condition
Another reason cited by the Ministry of Education during the period of the civil war was bad weather, where it was mentioned that the September entry schedule would avoid the peak of the raining season, which seemed to pose severe hardship on students.
Other reason was international comparability which was earlier introduced in Liberia but shortly rejected by the public. According to the then Liberia’s Secretary of Education John Payne Mitchell, said, “The school year had been changed to coincide with that of most countries in Europe and America; the transitional period planned for the beginning year to consist of three semester of school work after which would follow the normal two-semester year beginning in September of one year and ending in June of the succeeding year” . This was approved and passed into hand bill, but was shortly rejected by the public, and in his following report to the National Legislature in 1963, he said, “We felt that the school year which had been introduced in Liberia was not suitable to the national interest. We therefore recommended to the President that the school year return to the original as we felt this is in the interest of the Liberian education” .
REASONS FOR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL IN EUROPE
One major reason responsible for school opening calendar in Europe was their country’s position on the globe. In an article, “First Day of School”, it is written: “The first day of school is the first day a school opens after the summer vacation. It varies in different areas around the world because of the differences in weather, climate, season, and culture, but the normal pattern is for school to begin in late August or early September in the northern hemisphere and in late January or early February in Southern Hemisphere ”.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_day_of_school )
Countries in northern hemisphere are generally during winter, and because of the freezing temperature, labor force participation rates in winter were low in the past. The highest peak of production of goods and services were in summer. Many concessions and individuals often halted their productions to service their working equipments or reduced production quota to fully resume operation after the worst winter season. These patterns of productions are still observed in Europe today, although advances in science and technology had reduced the large gap which existed between the two seasons in the past.
Practically, studying the mode of production of goods and services, the earlier European education planners decided to have major vacation period in summer. This was somehow intended to provide the children with good atmosphere for recreational facilities, as well as enhance the older students the opportunities to work during vacation or find some form of income generating activities in agricultural plantations or family’s enterprises that could enable them supplement the costs of their education.
Also, before the resumption of classes, which proceeded harvest time, the parents were presumed to have earned enough incomes either from the sales of their agricultural products or other sources of employment, apparently to meet the school requirements for their children. For example, according to David Swift , “women were often employed to teach in summer because only younger children attended during the early times in the United States, and during the winter term, when grown boys came in from the fields, it was the practice to hire men”.
COLONIAL IMPRINT ON FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
The uniform schedule of first day in school in many developing countries today was imposed on them by their respective European colonial masters. Some documented evidences are the scramble for Africa, during which era Africa was partitioned by European countries at the Berlin Conference. They then introduced their own style of administration in the respective controlled territories, thus marking the hallmarks of what had now become the cultural and political features in Africa.
The French, for instance, adopted a policy of assimilation , by which they hoped to turn the Africans into Frenchmen. The French leaders hoped that one day all of her colonial subjects would regard themselves as living in “Greater France”, and would look toward Paris as their own cultural center and capital. In order to successfully implement their policies in Africa, they designed what Walter Rodney called, “educational pyramid” . Within this pyramid system, the highest standard of school which offered degrees was built in Brazzaville, Congo. Students were selected in stages based on their scholastic performance from as far away the rest of the colonies in Africa to obtain their higher degrees there. Honor students from the village schools were transferred to the next higher schools in the city, until in that progressive sequence, they finally ended up in Brazzaville or Paris for higher degree programmes.
Consequently, the French designed identical school curriculum for the entire colonies and generally had the academic calendar similar to theirs and ran beginning September to June of the following year, with the intention that students completing certain grade level from one colony, can be transferred to another without hindrance the learning process.
Similarly, the British had identical form of academic programmes in their colonies. For instance, in 1827, the Fourah Bay College was founded by the Anglican Missionary School (Church Missionary Society) in Sierra Leone. Almost after 100 years, it was the only college in British governed West Africa which offered degrees. Students came to study at Fourah Bay from as far away as Nigeria and Ghana. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourah_Bay_College)
As a result, the European style of first day of school was adapted nearly in the entire world, because at that time, “the sun could not set on the British Empire” . Therefore, unlike Liberia, the decision of the first day of school was not based on planning and careful study, i.e., considering differences in weather, climate, season, and culture nor even based on their geographic positions on the globe (i.e., whether in northern hemisphere or Southern Hemisphere), and the mode of economic productions in the colonized territories. It was rather an imprint of European colonization, politically designed to govern in their controlled colonies.
INTENTION OF FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL IN LIBERIA
Liberia was not colonized but has closed link with the United States of America during the early stage of its formation. As such, many decisions regarding the administration of the State were not, therefore, subjected to compulsory European influence. In the case of the first day of school, the early education planners followed the general worldwide pattern, where Liberia’s location on the Southern Hemisphere was primarily considered; in addition to Liberia’s culture and traditional differences. Hence, the decision was based on the following reasons:
Similarity of First Day of School
The summer time in the United States is somehow equated to the dry season in Liberia, the season where the American free slaves who came had long cherished as a peak for their economic viability. Being people from relatively low income group in America at the time, this season afforded them the opportunities to work and prepare their children for school. Besides, the annual vacation period in the United States was summer, and adapting dry season as vacation in the new environment, would significantly yielded to similar purpose of vacation, when they were in the United States.
The earlier founders of the educational system in Liberia were Christian Missionaries, who aims and objectives were designed to train up the children in the way they should go, inspire them with the love of honorable fame and lofty philanthropy, and to form strong within them love and principle of humanity, virtue and religion . To achieve these aims, the early missionaries established tutorial classes in their homes, and later reorganized the system, which finally became the functional schools for Liberia. The foundation of the school flourished in all parts of Liberia, which later became the model of the Liberia school system. Therefore, until years after independence, the education of the Liberian children was heavily the responsibility of the Christian Missionaries. To promote their Christian doctrine and also enable the students to happily celebrate the holiday seasons with their parents, they planned the major vacation period to coincide with Christmas and New Year, which are two important holidays for Christians.
Prior to the arrival of the freed slaves, the indigenous Liberians were functionally illiterate people and resided in satellite villages and towns. The proportion illiterate comprises the overwhelming number of the population even up to date, and large number still believe in the cultural practices of initiation of boys and girls in informal bush schools referred to as poro and sande.
The poro and sande are designed to instill the cultural practices and norms into boys and girls. The initiation is carried out mainly during the dry season and the new members are expected to remain in the society’s compound between two to three months or more depending on the nature of the traditional rituals. In order not to disrupt this traditional institution or maintain the system, so that they run somehow parallel with the formal school system, educational planners culturally prepared the school calendar including the dry season into the annual vacation period, which marks the peak of the bush school activities.
Maintaining some of the traditional practices was among the governing policies adapted by some former Liberian Presidents. For instance, in a speech delivered by President Stephen A. Benson, he said, “if we look at the aborigines of this land, and carefully study their organizations and method of government, we cannot avoid discovering incontrovertible proof of their possessing elements of a great nation” .
Mode of Economic Production
The peak of Liberia’s economic production is the dry season, where the weather conditions are quite favorable and allows people to move out without any requirement for weather protection. This season gradually starts from late September to June of the following year, and marked by increased activities of planting and harvesting of crops. Besides, the wild forest trees including the oil palm, walnut, etc. are reaped and feasting, and the levels of rivers and creeks are reduced significantly, thereby boasting the opportunities for small scale fishing industry in the countryside.
Apart from cultivation of crops, in recent times, the concession companies, such like the logging, rubber, building and constructions, mining and quarry industries, private and public business firms, etc., operate on a full scale during the dry season. As such, any ambitious person was more likely to gain minimum income by taking the advantage of the dry season’s fruitions. Economic wise, the education planners fixed the annual vacation to coincide with the maximum period of production to easily enable parents to fine livelihood to meet the demands for school requirements before the resumption of each academic year.
Self-Sufficiency in Food Production
The production of basic food commodities in Liberia is not mechanized. The unpaid family workers, who generally practice the bush-fallow system of agriculture, dominate the industry. The success of this farming method largely depends on the weather conditions; and besides involves the participation of the entire household members including the children and the elderly.
The main school-going age group, 5-24 years of Liberia was reported to be 47.2 percent (1,642,216) of the total population . (http://www.lr.undp.org/Documents/PDF/Statistical_Bulletin.pdf)
This percentage excludes some grown-up children who are above this age range, but are found in large numbers within the school system. Therefore, if Liberia manages to successfully have all the children in this broad age group in school, having annual vacation during the peak of the farming season will definitely means the exclusion of a significant proportion of the population from farming. And this would subsequently affect the sustainability of self-sufficiency in food production.
In the past and even up to date, members of the Liberia National Legislature were given agricultural break during the beginning of the regular farming season, as well as the judiciary and the interior court system. All these were done to allow these stakeholders the opportunity to return home and farm, and also enable ordinary citizens to concentrate their full attention on farming, apparently to ensure self-sufficiency in food production.
6.0 THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE CHANGE
Bad weather is not only an obstacle for school, but impediment for our entire social and economic lives. During the rainy season in Liberia, basic food commodities are scarce, particularly in the countryside, absentee rates even at work places and school are high, and generally living conditions can become difficult for ordinary people due to lack of jobs. Nevertheless, the advantages of having school in the rainy season overshadow the negative impact. This section examines the implications of the change as follow:
Increase in city theft and armed robbery.
6.1 None Prediction of Global Warming
The prediction of global warming, where climate change had caused the rainy season in Liberia sometimes to prolong beyond October, was seemed not to have been considered in the decision to change the school calendar.
First, within the old system, experiences show that bad weather in Liberia was manageable up to July, and second semester, which commences early August, the peak of the wet season, was seen as a new phase in the academic calendar; as such, school requirement was only limited to rain outfits. Secondly, since annual vacation was set at the peak of the economic production, there were more opportunities for parents to earn income and settle their children’s school requirements, such as uniforms, tuitions and fees before the commencement of the school year.
On the contrary, the September first day of school is set at the peak of the rainy season, and therefore, imperative that all requirements, including rain outfits be in place from the onset of the academic year. Students unable to meet these requirements wait to enroll during the second semester or manage one way or the other to enroll after the Christmas and New Year break. As such, there are variations in the enrolment of students. Thus, the discrepancies in the coverage of the curriculum content at individual level, among other factors, are presently resulting to poor academic performances of our children.
These conditions outlined may be the major contributing factor for the mass failure at the University of Liberia entrance exams this year, rather than “students taking short cuts to education if they, as future leaders, must succeed in environments that require academic excellence” as alleged by the UL authority.
The change in the first day of school came into effect in September, 2002, and after eleven years in existence; the majority of the students who sat the UL entrance exam were cohort of students who were in first grade when the law was enacted. These are students who were squarely affected by the discrepancies in the school entry season as outlined in the previous section.
The mass failure could be considered as a major test, that though unintended, it evaluated the change in the first day of school. As such, the results could be used as a proxy to examine the entire educational system rather than blasting solely on the students.
6.2 Shortages of Local Food Products
As mentioned previously, the production of Liberia’s local food products is not mechanized; nevertheless, it provides approximately 75 percent of the feeding needs. For example, the green vegetables, local rice, eddoes, plantains, cassava, livestock, cattle, protein source such as fish, etc., are mostly produced by our traditional farmers. Participants in the production include the entire household members, which comprises the children and the elderly people. Consequently, having school during the beginning of the farming season, would mean, an exclusion of the student population.
The followings are likely seen as possible envisaged negative implications:
6.3 Exclusion of Grown-Up Students and Former Child Fighters
The civil war in Liberia started on December 24, 1989, and had series of failed ceasefires until August, 2003, when the hostility finally ended after President Charles Taylor agreed and resigned and went into exile. The length of time the war lasted added additional years to its survivors. For example, babies born during the onset of the war were nearly fourteen years by the time the war ended, and in that sequence, those who reached five years, the official age for school enrollment, were nineteen years, etc. Except for children who fled along with their parents into exile, and those in urban cities, particularly Monrovia, there was no school for the rest of the country.
On the other hand, there were thousands child soldiers found at war fronts in various factions, in which UNICEF report indicated that approximately 21 percent (4,306) of the combatants disarmed under the provisions of the Abuja Peace Accords to be child soldiers under the age of 17 years . Many of the people surviving the war were at one time or another victim of torture, intimidation and atrocities by fighters, some of whom were child soldiers. Parental care and control had eroded significantly for such children; unless international organizations or government take the full responsibility for their education, many wishing to attend school would have to bear their own education costs.
The report also noted that, “many youths remained traumatized, and some still were addicted to drugs and the number of street children in Monrovia, and abandoned infants increased significantly following disarmament”. In summary, the report concluded, “Although pressured by the government to cease their programs, international NGOs and UNICEF continued retraining and rehabilitation programs for a limited number of former child fighters. These children were vulnerable to being recruited in sub-regional conflicts, since most had no other means of support” . Apart from this, Kofi Annan” said in a report to the Security Council that, “adult combatants who were trying to attend schools have been expelled due to a failure of the disarmament commission to pay their school fees, while another relief organization said, "We are able to break the chains of command when the children go home, but they are not going home. They are staying in Monrovia because there they can engage in petty trade” .
These findings significantly show that direct support to the grown-up or aging children and the vulnerable former child soldiers can surface only with little success. Indirect approach, such as, improvement in the rural based agriculture programmes, support to petty trade, etc., that may provide sources for self-employment, would have greater impact. These activities may engage the grown-up students voluntarily in meaningful integration programmes to help in financing the costs of education. The September entry calendar would jeopardize the initiatives, because the dry season’s fruitions are necessary to support such indirect method.
6.4 Achievement of Universal Primary Education
The number of Liberian adults, 15 years old and above, that cannot read and write or in other word, illiterate, is estimated at about 70 percent. Majority of these people live below poverty line in small rural villages and towns on subsistent farming, and some in overcrowded urban households depending on petty trading as their mean source of livelihood.
In the rural areas, most of the parents engage their children on the farm as cheap laborers, while those in the urban and semi-urban towns, visa-vi utilize their children in petty trading, particularly during the vacation period. The introduction of a school calendar, which contravenes the beginning of the farming and the petty trade booming seasons respectively, would have adverse effect on the total enrollment ratio, particularly enrollment of grown-up children (15-24 years) and other adult students, as well as the former child fighters, who may rely on the success of their gains during the dry season to supplement the costs of their education. Liberia would have difficulty in bolstering the enrolment of the adult children, who were affected by the civil war, as well as achievement of universal primary education by the year 2015, as spelt out in the Millennium Development Goals.
6.5 Increase in City Theft and Armed Robbery
A survey conducted by UNICEF/DATAWARE in 1998 on rapid assessment of children in five selected urban cities in Liberia, revealed that 93 percent of the street children interviewed were literate, that is they can read and write, but were mostly elementary school drop-outs (i.e., grade 6 or below). Also, the survey report showed that all those detained minor children were literate, but were mainly elementary school drop-outs, and about 63 percent of them went to jail for stealing and armed robbery. It was then concluded that, “the fact that those involved in these city thefts were the semi-literate ones and not their illiterate counterparts nor the secondary graduates, should be a concern for attention”.
These findings are inserted to show as an example, the adverse effect of the change and the negative influence it may have on the behavioral pattern of our children. Upon this background, the former dry season entry calendar can be seen to have multidimensional educational goals. For instance, the entry season does not only expose students to classrooms learning activities, but also engage them to physical work discipline outside the school environments. Because the vacation season is set at the peak of major economic activities in Liberia, desirous students can therefore, engage themselves in the field or at least assist their parents on the farms, small scale family enterprises or whatsoever activities their parents do during the vacation period. These activities occupied children; hence, they do not only consider vacation period as a leisure time, but period where they could functionally be engaged in practices, which cumulatively, helped to determine their future careers. As a result, students who dropped in low grades can easily swapped into agriculture or other micro-businesses, which they did or saw their parents doing from time to time, while on vacation, instead of hopelessly roaming the streets, as it would likely be the case for the present September entry calendar in the long run.
I am pleased to recommend the followings, which when implemented, would help to safeguard and bolster our educational system:
A).That the Liberian government restore the former dry season entry calendar to help with the following:
B). That since West African nations seem to have identical climate and weather patterns as well as mode of economic production and to greater extent similar cultural heritage, Liberia should pursue other West African States to adopt the late February to December first day of school calendar. This may equally help to generally reduce some of the negative effects of the school calendar which was imposed on them by their former colonial masters.
The poro and sande are secret societies found mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The societies initiate boys and girls into the membership respectively, and swear them to protect the rules and ritual. They prepare and transform the boys into responsible adulthood for family life and leadership of the society and the girls into marriageable women.