Tabitha George was forced to drop out of school in 2007 when civil war forced her family to flee their home in South Sudan for a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. In the same year, she fell pregnant. She was 19 but had not yet completed her primary education.
Her story is typical of millions of young people in South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, whose lives - and educations - have been blighted by decades of conflict.
Now 34, Tabitha managed to complete her eight years of primary education in 2009 but could not afford to start secondary school. Nevertheless, she found a job teaching ‘alphabet and numeracy’ at a local nursery and primary school for US$10 a month. As well as teaching, she takes on tailoring work to provide as a single parent for her family of four children.
Tabitha’s life changed when she heard about the Accelerated Secondary Education Programme at her local secondary school in the country’s Central Equatoria state and enrolled in June 2022. Now she teaches in the mornings and attends class in the afternoons. She has started to dream of a different future, involving going to university and using her learning to help other children in a country which has some of the world’s worst educational indicators, especially for girls.
“When I get funds in the future, I am planning to open a school where orphans and other helpless children can get basic education so that no child is left behind in education,” she says.
The accelerated secondary education programme Tabitha attends at Supiri Secondary School is one of 13 – one in each of the country’s states and Administrative Areas - run by a UK-based non-profit, Windle Trust International (WTI), which promotes education for people affected by conflict in Africa and is also engaged with accelerated education for children of pastoralist communities.
“Sixty per cent of teachers in South Sudan are not trained.. and the majority of these have not completed their secondary certificate,” says Executive Director David Masua.
“We went to the Ministry and said we have an idea of how we can help those who have at least finished primary school to be able to acquire secondary education.”
The idea adapted the principles of accelerated learning, already widely used in the country to help out-of-school children transition into formal schooling. It meant condensing the country’s four year secondary curriculum into 2 ½ years so teachers could acquire the knowledge and qualifications they need to transition to higher education and professional teacher training.
The programme was due to kick off in 2020 but the pandemic and global aid cuts postponed its start until this year. With funding from UNICEF, WTI are currently educating 596 teachers, 181 of them women.
The NGO’s South Sudan programme manager Loke Justin Gordon says: “I have travelled all over the country and when I speak to teachers they tell me they are stuck. To get into teaching colleges you need to have your secondary certificate but these teachers are stranded in between. They have been waiting for such a programme and now they have a pathway and are able to connect. They are so happy – they feel the government has remembered them.”
The shortage of trained teachers is one of the biggest barriers to quality basic education in South Sudan. Even before the pandemic, the number of children completing primary school was one of the world’s lowest with 2.2 million children out of school. UNICEF notes that this figure had risen to 2.8 million by late 2021 when the country’s children had experienced 231 days of closed schools and a further 147 days of partial opening. Girls are particularly severely affected with three quarters out of school in certain regions. Early pregnancy is a major reason why many, like Tabitha, drop out.
Even before the pandemic, the country’s education system was under severe strain. The most recent post-independence civil war from 2013 to 2020 exacted a crippling cost, with one third of schools damaged or destroyed and many classes held outside under trees rather than in permanent structures. Large numbers of refugees have recently returned from neighbouring countries like Uganda where schools were closed even longer by COVID, putting added pressures on teachers facing huge classes with children of multiple ages.
Because of its turbulent history, South Sudan has a long experience with accelerated education programmes, run by NGOs long before independence from Sudan in 2011. The Alternative Education System, formalised in 2002, was developed by the breakaway Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in response to the needs of demobilised soldiers (including child soldiers) and children out of school due to displacement, early marriage and/or motherhood, loss of parents and other family, nomadic lifestyles, and child labour. The 2012 General Education Act provided the legal framework for education in the newly independent country and included provision for alternative education.
The WTI team has worked closely with South Sudan’s Ministry of Education to have accelerated secondary education fully incorporated into the Alternative Education System Policy – a positive move, highlighted in Education.org’s research which shows the most successful accelerated education programmes are closely integrated with formal school systems. This means they can align school year calendars, examinations, and curricula, making it easier for learners to transition into mainstream schooling when ready
South Sudan is highlighted as one of eight “focus countries” in Education.org’s accelerated education research which distils a wide range of evidence and provides guidance for education leaders on how they can use these approaches to tackle pandemic-related learning losses - and the broader challenge of out-of-school children and youth.
Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, Founder and CEO of Education.org said: “South Sudan’s experiences with accelerated education showcase the tremendous impact that strong leadership has on reducing out-of-school populations. Especially critical are provisions for adolescent girls, who were already out of school in large numbers and whose return has decreased in the face of the pandemic.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF WINDLE TRUST INTERNATIONAL