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Fid Thompson | Kasokra 25 February 2010
Getting an education in rural Sierra Leone is difficult. Thousands of schools were destroyed during the civil war and many teachers fled to the capital or left the country. The biggest challenge to universal primary education is a severe shortage of trained teachers, especially in rural areas.
With one year of secondary school under his belt, 50-year-old Francis Sao Turay is the sole teacher at the RC Primary School in Kasokra, a small village in the Sula mountains of central Sierra Leone.
Almost 50 children, from toddlers to teenagers, squeeze onto wooden benches in a makeshift structure. Turay arranges them according to class and then teaches one class at a time, trying to keep the others quiet.
Turay says it is very difficult to teach in these conditions. When you only have one classroom, but you have four different classes, you can only separate them by benches. So when you talk to class four, he says, then it is difficult to teach the little kids in class one. Turay says he finds it especially hard because he teaches just from his own experience.
The school, set up by Catholic missionaries, is registered with the government, but has no qualified teacher. Village leaders chose Turay to teach in an effort to keep their children in school.
Sierra Leone's 2004 Education Act made primary education free in Sierra Leone. Since the civil war, the government has increased primary school enrollment dramatically. The number of students doubled between 2000 and 2005, due in part to the introduction of free primary education. The government also subsidizes exam fees.
But for community schools like the one at Kasokra, there is little government support. Parents here rely on peanut and rice farming to survive. They have little cash to pay for the indirect costs of education like school uniforms, transport, lunch money, tutoring fees and books.
Turay teaches without a salary, accepting instead offers of rice and farm-labor as payment.
Horatio Nelson-Williams is coordinator of the Education For All program at Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education.
"One of the major challenges is to get qualified teachers to teach in rural schools," said Horatio Nelson-Williams. "You know, that is the major challenge. You know. So recently what we did last year we organized a workshop on formulating a new remote area policy. In the past, the remote area policy was working very well. But with inflation and all of the economic challenges that have taken place in the world, the allowances that were given to teachers for working in the remote areas have now become ridiculously low."
Nelson-Williams says the government does not have the funds to support community schools or train community teachers. He says they do get support from NGOs and the United Nations.
In 2009, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma launched a review of the education system following abysmal exam results at both the primary and secondary level.
Education coordinator Madiana Samba, of the advocacy organization Action Aid International, says the government must address the shortfall if they are to achieve real universal primary education.
"We need to train those teachers out there that are really not trained," said Madiana Samba. "Because if you are talking about a teaching force of over 35,000 and you are saying 40 percent of those ones are untrained and unqualified, then it is a big issue."
Turay would like to become a fully qualified teacher so he can provide a better education for the children in Kasokra and also make a decent wage. But he cannot afford to pay for the three-year distance-learning qualification program offered by the government.
Less than half of Sierra Leone's population can read and write. But resources are limited in this post-conflict state where the education sector says it needs almost $250 million to meet the goal of free basic education for all children.