In the Sudan, a transformed school transforms children – and their community
By Sven G. Simonsen
Thirteen-year-old Malaz remembers a time when her school was dirty and lacked latrines. Now it has transformed into a welcoming environment where learning is both quality and fun.
KASSALA, Sudan, 17 March 2014 – Malaz, 13, has been a student at Jamam basic school, outside Kassala town, the capital of Eastern Sudan’s Kassala State, since she was in the first grade.
But over the last five years, Malaz, now in Grade 8, has watched her school transform into a welcoming environment where learning is fun.
Across the Sudan, UNICEF is supporting quality education by making schools like Malaz’s more child-friendly.
Focused on addressing the child’s needs comprehensively, the child-friendly school (CFS) model is as much concerned with the health, safety, security, nutritional status and psychological well-being of the child as with teacher training, teaching methods and learning resources.
Overcoming obstacles to learning
Eastern Sudan is a region facing extreme poverty, as well as high rates of undernutrition and maternal and infant mortality. Its schools have among the lowest enrolment rates in the country.
Kassala also bears the effects of these obstacles to learning. According to the 2010 Sudan Household Health Survey, only 48.9 per cent of girls and 61.4 per cent of boys in the state attend school. And, only 28.7 per cent of children complete primary school, compared to a national average of 62.7 per cent.
But, at Jamam primary school, the transition to a CFS model has brought about major improvements in learning, as well as in student enrolment and retention.
In 2009, the school had an intake of 22 students in Grade 1. Today, the number is 49. During the same period, the number of teachers increased from 8 to 13.
“As the environment has improved, the school has also become more attractive to teachers” explains Layla Hassan Mohamed, the school’s headmaster.
In previous years, the dropout rate was also high, but, that, too, is changing.
”Only yesterday, a mother came to the school with her three girls who had dropped out earlier and asked to have them enrolled again. We have many examples like that,” says Ms. Mohamed.
Learning based on child rights
In an essential part of the transition, teachers have become familiar with the qualities that foster a learning environment based on child rights – with inclusiveness, participation and child-centeredness as guiding principles.
”Now we have more time with the teachers,” notes Malaz. ”They explain things better, and if we have questions, we can find the teacher the whole day to ask them. And we have exercise books and textbooks, too.”
Corporal punishment, practised in many Sudanese classrooms, has no place in this school.
It is not only students who notice the effects of these transformations. “We see a big change in the students’ learning capacity and their actual performance,” says Ms. Mohamed.
Because of the scale and complexity of the challenges affecting education in Kassala State, the introduction of the CFS model is integrated with other interventions. Part of UNICEF’s purpose has been to use Jamam basic school as an entry point to reach the community with messages on best practices in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). That approach has proven highly successful.
“Parents learn about hygiene when they visit the school. Before, no households here had latrines. Now, already more than half of them do,” says Ms. Mohamed. ”Mothers ask us how they can build protected water containers like ours because they see that they are good for their children’s health.”
In line with the CFS model’s comprehensive approach, WASH improvements at the school are, in turn, improving learning. Ms. Mohamed explains that, before UNICEF brought water to the school and built latrines, girls would go home during their lunch break and not return for afternoon classes. Now they are staying the whole day.
Progress for girls
Although many girls still do not complete basic school, Ms. Mohamed notes that progress has been substantial.
“The first time ever that a girl sat for her final eighth-grade exam here was in 2011. Now we have three girls doing that.”
Early marriage is a major reason for girls dropping out of school.
“Sometimes girls are formally married at the age of six or seven. After that, the girl stays with her family for another five or six years before she moves in with her husband,” Ms. Mohamed explains.
But, she has begun to notice that the reforms taking place at the school are beginning to be reflected within the community at large – in a growing awareness of the problems created by early marriage.
“More parents are saying that they are throwing away their daughters’ lives by marrying them away so young,” she says.