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Sierra Leone: the challenges of putting and keeping children in school

© UNICEF/Sierra Leone/2008
Young girl working instead of going to school

A recent study shows that 300,000 children are out of school

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 31 August 2009 - Three children, obviously less than 10 years old, are camped around Freetown’s Cotton Tree, begging for handouts.

Even though they will not say, it is evident they have an adult accompanying them; perhaps their parent(s). They do not go to school.

In Kono, a boy wandering around the edges of the Opera Cinema in the rain, is foraging for food. He does not know his age but is clearly less than 12 years old.

A migrant from the north of the country, he is in Koidu town in the diamondiferous district to mine for diamonds. He does not go to school and has never been. He cannot return home because he says his step mother is being unkind to him.

At 39% Sierra Leone has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world with the situation even grimmer for women who have a 29% literacy rate.

Yet huge numbers of children keep dropping out of school. At the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, the country is one of the poorest in the world with 70% of people living below poverty line.  

Education challenged by poverty
As poverty wreaks more havoc, more and more parents and guardians look to their children and wards for income. For many it is a catch 22 situation between sending their children to school and using them to provide food for the home.

More often than not the latter option prevails leaving a high number of children dropping out of school and facing an even bleaker future than their parents.

Rather than go to school, these children go to work and end up performing economic or domestic tasks.

They serve as porters in markets and streets, do petty trading, domestic work in relative’s homes, work on farms, mine in diamond areas and on beaches, fish in rivers and in the sea, learn a trade in an informal apprentice programme, etc.

Children in precarious situations
Children in many parts of the country are also exposed to verbal, physical and sexual abuse, neglect and exploitation. The situation is grimmer when the child is an orphan. A survey shows that 53% of these dropout children have been orphaned of either one or both parents and are living with extended family members.

To reverse this trend the Government has over the years been consistently allocating 20% of its public expenditure on education, one of the highest allotments by any African government.

But while corruption and inefficiencies in the system has meant this does not trickle down to its intended destination, poverty has meant a high number of out-of-school children. 

The late payment of teachers’ salary and school subsidies, and the prevalence of unqualified teachers have left schools to look for alternative sources of fund to function.

This has added to the financial burden on parents and guardians. Not surprising therefore, more than half the number of children between 6 and 15 years cite the high cost of schooling as the primary reason for dropping out.

The same reason parents say they cannot send their children to school. 

Partnering for positive changes
UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports to change the trend of especially girls, dropping out of school.

With the launch of the Out-of-School Study report in August 2009, the core problems besetting children’s schooling is expected to be addressed.

UNICEF is supporting the Ministry to improve the quality and relevance of the teacher training curriculum and to accelerate the number of teachers being trained each year.

The UN children’s agency has also supported the Government and the teachers’ union to develop a code of conduct for all teachers.

UNICEF annually supports a nationwide Girls Education Week campaign run by Ministry of Education Youth and Sports to sensitise communities about the importance of education, especially for girls, and encourage more parents to send their children to school every day and complete their education.

Government must maintain its education budget at 20% of total national recurrent spending. 

More girls’ scholarship programmes will have huge impact on their education while the sensitisation of religious leaders and business community on child labour will help improve the situation.

With accelerated efforts the MDG2- achieving Universal primary education, is believed to be attainable, such plans and concrete actions will bring more children to the classrooms and let them stay there.

In the words of Ghandi, open the doors of a school for a child, and a prison door is closed before him.

By Umaru Fofana



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