A good quality secondary education system is increasingly recognised as being essential if countries such as South Sudan are to improve the health and well-being of its citizens, to support inclusive economic growth, and to strengthen a shared sense of nationhood.
If the secondary school sector is to become a powerful force for good in South Sudan, it faces two major challenges. First, access to secondary education needs to be very significantly widened. Currently, South Sudan is ranked bottom in terms of secondary enrolment and the chances of a child making it through the education system and into higher education are less than 1%. Gender disparities, too, are among the widest in the world. In South Sudan as a whole there are less than 1000 girls in the last grade of secondary school.
Second, it is imperative to improve the quality of education in the nation’s secondary schools. While we acknowledge that there are some schools that are making massive efforts and have a determined commitment to improve the quality of education that is provided, overall dropout rates are very high and learning outcomes are poor. To tackle the problems of poor teaching and learning, the most important step to take is to improve the quality of the teaching that takes place in the school.
It is with these two challenges in mind that Windle Trust International launched a report in November 2017 at the General Education Annual Review Conference drawing attention to the chronic and critical neglect of the secondary sector and of the need for a sustained and comprehensive programme of investment to improve quality, increase access and expand facilities.
There is a growing body of evidence to support the argument that a tried and tested way of increasing access to secondary schooling is through a scholarships programme. Scholarships can be tailored to address specific needs or priorities – whether based on gender, disability, historic marginalisation etc - but all of them work by making secondary schooling affordable. In that way, scholarships tackle the biggest single obstacle to sustained attendance at school.
There is much more debate about the most effective and cost-efficient way to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Should the emphasis be on initial teacher education with attendance at teacher training colleges for two or three years? Or is it more realistic to recognise that since South Sudan does not have the teacher training capacity to meet the scale of the need for initial teacher training, the priority should be to provide school-based training for existing teachers?
In truth, there is much that we do not know about the best way to meet teacher training needs – so our approach will be to support a number of initiatives using diverse methods and to monitor the results carefully over the next few years.
It is easy to despair at the scale of needs and problems in South Sudan's education sector – but there is also a fantastic opportunity. Because the secondary school sector is so small – in terms of the number of schools and the number of teachers and headteachers – it is also perfectly realistic to think in terms of a sector-wide transformation. This will not only help to improve educational outcomes in all existing schools but will also mean that future expansion can take place based on learning from experience.