Access to safe, inclusive, quality learning opportunities for children in the communities of Sierra Leone

Friday 16 September 2022

 Salieu attending class in Karene District, February, 2022: Photo credit, Alfred Kenneh, MBSSE

In Sierra Leone’s most remote communities, primary and junior secondary schools are often ill-equipped to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Consequently, children with disabilities are frequently excluded from accessing safe and quality learning opportunities. The experience of disability can lead to negative self-image and low self-esteem, a feeling of being less competent than others (Hills, 2007). Children with disabilities often receive inadequate emotional and social support from their family, friends and peers. The lack of adequate emotional and social support usually emanates from negative attitudes and ignorance. In 2020, when schools closed in Sierra Leone as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children with disabilities faced more challenges and exclusion in social spaces, accessing distance education programs and lacked adequate care. In fact, teachers and community volunteers did not have the adequate skills and resources required to be able to continuously deliver quality education, psychosocial support, before. during and after school closures.  

To help mitigate these issues, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and education partners developed the COVID 19 Education Emergency Response plan. With funding from Global Partnership for Education (GPE) through the World Bank, an NGO consortium of education partners supported MBSSE to deliver the COVID-19 Education Emergency Response. Working with Pillar Leads of the Emergency Education Taskforce, including the MBSSE and Teaching Service Commission (TSC), the NGO consortium collectively designed and agreed specific interventions to improve delivery of quality, safe and inclusive learning opportunities. The NGO consortium was mandated to deliver interventions for girls and boys in the most remote and marginalized communities in the country. The seven NGO Consortium members include Save the Children International, Concern Worldwide, Handicap International, Plan International, Focus 1000, FoRUT and Street Child of Sierra Leone.

Part of the COVID-19 Education Emergency response objectives was to ensure that that children return to improved learning environments that are safe, gender sensitive and inclusive for girls, with a specific focus on children with disabilities. Realizing that children with disabilities often face additional challenges beyond barriers to physical access to schools, the project identified psychosocial support as key component of the inclusive education intervention aimed at improved the psychosocial wellbeing of the children.  Psychosocial support is a continuum of love, care and protection that enhances the cognitive, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children with disabilities and strengthens their social and cultural connectedness (SADC, 2010). Effective psychosocial support enhances individual, family and community wellbeing and positively influences both the individual and the social environment and positively impacts their learning experience.

To effectively deliver psychosocial support, the project identified and trained a total of 79 (64 men and 15 women) Inclusive Education master trainers drawn from all 16 districts. Psychosocial support was key component delivered during the trainings among other topics. The training was based on and followed MBSSE Inclusive Education training toolkit and Psychosocial Support manual.  The master trainers in turn trained teachers in inclusive education pedagogy and psychosocial support, enabling the delivery of quality education in both distance learning and formal education. The training of the Master Trainers was led by Humanity and Inclusion and Plan international in collaboration with Njala University.

At the school level, the project targeted over 200 girls, boys and children with disabilities, providing training on socio-emotional learning and psychosocial support, as well as information on how to support their peers to return and stay in school. The NGO consortium also provided targeted support with assistive devices and school materials to enable 6,678 vulnerable children (3,213 boys, 3,465 girls) of the most marginalized children, including girls and children with disabilities, to safely return to school.

At the community level, the project designed and delivered age-appropriate, disability inclusive, gender-sensitive communications campaigns on the COVID-19 emergency education response, including supporting the return to school of all children, including girls and children with disabilities, whom are traditionally most at risk of non-return. Messaging targeted 101,000 parents, caregivers and other community members on the value of education, particularly for girls and children with disabilities, supporting learning at home and supporting the holistic wellbeing of their children, specifically children with disabilities.

Case studies exemplifying the importance and impact of the GPE funding for girls and boys in the most marginalized communities, particularly children with disabilities, can be seen below.

Sallieu is a ten (10) year old boy with physical impairment and using a wheelchair to move around. He lives with his grandmother in a remote village in Port Loko District and they barely survive through small scale farming. Port Loko District is located in Sierra Leone's North Province. He is a pupil of one of the schools in the district that was supported by the COVID-19 Education Emergency Response project. The school is approximately 5 km away from his community and has three river stream crossing points. Accompanied by his grandmother, Sallieu rides his wheel chair up to the crossing point and is supported by his grandmother who normally carries him on her back to cross each of the crossing points. However, his grandmother, owing to age and health conditions and her farming activities had limited time to always support him to school. Despite the fact that there are other pupils coming from the same community, access to education had been a challenge for him. Consequently Sallieu’s school attendance was inconsistent, often absent whenever his grandmother was unable to take him to school.  He found it difficult to communicate with his peers as they bullied and simply could not accept him because of his physical condition. This and other barriers including lack of adequate resources and materials both at home and school had negatively impacted on Sallieu’s learning outcome in school. 

The NGO consortium through Plan International  supported children with disabilities, including Sallieu, with school materials and conducted training sessions for parents and care givers on the value of education and how they can support learning and well-being of their children, especially children with disabilities. The project also established children clubs and trained their members on how they can support their peers to return and stay in school. The club creates a safe space where children meet regularly, build relationships, support each other, build trust and share with each other. As a core part of the implementation, the project team trained school supervisors and teachers in providing socio-emotional and psychosocial support to children.

Following these activities, Mr Kamara a teacher at Sallieu's schools nurtured a good relationship with Sallieu, encouraging him to work hard and to develop a positive self-image. He also sensitized him on support in and around school including helping him cross the 3 rivers between their school and the community. His teacher also reports that his performance and attendance has now improved. Sallieu now also  participates more in class and social activities.

Sallieu's story is one of many that can be told by NGO Consortium. It demonstrates how seemingly simple interventions through psychosocial support can have a significant life transforming experience for children with disabilities.