Opinion | Who will rescue education from collapse in Ulang?
Education, defined by philosophers and experts in this field, is commonly referred to as a “key” that unlocks many potentials in young children and youth to make them responsible citizens, capable of making meaningful contributions to the socioeconomic and political developments of their countries.
The reference to education as a “key” resonates well with the definition by former late South African post-apartheid president Nelson Mandela, who holds that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Elsewhere, a Tibetan proverb has it that, “A child without education is like a bird without wings”, while Malcolm X, a prominent American civil rights activist, likens education to a “passport for the future” as “tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Space and time may not be enough to share many more definitions and quotes around the field of education... Regardless of their “differences,” however, these quotes or definitions underline the preponderant role education plays in a person’s life. It is, understandably, a basic social service on which governments across the world spend billions of dollars so citizens can access it as an important gateway for them to engage in productive socioeconomic and political activities. In South Sudan, a country that gained independence after seceding from Sudan in 2011, it goes without saying that the need for education provision is everybody’s clarion call. This is why, perhaps for the first time ever since 2011, the South Sudan government made a surprisingly higher budgetary allocation of around 17% of the 2021/2022 national budget for this sector.
If well managed, such budgetary allocation is likely to significantly improve the delivery of education in a country where public schools generally suffer from an inadequate number of qualified teachers and characteristically irregular and low monthly salaries. These challenges, following closely on the heels of the violent armed conflict in 2016 and the steady weakening of the South Sudanese Pound against the US Dollar, have left government-aided schools to be run by a large army of generally less qualified and motivated “volunteer” teachers. Like many South Sudanese citizens, some qualified teachers found themselves displaced into refugee settlements in neighbouring countries following the conflict. Others, on the other hand, remained within the country and opted for employment in the NGOs and private sector, where salaries are reasonably better and usually paid in US Dollars.
Sometimes, depending on the availability of donor support, teachers in public or community schools are paid monthly incentives and provided with capacity-building training in areas of pedagogy by national and international nongovernmental organizations implementing education projects. As such incentive payment is usually based on a pupil-teacher ratio, some (volunteer) teachers find themselves not “eligible”, yet the PTA / SMC committees are not strong enough to mobilize (financial) resources to cover the gap. The resultant consequence is very clear – children, although desirous to learn, unfortunately, find themselves not engaged in any meaningful teaching and learning activities. Is it any wonder, therefore, if every year, many schools post poor learning outcomes?
Given the challenges facing the public education sector, some South Sudanese and foreign nationals have opened up privately-owned primary and secondary schools across South Sudan. The quality of education in such schools is seemingly comparatively better than that found in public schools, as evidenced by national examination results in recent years. Owners of such schools are able to hire well-qualified and experienced teachers who are reasonably well paid because education in these institutions is provided largely along a “business model.” The learners’ fees are used to attract a qualified workforce which, in turn, benefits the learners in the form of better education. Generally, this is what parents want to see happen to their children.
In Ulang, one of the eastern counties in Upper Nile State located in the geographical area famously referred to as the “Sobat Corridor,” education delivery is heavily reliant on national and international humanitarian agencies. Like elsewhere, the NGOs usually provide teaching and learning materials to volunteer teachers and learners respectively, capacity-building training to the teaching staff and to the PTA/SMC executive committee members, as well as provision of monthly incentives to “eligible” volunteer teachers in the supported schools. Some of the interventions include classroom rehabilitation, construction of temporary learning spaces (TLS) and latrines.
Apart from a few khaki envelopes sold to prospective job applicants, teaching and learning materials are not available on the market in Ulang - traders do not find them very profitable to deal in! Instead, clothes, footwear, beer, etc., are the common commodities available. What does such a scenario mean? Well, if there is no humanitarian agency providing teaching and learning materials, children simply cannot go to school. County education authorities even find it difficult to convince head teachers to open the schools if there are no writing materials for volunteer teachers and learners alike… Quite a difficult situation indeed!
For schools to remain functional and children provided with quality and inclusive education, it is crucially important for fairly long, sustainable education projects here. As it appears, only Food for the Hungry (FH) may be the only agency left to continue with its Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) project, which provides cash transfers to girls and capitation grants to schools for capital developments. It does not provide learning materials such as exercise books and pens to schoolchildren… ADRA South Sudan, another international NGO, has been supporting education delivery in Ulang County since last year through funding from South Sudan Humanitarian Fund (SSHF). Thanks to this project, supported schools were benefitting from teaching and learning materials, recreational materials; provision of monthly incentives to volunteer teachers, classroom rehabilitation and construction of TLS and emergency gender-segregated latrines, capacity building training for education officials, volunteer teachers and members of PTA / SMC governance bodies.
Unfortunately, currently, there are apparently no long-term education projects to support schools across Ulang County. The SSHF-funded education project implemented by ADRA South Sudan has just ended, yet the needs are still glaringly many. Christian Mission for Development (CMD), a national NGO, no longer has funding for education as it used to last year. Regrettably, the PTAs are so weak that they may not be able to mobilize critical financial and material resources for the growth and development of schools – many of which lie in truly hard-to-reach locations.
As schoolchildren and volunteer teachers rely heavily on humanitarian aid for educational supplies and monthly incentives as well as capacity-building training, the lack of sustainable education projects in Ulang is likely to lead to the closure of many schools across the county if the Government of South Sudan, through the National Ministry of General Education and Instruction (MOGEI), does not intervene urgently to fix the problems highlighted in this article. The government has to engage constructively with humanitarian agencies interested in funding education in this county to enable young children and youth in this region to have access to a brighter future.
All in all, the search for durable solutions aimed at redressing education delivery in Ulang County requires a collective effort from different stakeholders. The sons and daughters of this county, some of who are well placed in the public and private sectors, also have to support the efforts of their county education and local government authorities in ensuring schools are functional and that children receive quality and inclusive education. It is only in doing so that education in Ulang will be rescued from collapse.
Alfred Geri is an educationist with hands-on experience of having managed an education project in Ulang, Upper Nile State. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made is the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.