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Investing in bricks and mortar is important but not enough to have good schools. (Angela Hellmuth/JRS)
South Sudan, 2 January 2013 – A community is only as good as its teachers. There is no substitute for a trained and committed teacher to promote quality education. JRS learned this valuable lesson in more than 15 years promoting education in South Sudan.

JRS shaped its contribution in South Sudan – first as a region at war and later as a new country – according to need. For years, JRS concentrated on propping up the educational infrastructure: constructing and renovating classrooms, dormitories for girls, laboratories and libraries; supplying teaching and learning aids; building the capacity of school management bodies; providing desks, chalk and blackboards and paying the school fees of girls and vulnerable boys. Teacher training was provided too but JRS had no mandate to enter a classroom to supervise the teachers and learners.

Beneficiary communities in Nimule, Lobone, Kajo-Keji and Yei appreciated the JRS contribution. But an evaluation carried out in 2010 revealed that more needed to be done. Providing materials is not a sine qua non for learning. Literacy, numeracy, mathematics and sciences were found to be poor in primary and secondary schools. Among the problems identified were uncoordinated workshops for teachers.

JRS decided to set up school development teams (SDTs) to bring about positive transformation within the school by the school. Each SDT consists of three experienced and committed teachers who were trained and supervised by JRS and who in turn mentor, train and encourage their colleagues. After training SDT members, JRS followed up with monthly meetings at the school level. Characterised by a personal approach and focus on specific issues, the meetings proved helpful for the teachers, who said they acquired knowledge and confidence. In all, 36 primary schools and 16 secondary schools benefited.

The move paid off. JRS developed tools to assess progress and carried out a shared assessment with government education officials and SDT members. They found team teaching had been introduced in schools; joint JRS and government supervision had improved; and there was marked progress in making lesson plans. A ringing endorsement was the result of the 2011 South Sudan Certificate of Secondary Education, which revealed that seven out of the 10 best schools were supported by JRS. Students and teachers say SDT was one of the factors contributing to this good performance. 

Another positive step – recommended by experts – taken by JRS has been to support primary schools in the use of local mother tongues as a medium of instruction; these schools registered gains in literacy and numeracy.

What will happen now that JRS is withdrawing? In August 2012, during a training workshop, teachers and government officials pledged to support SDTs. However other steps must be taken to motivate teachers. A grade-three teacher earns about 200 Sudanese pounds per month (equivalent to US$50). "We cannot send our children to decent schools yet others send their children to school outside South Sudan," said one teacher. And another: "We have an obligation to educate and feed our family as others do". Teaching is a last resort for job seekers due to the low pay.

Other challenges abound. The home environment is not conducive to learning. Very few houses have electricity and poverty is rife: one harvest a year does not provide enough food for home consumption and to generate an income too. The infrastructure of pre-independence South Sudan had been destroyed by years of civil war. Education is not isolated from other social systems; fixing the problems of formal education must go hand in hand with tackling those in health, security, agriculture and other services. Yet education is a key to development in all senses. Unless huge investment is pumped into improving our schools, low levels of literacy will persist in South Sudan. 

Dr Biryaho Francis is JRS South Sudan education coordinator. This article appeared in the last issue of Servir. Click here to read more.