MAKENI, Sierra Leone, 28 July 2005 - Children in the village of Makondo recite their lessons in a cramped makeshift schoolroom. They seek shelter from the white heat of the mid-day sun under plastic sheeting, which is held up by wooden poles. Lessons are staggered so they can accommodate the 175 students enrolled - but even so there is barely enough room on the wooden benches.
In contrast, right next to this temporary shelter is a large, airy building in the last stages of completion. Spacious enough to accommodate everyone, this will be the children's new school. UNICEF was able to realize its construction working closely with the Government of Sierra Leone, and with the help and support of community members.
Fourteen-year-old Adamsay Kaloko looks forward to moving to the new school. "During the rainy season we will be able to learn better because this building will not leak," she says.
Broad partnership to promote children's education
Presently it is estimated that over 300,000 school-aged children - mostly girls and those living in poor remote communities - have no access to education. Sierra Leone's brutal civil war destroyed much of the existing infrastructure. The end of the war sparked a surge in school enrolment, especially among older children; their numbers were so great that there was no longer room for the younger children. To address the needs of these younger children, who cannot walk long distances to an alternate school, a strategy was developed: to take schools to their communities.
UNICEF formed a working partnership with the Ministry of Education and the communities themselves to support low-cost, child-friendly school facilities in rural areas that would get children into school quickly. The plan is to establish 1,300 community schools throughout the country by 2007.
Community involvement is key
These community schools are innovative because there is a high level of community involvement in their planning and construction. For example, the community members contribute unskilled manual labour, while UNICEF funds the cost of materials such as corrugated metal and pipes, which villagers have difficulty obtaining on their own. These schools are not just unique because of their unusual pavilion-like structure, but in that they are specifically designed to integrate education into community life. Additionally, wherever possible, a well is constructed at the school site, and the schools are equipped with latrines and running water.
A few miles down from Adamsay's new school is the recently completed Rogbesseh community school, now filled with about a hundred young students. Rogbesseh's village headman, Pa Ali Koron, says that he is happy about the school, which took several months to build. "The whole community helped to build the school," he says proudly.
"It is much bigger, and the toilet is much appreciated. Before the children used to go to the bush where there is a risk of being bitten by snakes."
He says that all of the children in his community now go to school.
In post-conflict countries like Sierra Leone, taking affordable and sustainable schools to children is one step in assisting the country to meet its commitment to the Millennium Development Goal of having all children complete a full course of primary education by 2015.