Improving opportunities for school children and teachers in Sierra Leone
'It is important for women to be trade unionists. After all, when you educate a man, you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation. Women will always disseminate their education to other women.'
So said Lillian Fwatfa, Leader of the Women's Committee within the Sierra Leone Teachers' Union (SLTU) during a two-day project design workshop conducted by the UK's National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the TUC. The NUT has a longstanding partnership with the SLTU and the workshop, held in Freetown in January 2010, helped to build upon that partnership. During the workshop, twenty teachers and union officers from across Sierra Leone discussed problems and challenges and developed ideas for a future project, to improve both the lot of teachers in Sierra Leone and the quality of education that children in school receive.
Following a devastating conflict in the 1990s, Sierra Leone is now a very peaceful place. It is a beautiful country of lush landscapes and breathtaking beaches. It has rich mineral resources and wonderful wildlife, flora and fauna. Yet the conflict has taken its toll, including on the education sector: the country is classed as the third poorest in the world by the United Nations and 30 per cent of children are estimated to not be in school. While we were in Freetown, a newspaper comment piece was headlined 'Why education standards are falling' and the SLTU reports that the amount of money being spent on education has been falling in the last few years, as the government has chosen to prioritise others areas, like electricity provision.
Of course being able to turn the lights on is important in the classroom and outside of it (and since I was last in Sierra Leone four years ago, the electricity did seem a bit less prone to powercuts) but if a whole generation of children miss out on adequate schooling, Sierra Leone will only suffer in the long term. Children are often taught in classes of 50-60 pupils and may attend school on a shift system, so either in the morning or the afternoon, but not both. Resources are scarce, and there are not enough classrooms for everyone.
Our workshop focussed on these issues and over an intensive two days, a project emerged that will improve the recruitment and retention of teachers (tackling low morale, poor working conditions, low pay, lack of qualifications) and some of the fundamental issues facing the education sector (falling funding, inadequate supervision and management). The SLTU will be leading this campaign: with over 30,000 members across the country, it is one of Sierra Leone's largest civil society organisations and represents huge advocacy potential, at national, regional and local levels.
We left Freetown with our bags stuffed with completed flip charts and detailed post-its notes and there's lots more work to be done in the coming months to polish off the project proposal and to secure funding for it from the UK's Department for International Development. But working together over the coming years, it seems clear that the SLTU and the NUT have a real opportunity to ensure that, in Sierra Leone, education really is for all.
Vicky Cann, International Programmes Officer, TUC, VCann@tuc.org.uk
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