Getting children to school in southern Sudan

In this hardscrabble town, where buildings consist of little more than rubble and tending cattle is one of the only realistic career options, getting children into school used to be a nearly impossible task.

But today, the challenge is to accommodate all the students who are returning. In the wake of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of war and the launch of the Government of Southern Sudan’s ‘Go to School’ campaign, supported by UNICEF, children here are flocking to school in droves.

At Ager Gum Primary School in Rumbek, the capital of Southern Sudan’s Lakes State, there are 4 classrooms for 15 classes and 3 latrines for close to 2,000 students and teachers. A rusted-out wheel rim doubles as the school bell. Enrollment at the school has risen by over 25 per cent since 2005, and the hush of the morning assembly is broken only by the sound of students going over their lessons

Campaigns tangible results

Schools like Ager Gum have benefited from the efforts of the ‘Go to School’ initiative to convince parents, children and community leaders that education is the key to unlocking the country’s potential.

The initiative aims to get 1.6 million children into school by the end of 2007. A massive logistics operation has moved over 4,000 metric tons of learning materials into Southern Sudan in the past four months. Every county in Lakes State has already received textbooks, exercise books and education kits. Teacher kits and recreation materials are being distributed to 200 schools in the state, along with basic school supplies for more than 64,000 children.

Following the national launch of the campaign on 1 April, a series of local events has helped to raise visibility for education and generate enthusiasm in each of the 10 states of Southern Sudan.

In Rumbek, the tangible results of ‘Go to School’ are already being felt. During the campaign launch, the town square overflowed with people who had gathered to celebrate the initiative and listen to local leaders call for free primary education for all children.

As banners waved, folk dancers twirled and thousands of schoolchildren marched proudly to the sound of beating drums, the crowd chanted in unison: “My child, my daughter, my son, my brother, my sister, my mother, my father – all of us, go to school!”

Abolishing school fees

As politicians debate the shape of Southern Sudan’s new education policy, the rising calls for free primary education have led many schools to abolish school fees.

Last year, it cost about $5 annually for a child to attend Ager Gum. But in 2006, the school eliminated even this minimal requirement.

“We heard that education should be free,” says Samuel Deng Majur, a teacher at Ager Gum. “This is what was told to us at the launch, and this is how we want our country to be. So we must follow, although it is not always easy.”

The rapid rise in enrollment is creating new challenges for Ager Gum. In the largest class, Primary One, over 400 students gather for their lessons outdoors. Teachers here are nearly all unpaid volunteers, and in the upper grades they are often scarcely older than their students.

Yet as the school bell sounds and children clutching books race to their classes, it is clear that a victory has been scored in the battle for public opinion.