Education: re-writing the rule book

At less than two years old, South Sudan offers a unique educational example. Vision looks at the progressive, robust programmes emerging from Africa’s youngest nation alongside the success of neighbouring Kenya’s more established learning systems

Luka Mayang is one of South Sudan’s pastoralist teachers who travel among the country’s remote, cattle-grazing communities in some of the most inaccessible and underdeveloped places on Earth. “We move from place to place, we are not stable in one place because we follow the cows,” he says.

Sustained and shared prosperity depends not on what countries have in terms of natural resources, but on what their citizens are able to learn

Gordon Brown, Former UK Prime Minister

Mayang teaches English on a blackboard he rests against a tree and explains that the number of his students is growing. “Now other people from other cattle camps are asking we teachers to go out and work together [with them].” The success of mobile schools like Mayang’s is a sign of his countrymen’s renewed desire for a proper education.

New beginning

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan declared its independence and was recognised as the world’s newest nation as a result of a 2005 peace deal signed with Sudan. It was a new beginning for a population among whom less than two per cent had finished primary school, according to a 2012 report by the Overseas Development Institute. There was an optimism that came with peace and the country’s independence, and a sense of an opportunity for a better life.

According to The World Bank, primary school enrolment in South Sudan has doubled during the last four years, and between 2005 and 2009 more than 700,000 children enrolled in primary education – this from a total population of the country estimated at just eight million people.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who co-chairs the High Level Panel for Education, said in his policy review for South Sudan: “To its credit, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is putting in place an education strategy that holds out the promise of a better future... Sustained and shared prosperity depends not on what countries have in terms of natural resources, but on what their citizens are able to learn.”

Primary education is booming, as parents send their young children off to enjoy an education they could not, and some organisations, such as UNESCO, are shifting their focus to secondary schools. “It’s a lot more expensive and it’s much more complex because you’ve got to provide, for example, lab equipment for science classes, you’ve also got computer equipment to think about,” says Hjarrand.

This enormous new nation – larger geographically than France – has very few paved roads, and during the long, unforgiving wet season the dirt tracks turn to mud and become impassable for cars.

“We’re trying to develop a literacy by mobile phones project,” says Hjarrand. “UNESCO was supporting a literacy through mobile phones project for women in Pakistan. Because of the logistical situation in South Sudan with roads, and there’s no internet access, we’re just trying to think of what – in this very difficult context – is available that can serve as a route to education... We are exploring this.”

East Africa hub

Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners have long sent their children to renowned private schools in the capital, Nairobi. This bustling city, the ‘hub of East Africa’, feels worlds away from Juba. Years of steady investment and economic growth on the back of strong agriculture and tourism sectors have built a Kenyan middle class, a wealthy business elite and a community of foreign investors and businessmen who have relocated to Kenya with their families.

For Jeff DeKock, the Nairobi-based Director of the Semester in Kenya programme at Chicago’s Trinity Christian College, the East African country was an ideal location for their new remote study programme in partnership with Kenya’s Daystar University.

“In many ways Kenya is wonderfully representative of all that the whole continent has on offer,” he says. “When we looked at Africa... Kenya is very representative, in all its different communities, the diversity of cultures. The booming economy has been a big one as well, because we’ve got business majors coming and they’re learning a lot from their global marketplace studies in Nairobi.”

Dozens of private schools now dot Nairobi, and the newest addition to their ranks is determined to give something back to the country that hosts it. GEMS Cambridge International School is the first East African addition to the GEMS network of schools, where teachers emphasise a philanthropic focus.

“The GEMS community, which includes students, school staff and those in corporate office, has raised more than US$40m for charitable activities over the past 50 years,” says GEMS Chief Operating Officer Dino Varkey. “We endeavour to teach all our students about the importance of having a social conscience and giving back to the community... [it’s] part of the DNA of the company.”

Today GEMS has schools in 10 countries, including Kenya, instructing more than 110,000 students from 151 nations. In Kenya, GEMS plans to construct other, cheaper schools, while the Varkey GEMS Foundation is rebuilding 16 classrooms in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, one of the largest slums in Africa.

The Foundation has also partnered UNESCO to train 10,000 principals worldwide between 2012 and 2015, including around 3,000 in Kenya and Ghana. “We don’t see challenges [in Africa], only opportunities due to a vibrant, fast-growing middle class that has high ambitions and aspirations for its children,” says Varkey.