How Sierra Leone is betting on data to fight the impact of climate change on schools

Data can significantly improve decision-making and allow for prioritizing interventions to benefit the most vulnerable populations. That’s why the ministry of Education in Sierra Leone is working with Fab Inc. to develop a web-based data tool that helps estimate and prioritize where new schools are really needed.

November 07, 2022 by Adama Momoh, Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education in Sierra Leone, and Paul Atherton, Fab Inc.
4 minutes read
Students at the Methodist Secondary School in Kailahun prepare for their final examination. Credit: George Lewis/World Bank
Students at the Methodist Secondary School in Kailahun prepare for their final examination. 2016.
Credit: George Lewis/World Bank

How does one decide where to locate new schools and support existing schools, in a context where needs are great and finances limited? And how do you do this while ensuring that schools are resilient to a changing climate?

Answering these questions can help improve the allocation of billions of dollars in investments for building and upgrading schools, and better target wider support. The most common request from parents is to build new schools, repair schools, or make schools easier to get to year-round. Everyone wants a school closer to them, with great facilities and a well-maintained road.

Sierra Leone aims to achieve SDG 4, and the pressure to meet this goal is growing as more children want to go to primary school and progress through Junior and Senior Secondary school. Even with over a fifth of the public budget committed to education, the government still has difficult choices to make on how and where to prioritize school construction, driven by need and clear data to maximize every dollar spent.

why is it important

New policies and guidelines based on data

In this context, the Department of Planning and Policy (DPP) in the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) worked with Fab Inc. to develop a new policy on school infrastructure and catchment area planning, as well as guidelines to implement the policy and a data-driven online tool.

Sierra Leone has made substantial investments in education planning and policy reforms in recent years, and the DPP is working to merge school census data from 2015 to 2021 into one secure database. With the data stored centrally, including school-level data over time, the DPP can integrate it into the policy development process and education plans.

Data can significantly improve decision-making and allow for prioritizing interventions to benefit the most vulnerable populations. For example, where schools are prone to flooding and accessibility challenges, the data allows for targeting, scalable support to improve planning.

In 2021, the MBSSE, supported by Fab Inc., led policy development to define the planning for expansion and renovation of school spaces and to determine which schools would be approved and prioritized for support, guided by the data.

This culminated, after extensive consultation with stakeholders, in the approval of a new policy for catchment planning (with the policy guidelines forthcoming), and policy guidelines for school approvals.

The Policy for School Infrastructure and Catchment Area Planning is transformative and will underpin the pathway to expanding access for all. As many school construction projects in Sierra Leone are started by communities, there was a need for a clear pathway into the approved government system – so DPP and Fab Inc. worked on policy guidelines on how schools are to be approved to receive funding.

Both the catchment planning policy and approvals policy guidelines share a common theme – a desire to power infrastructure decisions through analysis using locally owned data, available in real time. The team developed a web-based data tool managed by the MBSSE Directorate of Planning and Policy.

Help with micro-planning

Adding climate risk data to school data

The tool does four things – estimate where to build new schools, and prioritize which schools are to be approved, get extra classrooms, or get renovated.

For new schools, a simple optimization tool was developed to support the policy. It can tell stakeholders the best place to build a school based not just on population, but on the poverty level, and on how far away populations are from the nearest schools.

Why is this important? Using this tool, the government and non-governmental organizations will ensure that the public funds are spent to benefit the most in-need population and schools built in places where children do not have an option nearby.

Now that the basics are in place, the team is working to expand the tool to integrate climate data. Fab Inc. is supporting MBSSE to further improve the guidelines and tools to integrate the risks from climate change. This includes identifying existing schools at highest risk of being inaccessible during the rainy season, where new schools should be built by allowing the tools to account for climatic risks and rule out locations based on these, and improving the building standards to take into account climate-smart construction, including the best use of materials to mitigate against extreme heat, enhance light for reading and better acoustics for learning when it rains.

Using data to drive decision making

Building resilience through better planning

Fab Inc. has been using satellite data, and advanced geo-spatial techniques to understand which schools are most at risk of flooding for both acute events and for accessibility during rainy seasons – where the risks are realized every year. This combines information on historical flooding with isochrone analysis of which roads children take to schools.

This is useful both for micro-planning (such as where to improve roads first) and for targeting interventions through schools and communities to build resilience. Work is underway to understand communities’ current strategies and identify how best to help them respond in case of adverse climate events.

It also allows targeted support that can factor in climate impacts – on questions such as where to build teacher accommodation; or where to locate new exam centers to minimize disruption.

Given the sheer number of schools that need to be built, and the increasing impact of rainy seasons and flooding, the importance of improving the planning processes is more crucial than ever, and the MBSSE are leading the way.


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