In South Sudan, education doesn’t have to end when conflict begins

Programs for youth and adults who have missed out on education use interactive radio learning to reach learners, even during the conflict

Children at Kapuri School, South Sudan Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Following the declaration of independence in 2011, South Sudan laid out a detailed strategy to increase education levels across the country. However, the renewed conflict, economic crisis and now famine have derailed most of those plans.

Now faced with chronic underfunding and instability, many of the identified initiatives have been neglected, particularly those aimed at young people and adults.

The challenge of education in times of conflict

However, some of these initiatives are entirely appropriate to pursue within an emergency context, particularly interactive radio learning (IRL). IRL is one of the five pillars of the adult education strategy to address the high level of adult illiteracy that continues to plague South Sudan.

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Currently, adult literacy rates sit at just 27% and given that 75% of school-aged children in South Sudan are currently missing out on an education – the highest globally– the next generation will continue to struggle with low education levels.

Lessons on the radio have many benefits

Since 2010, Africa Educational Trust (AET) has run an IRL program, called Speak-Up, aimed at increasing learning opportunities for young people and adults who have missed out on or dropped out of school, often due to the conflict.

Speak-Up is a 6-month course with bi-weekly lessons delivered through two approaches. First, to maximize reach, lessons are provided to local radio stations to be broadcast over a 6-month period. Second, to ensure quality of delivery, AET organizes registered classes, where teachers lead participants through the lessons using MP3 recordings. All participants in registered lessons sit exams at the end of the courses and receive a certificate of completion.

This approach continues to be achievable during emergency context because:

  1. Radio broadcasted lessons allow people to access learning from the safety of their own home.
  2. Tutor groups are flexible both in terms of location and timing.
  3. Recorded lessons provide guidance for trainers reducing demand for experienced teachers.

The education content of Speak-Up also remains highly relevant in this context. Speak-Up’s educational focus is to increase English language proficiency among young adult and adult learners, particularly vulnerable groups who have historically faced challenges accessing education, such as women, internally displaced communities and people with disabilities.

Expanding English language proficiency is key to ensuring that power in the new country isn't concentrated in the hands of a few elites, as it has been in the past. This is even more important considering the conflict and turmoil that has plagued the country since 2013 has increasingly been driven along ethnic lines.

Demand for alternative learning programs is high

The program’s curriculum also aims to stimulate discussion on locally relevant issues and promote tolerance and understanding of different ethnic groups.

This does not mean that Speak-Up isn’t without its challenges. Even though the program was aimed at young people and adults who had completed roughly 4 years of primary education, classes will often include primary school children trying to make up for missed lessons at the same time as adults with higher education looking to brush up on their English.

The varied class levels make it challenging for the instructors, many of whom are new to the more interactive approach to teaching that the radio programs require. The shortage of trained teachers in South Sudan as a whole has been exacerbated by the conflict, meaning many less-experienced teachers are facilitating Speak Up classes and they need training and support to deliver quality lessons.

Facing challenges in a country ravaged by conflict

In addition, while radio education overcomes many of the logistical challenges of providing education in conflict, it does not eliminate them all. Teachers still must be trained and equipped with learning guides as well as solar powered radio/mp3 players.

Every learner who takes part in certified classes also must be equipped with a work book and be able to sit the final exams. Conflict can disrupt all these processes setting back start dates and dragging out course completion timelines.

Overall, despite the challenges, Speak-Up continues to deliver on its educational aims. Exam pass rates for the program were 85% and learners really valued the certificates, which assist with gaining employment or pursuing formal education.

Promoting resilience and recovery in South Sudan

We also see evidence that learners bring home their workbooks and share the content with their families and friends. There is so much interest in the program that people not enrolled in the classes often stand outside the classrooms to listen to the lessons. It was also reported that primary school children listen and attend too, boosting their studies and maintaining learning when their classes were missed or suspended.

The Speak-Up program is not a replacement for a robust formal system but has benefits across the education system. It provides a valuable learning opportunity to people who missed out on or dropped out of school.

Programs like Speak-Up can continue if we put the resources in place to ensure their continuity. They are essential to promoting resilience and recovery in South Sudan. After all, the people of South Sudan continue to list education as a major priority, second only to national security and freedom. We owe it to them to respond accordingly. 


Alternative Education Systems Thematic Working Group. (2013) ‘Making plans: Setting AES policy and direction for South Sudan’, Alternative Education Systems Thematic Working Group Meeting, Juba, 20th-21st March 2013

Department of National Languages. (2009) Implementation Guidelines and National Strategy for the Southern Sudan Languages and Education Policy, Juba: Ministry of Education Science and Technology.

Hammond, Hollyn Hammond and Kathryn Ziga, “Final Evaluation of Speak-Up 2011-2013”  

N’jdamena (2017) “News Note: 25 million children out of school in conflict zones” UNICEF, Chad/Dakar/New York, 24 April 2017

Simpson, Robert (2013) “Can Interactive Radio Instruction turn Post-Conflict educational challenges into opportunities? A Case Study of the ‘Speak Up!’ English language Programme, South Sudan”, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

South Sudan Education Cluster (2017) ‘Education Cannot Wait for the War to End:

The role of education in saving lives and averting the loss of another generation in South Sudan’ Juba, 2017. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: South Sudan


Program Coordinator for South Sudan, Africa Educational Trust
Jonathan Coxall works for Africa Educational Trust (AET) as a Program Coordinator for South Sudan. Working with AETs local team in South Sudan he supports the design, planning, implementation and financial...

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