Transforming learning for children with disabilities in Sierra Leone’s most remote communities

Read how simple interventions through psychosocial support are having a life-changing effect on the education of children with disabilities in remote communities in Sierra Leone.

November 03, 2022 by Esther Elliot Nyuma, Plan International, and Kalako Mondiwa, GPE NGO Consortium, Save the Children, Sierra Leone
5 minutes read
Sallieu attends class in Karene District, February 2022. Credit: Plan International
Sallieu attends class in Karene District. February 2022
Credit: Plan International

“Fulfillment of the right to education requires an inclusive education system—one that is accessible to all children and acknowledges, addresses and responds to the diverse realities and needs of all learners.”

Dr. David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education

Ten-year-old Sallieu lives with his grandmother in a remote village in Karene District, North Province, Sierra Leone, and they barely survive through small-scale farming.

Requiring a wheelchair to move around and with his school 5 kilometers away, Sallieu always found access to education a challenge. He would ride his wheelchair to school, but his grandmother had to carry him across three river crossings.

In addition, his grandmother’s age, health conditions and farming activities meant that she couldn’t always help him get to school, so Sallieu’s school attendance was inconsistent. He also found it difficult to communicate with his peers as they bullied him and simply could not accept him because of his physical condition.

These and other barriers, including lack of adequate resources and materials both at home and school, negatively impacted Sallieu’s ability to learn. But since 2020, Sallieu’s learning outcome have improved, as he and his school benefited from Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 Education Emergency Response Plan, which included psychosocial support as a key component of the inclusive education intervention.

Psychosocial support usually refers to a continuum of love, care and protection that enhances the cognitive, emotional and spiritual well-being of children with disabilities and strengthens their social connectedness. Effective psychosocial support boosts individual, family and community well-being and both positively influences the individual social environment and positively impacts their learning experience.

In Sierra Leone’s most remote communities, primary and junior secondary schools are often ill-equipped to meet the needs of children with disabilities, so these children frequently are excluded from accessing safe and quality learning opportunities.

Also, children with disabilities often receive inadequate emotional and social support from their family, friends and peers, usually emanating from negative attitudes and ignorance.

In 2020, when schools closed in Sierra Leone because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children with disabilities faced more challenges and exclusion in social spaces, had difficulties accessing distance education programs, and lacked adequate care.

An inclusive education intervention

To help mitigate these issues, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and education partners developed the COVID-19 Education Emergency Response Plan.

With funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) through the World Bank, the NGO Consortium—a group of seven education partners comprising Save the Children International, Concern Worldwide, Humanity & Inclusion (HI), Plan International, Focus 1000, FoRUT and Street Child of Sierra Leone—was engaged to support the MBSSE in delivering the plan.

Working with pillar leads of the Emergency Education Taskforce, including the MBSSE and Teaching Service Commission (TSC), the consortium collectively designed and agreed specific interventions to improve delivery of quality, safe and inclusive learning opportunities for girls and boys in the most remote and marginalized communities in the country, with a specific focus on children with disabilities.

Realizing that children with disabilities often face additional challenges beyond barriers to physical access to schools1, the project identified psychosocial support as a key component of the inclusive education intervention.

The project identified and trained 79 (64 men and 15 women) inclusive education master trainers drawn from all 16 districts. HI and Plan International in collaboration with Njala University (Sierra Leone) led the training, which was based on and followed the inclusive education training toolkit and psychosocial support manual developed by the MBSSE.

The master trainers in turn trained teachers in inclusive education pedagogy and psychosocial support, enabling the delivery of quality education in both distance learning and formal education.

At the school level, the project targeted over 1,000 girls, boys and children with disabilities, providing training on socio-emotional learning and psychosocial support, as well as information on how to support their peers to return and stay in school.

The NGO Consortium also provided targeted support with assistive devices and school materials to enable 6,678 of the most marginalized children (3,213 boys, 3,465 girls), including girls and children with disabilities, to safely return to school.

At the community level, the project designed and delivered age-appropriate, disability-inclusive, gender-sensitive communications campaigns on the emergency response plan, including supporting the return to school of all children, including girls and children with disabilities, who are traditionally most at risk of non-return.

Messaging targeted 101,000 parents, caregivers and other community members on the value of education, particularly for girls and children with disabilities, supporting learning at home and supporting the holistic well-being of their children.

The NGO Consortium conducted training sessions for parents and caregivers on the value of education and how they can support the learning and well-being of their children, especially children with disabilities.

Plan International guided the project to establish children clubs and trained their members on how to support their peers to return and stay in school. The clubs create a safe space where children meet regularly, build relationships and trust, support each other and share with each other.

As a core part of the implementation, the project team trained school supervisors and teachers in providing socio-emotional and psychosocial support to children.

Sallieu's peers help him cross a river, February 2022. Credit: Plan International
Sallieu's peers help him cross a river, February 2022.
Plan International

Following these activities, Mr. Kamara, a teacher at Sallieu’s school, encouraged Sallieu to work hard and to develop a positive self-image. He also sensitized Sallieu’s schoolmates on how to support him in and around the school, including helping him traverse the three river crossings between their school and their community.

Sallieu’s performance has now improved. He attends school more often as well as participates in class and social activities. More on Sallieu’s story can be seen here.

Sallieu’s story is one of many among beneficiaries of interventions delivered by the NGO Consortium. It demonstrates how seemingly simple interventions through psychosocial support can have a life-transforming effect on children with disabilities.

This is something that MBSSE fully recognizes and has prioritized in its National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, launched in 2021, which seeks to ensure that schools throughout Sierra Leone are accessible to, and inclusive for, all children—especially those typically excluded and marginalized.

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A really interesting read.

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