Sierra Leone’s minister for education, David Moinina Sengeh, is not in the mood to downplay the challenge the world is currently facing.
“It’s a disaster,” he tells the Telegraph on a web call from Freetown. And while he is aware the initial focus in the pandemic has to be saving lives, he is not talking about health.
“The education crisis is happening now, in parallel with the health crisis,” he says.
“And it’s bigger in my opinion: 1.6 billion kids out of school, that’s a problem; 810 million kids not in school in low and middle income countries, that is a disaster.”
For much of the world, it is a new disaster. But countries in West Africa that experienced Ebola in 2014-16, like Sierra Leone, have some experience of this kind of disaster, and its long-term impact.
In Sierra Leone, almost 4,000 people died of Ebola. The economy was severely disrupted, and many children orphaned.
Schools were closed for nine months to stop the spread of infection. During this period, with children out of school and vulnerable to exploitation, teenage pregnancies shot up by over 60 per cent; 11,000 girls who were previously in school got pregnant. More died from childbirth complications than Ebola itself, and many of those who did survive never returned to education.
That is a huge loss. Study after study has shown that the benefits of educating girls span society, from reducing child mortality to boosting GDP.
Mr Sengeh – who recently went viral after tweeting a picture of himself carrying his baby on his back in a sling, a rare thing for a man to do in his country – is adamant it won’t happen again.
“School is the safest place for many children, and we lost out on learning, and the safety of children,” he says. “[This time] we have been able to tackle this very directly to correct it.”
Schools in Sierra Leone closed at the end of March, part of a series of measures aimed at stamping out the virus before it took hold in the African country of 7.6 million people.
And while the picture is not totally clear and cases have recently jumped, it appears to be working: Sierra Leone has seen 570 cases and 34 deaths.
But schools remain closed for the foreseeable future. As such, Mr Sengeh and his team have implemented a package of measures to ensure that children – and in particular girls – do not get left behind again.
These include radio educational broadcasts to reach people with no internet access or television. The government is also working to deliver physical education materials – paper, pens and pencils – to children without putting them at risk.
It is also building mobile phone solutions using SMS and USSD technology – the tech on phones that allows mobile banking or top-up payments to work – which has about 80 per cent penetration in Sierra Leone.
“Even with the simplest technology there are people left out, but we are trying to make sure that [group] is smaller and smaller,” he says, adding that the government is evaluating how many children are being reached.
Save The Children said the efforts so far were positive.
“The children say the programmes are good, but that is for those in supportive family environments, who are able to sit with their parents, play them back, do the exercises together. That’s not the case for all children,” says Ramatu Jalloh, director of advocacy for STC in Sierra Leone.
However, she says there are signs the government has learned its lessons from Ebola, particularly around protecting the most vulnerable. For example, it has been providing food to about 6,000 children who would normally eat their main – or only – meal at school.
For poorer countries financial challenges like this are huge, from the household level up, according to Alice Albright, chief executive of the Global Partnership for Education. It has made $250 million available to countries like Sierra Leone to work on coronavirus response.
“One of the key risks is we slip back and lose the gains we have made since the beginning of this century,” she says. “We are very concerned that the ability to get the necessary resources for education is crowded out.”
In Sierra Leone, most of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and only around half its children completed secondary school even pre-pandemic.
“We cannot do things the way as we did before coronavirus,” says Mr Sengeh. “We cannot. We have to change and reimagine.”
Just before coronavirus hit, Mr Sengeh’s government overturned a ban on pregnant schoolgirls that had been put in place after Ebola. It also made education free for all in 2018 in a bid to keep more children in school.
But Mr Sengeh also means new approaches, like the idea about to be discussed by cabinet, for a ‘girl’s empowerment fund’ which pays an as-yet-undecided amount of money into a girl’s bank account for every year of school completed.
She can use it for university, or to start a business; or access the resources during her education, for hygiene kits or sanitary pads.
“For the economy, for child survival, for immunisations – it’s an investment to ensure that girls complete secondary school,” says Mr Sengeh.
“This is an idea we are actively working on to launch when schools reopen. We are building schemes for girls to encourage them to come back.”