The 2018–20 education sector plan outlined that Sierra Leone was in the process of developing an inclusive education policy. The policy is hoped to have a significant impact on the education and learning of children with disabilities and to contribute positively to improving the quality of the education system.
In early 2021, Sierra Leone approved its first-ever policy on inclusive education, the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools. The policy seeks to increase enrolment, retention and successful transition of all students in pre-primary, primary and senior secondary education regardless of disability, gender, pregnancy or parenting status, geographic location and socio-economic background.
Special education needs
No explicit definition of special education needs has been found.
The 2004 Education Act provides for the establishment and maintenance of separate education systems for pupils of the two sexes or for religious or linguistic purposes. Special schools provide education for people with physical and mental disabilities. However, most children with disabilities are not enrolled in schools due to the lack of adequate facilities.
Although admission of persons with disabilities to education institutions is protected and promoted by the 2011 Persons with Disability Act, the act requires a medical board to issue a permanent disability certificate to make persons with disabilities eligible for the rights and services protected by the act, including education.
The 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, as amended in 2008, mandates the government to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be educated ‘to the best of his ability, aptitude and inclination by providing educational facilities at all levels and aspects of education such as primary, secondary, vocational, technical, college and university’ (Art. 9.1[a]). Special emphasis is laid on the protection and promotion of the rights of vulnerable groups, including children, women and persons with disabilities (Art. 9.1[b]). The Constitution further prohibits discrimination ‘on the grounds of place of origin, circumstance of birth, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties’ (Art. 6.2).
The 2021 National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools seeks to enable marginalized and excluded groups to enter and remain in school until they graduate. The policy also seeks to increase enrolment, retention and successful transition of all students regardless of disability, gender, pregnancy or parenting status, geographic location and socio-economic background.
Both the 2004 Education Act and the 2007 Child Rights Act contain non-discriminatory provisions for persons with disabilities. The latter further lays down the right to special care, education and training of persons with disabilities whenever possible. In line with the ratification of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the 2011 Persons with Disability Act provides a more comprehensive legal framework for the protection of their rights. In particular, Part 5 is dedicated to the right to free education and specifies that the government is responsible for access to education institutions and, in turn, schools must take into account special education needs and provide adequate learning opportunities.
The 2008–12 Agenda for Change included education for persons with special needs as an indicator for strengthening the quality of the education system in the country. The 2011–16 Capacity Development Strategy aimed to identify the emotional, mental or physical needs of disabled persons in order to provide them with adequate support, preferably in mainstream schools. In line with the previous policy frameworks, the 2018–20 education sector plan relies on the adoption of the inclusive education policy to improve the quality of education provision for children with disabilities.
The 2021 National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools will improve the learning environment for children with disabilities by eliminating barriers to full inclusion, starting with physical barriers, as many schools remain inaccessible to students with disabilities.
Adolescent pregnancy and child marriage in Sierra Leone are among the highest globally. The stigma, discrimination and lack of integration mechanisms for pregnant and young parent learners remain barriers to their full participation in school. In order to respond to the issue of teenage pregnancy, the government of Sierra Leone developed the 2013–15 National Strategy for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy. The strategy built on the Free Health Care Initiative for pregnant women and lactating mothers introduced by the government in 2010. It presented a multisectoral approach to empowering adolescents and young people, particularly girls. A National Secretariat for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy was established within the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to oversee implementation of the strategy. Furthermore, as outlined in the 2018–20 education sector plan, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is expected to formalize existing guidelines, making schools more sensitive and facilitating re-entry through specialized and accelerated programmes.
The GATE Project builds the capacity of school managers to monitor and report on sexual violence within education institutions, while the Leh Wi Lan programme aims to improve learning conditions and safety at school.
To increase retention of girls in education, the 2010–13 National Gender Strategic Plan introduced incentive schemes and enforced a Girl-Child Education Policy as a priority. Furthermore, with the support of non-state actors, scholarships were granted to cover non-tuition-related costs of schooling, such as uniforms, while support programmes, such as Girl-Child Support, have been expanded to cover tuition for girls in junior secondary schools.
The decision in 2020 to overturn the policy that previously banned pregnant girls from attending school led to a spike in female enrolment. While the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools covered all groups at risk of exclusion from education, the priority of the government of Sierra Leone will be disadvantaged girls. The policy aims to create opportunities for them to pursue an education through grants, scholarships and community support programmes.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
Article 9.3 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, amended in 2008, promotes the learning of indigenous languages. The 2004 Education Act reaffirms the support of local languages, introducing them as new subjects in the curriculum. The most recent education sector plan recognizes that about one-fifth of pupils can be categorized as minority language speakers, yet English is the only language promoted in the curriculum.
The school feeding programme is expected to be expanded with support from development partners to increase access and retention. In parallel, a school garden concept has been encouraged to contribute to supplementing food in schools as has collaboration with local farmers. To support poor households and improve students’ ability to learn effectively, the Ministry of Education is cognizant of the need to improve the supply of teaching and learning materials to schools, in particular through free textbook provision.
With the approval of the Free Quality School Education programme, 700,000 more students have enrolled in school, with girls in senior secondary school showing the largest proportional increase.
Cooperation across sectors
The 2011 Persons with Disability Act establishes a national commission for persons with disabilities to supervise and represent the interests of the group. It is composed of representatives of relevant ministries, including education, health and social affairs, as well as organizations and non-state actors, such as representatives of the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues. The commission is also responsible, on the recommendation of a medical board, for issuing permanent disability certificates to recognize people’s rights and give them access to services. The act further provides for the establishment of disability units in every ministry.
Cooperation across government levels
The 2004 Education Act and the 2004 Local Government Act regulate the process of decentralization of education management. While local councils supervise basic education provision, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology maintains a controlling role, ensuring that local planning is aligned with the national strategic objectives. The relationship between district education offices, part of the Ministry of Education, and local councils in both planning and monitoring functions needs to be regulated. The national decentralization policy includes the establishment of gender units in local councils for training local staff and mainstreaming gender in their work.
Following up on the 2014–18 education sector plan, the 2018–20 education sector plan includes the improvement of infrastructure and the provision of clean water facilities, separate toilets and ramps for those with disabilities among its objectives. In particular, new schools and classrooms are required to be equipped with WASH facilities and at least 15% of existing schools must be provided with ramps.
Many schools remain inaccessible to children with disabilities. The Annual School Census of 2019 estimated that out of all 11,168 schools in Sierra Leone, only 10% had ramps. The National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools will ensure ramps are provided and toilets are more easily usable. In addition, within the framework of the Radical Inclusion Policy, more safe schools will be built in rural remote communities to enable children, particularly girls, living in these locations to access education.
Learning materials and ICT
A task force checked the effective delivery of learning materials, including textbooks, in the 19 local councils. To tackle the lack of learning materials in certain areas, the ministry intends to foster the use of ICT teaching, learning and training. The development of an ICT strategy has been encouraged.
Established in 2011, the Sierra Leone Teaching Service Commission, consisting of, among others, at least one female educationist and a person with qualification and experience in special needs education, is responsible for teacher management and teachers’ professional status and well-being.
An experimental project to train teachers on inclusive education was introduced in 2013 in Freetown for teachers from across the country. It consisted of two weeks of workshops in which teachers learnt how to deal with diversity, including children with disabilities and children from ethnic minorities. In 2012, the University of Makeni began to offer train teacher in special education. However, the goals remains to improve pre-service education programmes, develop new standards and competencies for teachers, strengthen in-service teacher training through continuous professional development and encourage teacher recruitment for needy areas.
The 2011 Capacity Development Strategy aimed to strengthen inclusion in teacher training, in particular targeting children with special education needs, and to develop guidance to identify special needs. A code of conduct for teachers and other education personnel was developed in 2009, containing references to both disability and gender provisions.
As part of the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, teachers will be trained to be more aware of the needs of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. The policy fosters an ongoing partnership and engagement between special needs and mainstream education with proper early screening and assessment of children’s abilities. The policy allows for the development of individual learning plans for children with cognitive disabilities, with the involvement of parents and specialists.
Annual joint education sector reviews provide updates on progress against sector targets pursued through collaboration with donors, partners and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector and organizations of people with disabilities.
At the ministry level, the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit within the Directorate of Planning and Policy provides technical expertise and guidance. Information is managed by district education offices, which collect aggregated data at school level throughout the country, and by the Situation Room, whose role is expected to be strengthened in the future.