Educational Challenges in Sierra Leone

Written by Luna A. Duran van Tijn


Over the last few decades, Sierra Leone has faced numerous setbacks. Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was witness to the devastating Sierra Leone Civil War (Ozisik 2015). 1,270 elementary schools were destroyed and 67% of all school-age students were forced out of school in 2001 as a result (ibid). A decade later, in 2012, Ebola struck Sierra Leone, leading to the closure of schools for at least nine months (Son, 2016). The nation has now stabilized and is trying to realize its potential (O’Neill 2014: 44). However, around 70% of people in Sierra Leone continue to live in poverty. This has led many children to work rather than attend school (ibid). In this context, it does not help that there are supply and space shortages, high student-to-teacher ratios and the lack of qualification and training of teachers. Additionally, an educational environment that disproportionately affects girls due to young pregnancies, child marriage, gender-based violence and cultural biases respectively. This, among other confounding factors, has laid a foundation for serious setbacks in the Sierra Leonean educational system, such as low enrollment rates, poor educational standards, and a gendered education gap. These factors are explored in this article.

School in Sierra Leone. Photo by Rokaso.

Setting the scene

The educational system in Sierra Leone has three basic levels: primary, junior secondary and senior secondary (Ozisik 2015). Primary school consists of six years, until the age of twelve, which are free for all. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen students enroll in junior secondary schools (ibid). After that, for children aged between fifteen and eighteen, students enroll in senior secondary schools (ibid). At this level, students choose whether they wish to continue their academic education by proceeding to university or focusing on vocational training instead (ibid). Regarding the first, there are two options available to students in Sierra Leone who want to pursue higher education: Njala University and the University of Sierra Leone (ibid). For vocational education programmes, agriculture is the primary subject of study, followed by skills in mechanics, carpentry, and bricklaying (ibid).

Challenges and their causes

Low attendance rates

First, only about 6% of children attended pre-primary school in 2011, meaning very few children got the foundations for learning and education (O’Neill 2014: 48-50). The primary school enrollment rate is high for males, around 100%, although much lower for females, around 70% (ibid). However, the completion rate for primary school is only about 71% for females and 76% for males (ibid). After primary school enrollment the numbers decrease drastically. Secondary school enrollment is about one-third of that of primary school enrollment (ibid). Even worse, tertiary school enrollment is just a few per cent, with the highest percentage of enrollment being 3% for men and 1% for women (ibid). This incredibly low rate of young people continuing their education demonstrates that education in Sierra Leone is neither a top priority nor an objective that most people value (ibid). This data is from 2001, following the Civil War (ibid).

In Sierra Leone, many children drop out or do not attend school for several reasons. Although many factors influence the low enrollment and high dropout rates in Sierra Leone, such as “living situations (presence of parents), location, gender, religion, cost, teen pregnancy, and early marriage” the article “The Out-of-school Children of Sierra Leone” by UNICEF (2008) argues that the main reason for children not being in school is poverty (Coinco 2008: 4). Due to the pervasive poverty, 87% of Sierra Leonean children decide to work instead of attend school, stating that they would “rather work and get paid than sit in school and be hungry” (ibid). In many cases, children are forced to work rather than attend school (O’Neill 2014: 50). For many families, children are seen as another source of income and are forced into manual labour at a young age (ibid). In line with this, many kids cannot attend school because their families simply cannot afford it (idem: 50-51). Despite the government taking steps to decrease or eliminate costs connected with attending school, many schools still require payment for services (ibid). In fact, 37% of the families who pay for their kids’ education say they struggle to do so (ibid). These two factors demonstrate that many children’s inability to attend school is mostly a result of poverty.

Low-quality education

A “Report on Basic Education in Sierra Leone”, prepared by The Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) (2006), found several factors that threaten the quality of education in Sierra Leone (O’Neill 2014: 45-46). These include supply and space shortages, high teacher-pupil ratios and the lack of qualification and training of teachers (ibid).

The past educational system in Sierra Leone was not prepared for the rapid increase in enrollment of children that would occur after the end of the Civil War (idem: 51). Although this increase was a positive development, it also resulted in supply and space shortages that made class sizes too large and simultaneously created higher pupil to teacher ratios (ibid). Due to the shortage in supplies, it is not uncommon for multiple students to share a single book for instance (Ozisik 2015). Moreover, higher student-to-teacher ratio results in less individualized learning time with the teacher (O’Neill 2014: 52). Spending time with the teacher in-person can frequently be a crucial component of understanding and learning (ibid). Without as much one-on-one time, a student can fall behind or feel lost, which would make it more difficult for them to learn fundamental skills (ibid). Additionally, larger classrooms make it more difficult for the teacher to educate, especially if the students are all at various levels of understanding (ibid).

A high student-to-teacher ratio is made even worse when taken into consideration with the reality that many teachers lack the necessary training (ibid). Since there are so few qualified teachers available, many school systems are forced to hire unqualified instructors (ibid). In fact, more than 40% of primary school teachers are untrained (Ozisik 2015). Untrained teachers might not be delivering the right lessons, they might not know how to manage huge classes of kids, and they might not know how to adapt their teaching methods to fit diverse learning types (O’Neill 2014: 52). There is also a good likelihood that Sierra Leonean native teachers did not finish primary school or go on to intermediate or university education (ibid).

It is simple to understand why Sierra Leonean children decide to take different pathways than that of education when there are so many things working against them, from a lack of resources to the large student-to-teacher ratio and their presumable inexperience (ibid). These kids and their families must put enormous work into keeping children in school for so little in return (ibid).

Children learn and play at the UNICEF-Supported Child Friendly Space at Sierra Leone’s National Stadium. Photo by UNICEF Sierra Leone.
Gendered education gap

The educational environment that disproportionately affects girls is a prevalent and particularly relevant issue that continues to affect education in Sierra Leone. Despite improvements in their access to education, a lack of class completion, high dropout rates, and continually low secondary enrollment persist for girls. The cycle of gender inequity is fueled by young pregnancies, child marriage, gender-based violence and cultural biases.

 Sierra Leone is responsible for one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, a phenomenon that is largely responsible for the high incidence of female dropouts (Ozisik 2015). In fact, the country’s education ministry has decidedly prohibited pregnant girls from attending school, under claims that they would be unable to perform well in class (Son 2016). The ministry argued that exposing pregnant girls to classmates would humiliate them and encourage others to become pregnant (ibid).

In Sierra Leone, girls frequently are married as young as age 11, and more than 60% of females nationwide are married before the age of 18 (Ozisik 2015). Early marriage makes it even more difficult for these females to pursue education and independence (ibid).

Furthermore, there is a strong gender disparity brought about by a strong bias that prioritizes male education and subverses that of girls (ibid). The reality is that girls in Sierra Leone are frequently instructed to stay home and take care of household chores while their brothers go to school (ibid). The general challenges articulated so far, namely supply and space shortages, high pupil-to-teacher ratios and the lack of qualification of teachers, have already made it challenging enough for all children to enroll in school (ibid). In an environment that has a dominant preference for boys’ education, the education of girls is made virtually impossible (ibid).


Overall, low enrollment rates, poor educational standards and a gendered education gap remain challenges for children trying to pursue quality education in Sierra Leone. These factors are compounded by problems ranging from poverty, to supply and space shortages, high student-to-teacher ratios and the lack of qualification and training of teachers, as well as young pregnancies, child marriage, gender-based violence and cultural biases.

Reference list

Ozisik, S. (2015). “Education in Sierra Leone”, The Borgen Project, Consulted on May 24th, 2023.

Son, P. (2016). “Education in Sierra Leone: Gender Inequality After Ebola”, The Borgen Project,,in%20Sierra%20Leone%27s%20education%20system. Consulted on May 24th, 2023.

O’Neill, R. (2014). Perpetuating a Vicious Cycle: The Causes and Effects of Poorly Educated Children in Sierra Leone. Global Majority E-Journal, 5(1): 44-56.

Coinco, E., Khatete, D. and Obdura, A. (2008). “The Out-of-school Children of Sierra Leone”, UNICEF, ne_012009.pdf. Consulted on May 24th, 2023.

UNICEF Sierra Leone (2022). “Education”, Consulted on May 24th, 2023.

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