Education and conflict in South Sudan


This article shares key insights from Imatong state in South Sudan ahead of a meeting at Lambeth Palace for educationalists, church leaders, aid workers and government officials to discuss the future of education in the country. Speakers will describe the situation in South Sudanese schools today and discuss the financing of education and the associated role of international donors. They will also lead a discussion on how fragile educational achievements can be maintained.

Widening access to education had been an important achievement of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) government since it took power in South Sudan in 2005, following a peace deal with the Sudanese government in Khartoum.  In 2003-4, only 400,000 children, about a quarter of the school age population, were estimated to be in education, and successive EMIS reports showed growth, to over 1.3m in primary and secondary education in 2013.+ By 2016, enrolment had bounced back from the 2013 crisis, though with a different geographical distribution, and 1.318m primary and secondary pupils were recorded by name on the South Sudan Schools Attendance Monitoring System (, a system supported by the UK Aid Girls’ Education South Sudan project.+ While these figures are gathered on different bases, and data about those in alternative education systems is least sure, it is hard to dispute the evidence of growing access. This growth happened because South Sudan’s new government financed the staffing, and led the rehabilitation and construction, of schools across the country.

When independence came in 2011, South Sudan’s government was comparatively wealthy: it had the region’s highest level of public spending per capita. But only five percent of the budget was allocated to education, far less than most African countries – and disbursement rates were even lower.+ + Nonetheless, an activist Ministry of Education used the opportunity of peace to develop an education system that could meet the country’s huge challenges. Realising the importance of professional recognition, one of their priorities was paying teachers regular salaries, in contrast to the situation during Sudan’s twentieth century wars, when most were unpaid.

The outbreak of conflict across Greater Upper Nile in 2013 put these achievements at risk. The conflict gradually spread to Equatoria and Bahr al-Ghazal before a peace agreement between the government and the SPLM-in-Opposition was signed in August 2015. But its implementation was delayed, allowing the conflict to intensify, particularly in Equatoria. Implementation of the peace deal began hesitantly when the opposition leadership returned to Juba in April 2016. But a political crisis in July 2016 led to renewed violence; many opposition leaders and their soldiers fled the capital and the future of the peace deal is now in severe doubt.

Since 2014, a currency and inflation crisis has dramatically reduced the real value of government funding for schools and teachers’ wages with classroom teachers’ wages, worth $100 a month at independence, now worth less than $5 a month.

Do more violence and less funding affect enrolment?

But did conflict and shrinking funding lead to a drop in school attendance? In May 2015, UNICEF reported that 70% of schools in the conflict-affected states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile were not functioning and about 400,000 children who had been in school no longer were.+ +

South Sudan Schools Attendance Monitoring System data, compiled from school enrolment lists, showed enrolment falling to 1m in 2014 (from 1.3m in 2013). It then bounced back in 2015 and 2016 – but with a different pattern. As many as 500 schools in Greater Upper Nile remained closed, but schools in Greater Bahr-el-Ghazal and Greater Equatoria grew with the displaced and with locally generated growth.

If this reporting from schools reflects reality, it is not unprecedented. Between 1960 and 1965, enrolment increased significantly in what were then Sudan’s three Southern provinces (now South Sudan), even as internal fighting gathered pace. It was not until government-sponsored urban massacres emptied towns and schools that enrolment in formal schools dropped to almost nothing. But ‘bush schools’, run by the Anya-Nya rebel movement, ended up taking increasing numbers of students.

When peace came in 1972, the World Bank estimated that there were almost 60,000 children in formal schools and 25,000 in bush schools.+ Enrolment continued to increase, reaching 142,598 by 1981+ and appearing to hit over 400,000 by 2005 – trebling in size over two decades.+

Getting an accurate picture of the interaction between war and education is very difficult and it is beyond our scope to address the many challenges involved. But it may be the case that violence pushes young people towards schools, increasing enrolment in wartime.