"We want to achieve universal primary education in the shortest time possible," the chairman of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), John Garang, said on Thursday in Nairobi.
Talking about the SPLM/A's objectives for southern Sudan, he said universal basic education could be made available within six years.
However, aid workers said about half the teachers in southern Sudan did not have any professional training, while just seven percent have had a year's training. There were only 1,600 primary schools in southern Sudan, they added, and less than 200 of these were housed in permanent structures.
In an estimated southern Sudanese population of 7.5 million, only 2,500 children completed primary school each year, about 500 of them girls, according to the Sudan Basic Education Programme (SBEP).
"Of the 6,000 to 8,000 primary school teachers in southern Sudan, roughly six percent are female at the moment," Jeff Seed, CARE's chief of party of the USAID-funded SBEP, told IRIN. "Of the existing primary school teachers, most did not finish more than grade three to five themselves."
Ben Parker, communication officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), noted that "teachers are often barely educated to the level they are teaching."
To provide a framework conducive to a massive scaling up of enrolment, UNICEF and other educational partners were supporting policy development, capacity-building and coordination with the SPLM/A Secretariat of Education (SoE), based in Rumbek, UNICEF said in its 2004 consolidated donor report for southern Sudan.
"We are working hand-in-hand with the SoE to develop a unified teachers education curriculum - a standardised way of training primary school teachers - to replace the Kenyan and Ugandan curricula that were previously being used," Seed confirmed.
FEW GIRLS IN SCHOOL
Much remains to be done to address the gender imbalances in primary education. According to the SBEP, just 35 percent of the 400,000 students in school were girls and the lack of female teachers was one of the reasons for this gender imbalance.
"Women understand issues of young girls; girls feel that they have a protector - they get a role model. It is important to have female matrons at boarding schools, otherwise girls won't come," Seed observed.
Parker felt the low enrolment was a result of the limited number of schools and the lack of good teachers and school supplies, combined with the effects of decades of war, gender inequities, and prohibitive school fees.
"School fees are really an issue," Parker pointed out. "Very, very few teachers currently receive something called a salary, although a small number gets some income from aid agencies and churches. Contributions from parents themselves are probably their most important source of income."
"A huge problem, is enrolment, but with the influx of returnees to southern Sudan, there is also a lack of qualified teachers," Seed said. "You can build schools and enrol a thousand children, but without teachers the children learn nothing."
It took approximately four years to train a teacher for primary education, he estimated.
Teacher training was crucial, Parker acknowledged, but "there is only so much you can do to accelerate the training without affecting the quality".
"We want to expand enrolment, but also retain the children already going to school, so we are increasing the number of schools, while enhancing the quality of education through the training of teachers and the provision of school materials," Parker said.
"Last year, we built 147 community girls' schools. Our target for this year is 400 schools," he added.
The huge dropout rate among girls - as a result of early marriage and cultural expectations - was the most important reason for the low retention rates, according to Parker.
With approximately 24 percent of the adult population able to read and write, however, much more needed to be done to address illiteracy rates in southern Sudan, currently among the highest in the world.
"If you focus on formal education only, you leave out the vast majority of the population," Seed said, explaining that there had been no formal education system during the 20-year war that ended in January.
Parker noted that nearly 90 percent of adult women were illiterate.
The provision of accelerated learning programmes was crucial to address this situation, and give adults who had missed the opportunity to go to school the chance to catch up on their education.
"In practice, many out-of-school youths and women with babies enrol in this programme; about 50 percent of the 3,500 students that have enrolled are girls," Seed commented.
He added that the SBEP had a long-term focus and supported the SoE in achieving systemic changes that would be sustainable.
"This is not about reforming an existing system - there was next to nothing," he said.
"We're not talking chairs and tables here: most schools are just logs underneath a tree - it's going to be a long slog," Parker added.
In partnership with the SoE, and close collaboration with over 30 NGOs, the SBEP programme is being implemented by a consortium of three partners: CARE International, the lead agency; American Institutes for Research; and the University of Massachusetts' Center for International Education.
The war between the SPLM/A and the Sudanese government in the south erupted in 1983 when the rebels took up arms to demand greater autonomy from the authorities based in the north. At least two million people were killed and four million uprooted from their homes - of whom some 550,000 fled to neighbouring countries.