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Jan 18, 2022

Human Flourishing and Quality Education: Little Drops of Water Make a Mighty Ocean

Evidence from Sierra Leone’s rural schools point to the importance of character strengths in educational outcomes. This is part of a series of articles examining how a human flourishing mindset can support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. See below for related series content.

By Sourovi De and Diana Ofori-Owusu

One of the many aspirations set forth in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is the attempt to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” everywhere around the world. This is a monumental task, if only because the circumstances people live under differ so drastically from country to country, and even from county to county. One of the biggest challenges of fulfilling the SDGs is that while the finish line may theoretically be the same for everyone, people and nations are starting from very different points. Wealthy schools in the United States or Europe, for instance, are often miles ahead of low-resource institutions in the developing world. Delivering quality education to everyone under these conditions can seem like an insurmountable challenge requiring the commitment of vast resources by poor governments. However, reframing the problem to focus on principles that can be universally applied and human capacities that exist everywhere—and can be developed using a human flourishing approach—offer a pathway to success.

     Sierra Leone is a case study of the challenges of delivering quality education. The country overall struggles to provide quality education to its children. Only 82 percent of school age children attend primary school, according to UNICEF, and attendance rates fall to a dismal 64 percent for senior secondary school. Completion rates, are even worse, with 64 percent completing primary school and just 22 percent finishing upper secondary. And the schools themselves often lack basic resources such as textbooks and chalk and receive little to no government support, relying mostly on volunteer teachers and support from community donations. Cultural practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation further erode the ability of girls to receive an education, and regular harassment and a lack of quality facilities, or even restrooms, is an additional roadblock.

     Yet some schools buck these trends, and surprisingly, they’re not the ones with the most money or government support. Consider, for instance, the case of Barmin JSS, a school in the remote village of Gbogbodo. Reaching Gbogbodo requires an arduous journey deep into the interior of Sierra Leone via dirt tracks and canoes or hand-pulled ferry, and the roads are often made impassable by erosion. Gbogbodo’s secondary and primary schools share a single, run-down building with latrines. Barmin JSS, the secondary school, receives no government support or funds and relies on a volunteer staff and donations from the impoverished agricultural community. On paper, this school should be a failure, representative of all of the problems in Sierra Leone’s educational system. Yet it is actually a case study in success; in 2019, the school was the best performing in its district in both mathematics and English, and its student regularly outperform on national assessments, with 100 percent passing the Basic Education Certificate Examination in 2017, and 89 percent and 90 percent passing in the subsequent two years. Barmin JSS students regularly surpass those in some elite academies in the capital.

     How does this happen? How does a school with a voluntary staff paid by donated rice produce some of the best students in the country? And how do those students succeed despite a complete lack of computers and a reliance on textbooks purchased piecemeal at local markets?

     While success of this kind is rare and there’s no single tactic that can be used to reproduce these results, it appears to result from a combination of community engagement and good leadership on the part of the school’s principal, Samuel Kargbo. In general terms, Kargbo’s use of management innovations and incentives tailored specifically for his staff and the community have cumulatively changed the culture of the school and the educational outcomes for students. The innovations at Barmin JSS radically improve outcomes for students by encouraging the community to embrace the school and students.

For instance, the oldest member of the community, a man nearing 100 years old, sits every morning at the gate of the school and watches as the children enter the school. This demonstrates the importance of education to older generations and also helps ensure that children are not loitering around the village and not coming to school. Likewise, because the school and teachers are entirely supported by donations from the community, Kargbo has been assiduous in maintaining transparency. The teachers and the community members all know exactly what kind of resources the school has and what they are being used for. This prevents petty corruption and provides everyone with a sense of ownership in the students’ education. He also works closely with his teachers to ensure that they have a pathway to success; the feeling that they are able to succeed in educating their students makes them more likely to do so. In concrete terms, one of the biggest discoveries at Barmin JSS was that the syllabus was too big to be taught exclusively in normal school hours; additional classes were added after hours to help students, and the school reached an agreement with community leaders that cultural practices—such as initiation ceremonies—would only be held on school breaks so that students would not miss class. As principal at Barin JSS, Kargbo built a close working relationship with the primary school so that he knows which students need help before they enter secondary school.

These are small, marginal things that individuals do every day, but they have can have an outsized impact over time. The ability to conceive and successfully institute these sorts of innovations derives from the character and inner strengths of the principal and his teachers, and the trust and support it engenders from the community. Collectively, they have created a culture of reciprocal respect, transparency and shared incentives, and his leadership, based on these principles, has turned Barmin JSS into a treasure in the forest of Sierra Leone.

The success of Barmin JSS is an example of how a human flourishing approach—encompassing things like character, inner strength, community engagement and cultural awareness—can complement or even (in some cases) replace technocratic policy interventions to achieve the UN SDGs. Investing in developing educational leaders with character strengths such as empathy, transparency, fairness and leadership skills will be key to achieving the SDGs in nations like Sierra Leone. Naturally, there are limits to how successful character and management interventions can be, and governments should not be let off the hook for providing educational resources. However, outlier cases like Barmin JSS demonstrate that resources alone do not determine whether a person receives a good education.


Sourovi De leads Oxford Policy Management’s Education, Early Childhood Development and Labour portfolio. She focuses on primary and secondary grade learning assessments, teacher development, early childhood development, school quality, education technology, maternal and child health, and water and sanitation. Sourovi leads the monitoring, evidence and learning workstream of the FCDO-funded Sierra Leone Secondary Education Improvement Programme. In this role, Sourovi provides evidence-based technical assistance to senior ministerial officials in the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), senior education advisors at FCDO and implementing agencies. Sourovi holds a BA in Economics from the University of Delhi, and an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Oxford.

Diana Ofori Owusu is a senior researcher at Centre for Economic and Social Policy Analysis in Freetown Sierra Leone and earned a Master of Philosophy in Sociology from the University of Cape Coast