A school in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, where U.K. aid helped fund new classrooms, as part of a program to build a total of 285 classrooms across the country to meet one of the president's recovery priority targets. Photo by: Tanya Holden / DFID / CC BY-NC

LONDON — A senior education adviser at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has joined “Monty Python” star Michael Palin and model Twiggy on the New Year Honours list for his work in Sierra Leone.

Chris Berry was honored along with three other DFID staffers in the 2019 list, which recognizes the contributions and achievements of British subjects and this year included 1,100 people.

Berry said he was “really surprised at first and then felt a great deal of pride” to find out he had been made a member of the order of the British Empire for his work helping to develop Sierra Leone’s education system and getting young people back into school in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016.

"A generation of girls [were] at risk of missing out on their education in the wake of the Ebola crisis."

— Chris Berry, senior education adviser, DFID

The education veteran was nominated for the award by his DFID team leader in Sierra Leone, and has worked for the aid agency for 11 years, including stints in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Devex spoke to Berry to find out more about his work in the West African country.

What were some of the education challenges facing Sierra Leone before, during, and after the Ebola crisis?

Five years ago [when the outbreak began], a low proportion of children went to secondary school because they couldn’t afford it and there were low levels of learning. Girls were also less likely to be in secondary schools than boys — 64 percent of girls as compared to 68 percent of boys were enrolled in junior secondary school.

The Ebola crisis in 2014 meant that schools were closed for the best part of a year to prevent infection spreading and many schools needed to be used as treatment centers instead. [By the time the outbreak was over] many children had also seen or experienced things that left them traumatized, causing them difficulties with returning to a normal school life.

What role did you and DFID play in Sierra Leone following the end of the Ebola crisis?

DFID [helped lead] the recovery effort and ... I volunteered to join the DFID team in-country to help establish the recovery program for education. U.K. aid funded additional classrooms to reduce overcrowding, hygiene kits to reduce the chances of infection, and helped to develop an accelerated curriculum so that children could catch up on what they’d missed. In total, we helped an estimated 1.2 million children to enroll safely and start to learn again.

The key was to work closely with the government of Sierra Leone to set and achieve mutually-agreed targets. We were able to use that cooperation as an opportunity to reform other areas of the system, such as working with the government to start prioritizing girls’ education, too — 900 schools developed action plans to get [girls] back into schools.

Those lessons have been built into our current program, and now U.K. aid is helping the government of Sierra Leone deliver on their ambition to provide 12 years of free education for all.

Pregnant girls are not allowed to attend school in Sierra Leone, although that is being challenged in court. This is the case in other African countries, too. Why does it happen and what is DFID doing to try and ensure these girls still get an education?

In Sierra Leone, girls and boys were not in school during the Ebola crisis, and as such there were higher rates of teenage pregnancy. It was estimated that over 3,000 girls were at risk of not re-enrolling because they were pregnant or had given birth, which left a generation of girls at risk of missing out on their education in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

Supporting girls’ education is a priority for DFID … [and] DFID and Irish Aid worked with [Sierra Leone’s] Ministry of Education to establish a bridging program for pregnant girls [and] lactating mothers, which included both education and health care in informal centers. These learning centers ensured that pregnant girls could continue their education and return to formal school after giving birth, rather than dropping out. By the time the bridging program closed in 2016 it had helped over 5,000 pregnant girls return to formal education.

DFID is now focused on working with the new government in Sierra Leone to ensure that schools are inclusive of all children, with the ambition of at least 12 years of free education for all. We are currently working with a range of partners to achieve progress with the government on girls’ education in particular and also [so] that provision is made for family planning education. Access to voluntary family planning information and services is important so that girls can make the informed choice that’s right for them; to use contraception if they wish to, and access it if they aren’t yet ready to have children.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.