During the nineteenth century Sierra Leone was a pioneer of western style education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fourah Bay College, the first tertiary education institute in the region, was founded in 1827, and the first boys school, Sierra Leone Grammar School, and the first girls school, Annie Walsh Memorial School, in the region founded in 1845 and 1849 respectively. The country was an important centre in training teachers, doctors and administrators for whole of West Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The education system that developed in Sierra Leone during the nineteenth and twentieth century was styled on the British education system. It was elitist in nature aimed at urban middle class and focused on the academically gifted who would go onto tertiary education before taking up positions as civil servants in the government. During this period the majority of the population were not formally educated or only a couple of years of primary education. When Sierra Leone declared independence in 1961, under 15% of children aged five to eleven and only five percent of 12- to 16-year-olds attended school.
After independence there was pressure to change the education system, but it wasn't until the 1990s that this grew to the level that led to changes in the system. Reforms were proposed so that the education system would serve the social economic needs of the country more closely, centering around increasing access to education, particularly primary education and placing more emphasis on technical and vocational education. In 1993 the government adopted a four stage approach to education and created the National Commission for Basic Education.
During the 1990s the Sierra Leone Civil War set these goals back destroying much of the country's infrastructure including schools; for example, 1,270 primary schools were destroyed. This created a shortage in schools which was compounded by a shortage in teachers and so made the legal requirement of universal basic education for all children difficult to obtain. At the end of the war in 2001 67 percent of school-age children were out of school.