07/11/2012 04:38 GMT | Updated 06/01/2013 05:12 GMT

No Child Left Behind: Reaching A Nation's Street Children

No one knows how many street children there are in the world. Finding out is one of the first recommendations of the recent UN study on street children to all its member states.

This is generally regarded as difficult and/or expensive. Yet, between September and November 2011, something extraordinary happened. Sierra Leone's street children were counted - 49,698 of them across 17 cities - in a process energized by 2 UK charities, Street Child and StreetInvest, in partnership with the national government and delivered by 62 civil society organisations.

We didn't estimate, we didn't scale up a small study: together our local colleagues and partners went out onto the streets of a nation and physically counted the number of children living and working on its streets.

This is, to our knowledge, the first ever comprehensive, physical count of street children to have taken place on a national scale.

Even more extraordinary - today in the House of Commons, our two charities are launching the first steps of a strategy to reach every single one of those 49,698 children.

The exercise was a significant achievement in itself. Life in 'Salone' isn't easy.

Recovering from decades of a notorious civil war, children its foot-soldiers, Sierra Leone today is at peace. But it is still one of the least developed countries in the world. That means only 2 in 5 people can read, it means 1 in 7 children die before the age of five years old - and it means any data, let alone good data, is hard to come by.

"By enumerating the 50,000 kids who rely on the street for their livelihood and the 3,000 who actually sleep there, the census forces the world to face the facts," said the Guardian in April this year when the report was first published. "By counting these forgotten children, it just might make them count."

The headcount is necessarily just the beginning. To stop at counting would be perverse at best. No, we are planning, in partnership with the Government of Sierra Leone, to develop a nationwide street child system.

We will train 150 street workers and recruit 350 volunteers and partners to ensure that every child in Sierra Leone has access to a safe adult above all, and to help achieve a situation in which "no child is left behind".

We will ask the children what they want - whether that's to return home (like most - but not all), to go to school (like almost all), or just to be supported to make positive choices - and try to help them achieve their potential. It's a hugely ambitious goal, but we believe, with collaboration from development and funding partners, it is achievable.

What else do street children want?

On Duncan's last trip to Sierra Leone in October, he heard the story of a young girl who was abandoned by her family when she became pregnant. Fortunately Street Child was able to reconcile the daughter with her family and she is now home again, with her baby, and at school.

When she was asked, "How can we best help you?" her reply was simply, "Help all the others."

We plan to do just that. Not next decade. Now. It is possible.

There are lots of life's problems that may seem insurmountable. We believe that this one is not.

There are many extraordinary people who, with pitiful resources, are already doing something. With our help, perhaps they can do much more. Perhaps even reach our mutual goal to ensure that, of the 49,698 that we counted, there is no child left behind.

Thomas Dannatt, Director, Street Child

Duncan Ross, CEO, StreetInvest

Street Child is a UK based charity working with Sierra Leonean NGOs to help marginalised children off the street and to access education. SC does this through:

• Street work programmes focussing on family reconciliation, family income generation support and access to education; and

• A rural education development programme, developing the capacity of schools and teachers in critically under-served rural areas.

StreetInvest is a UK based charity working in many countries around the world to ensure that the rights, needs and potential of street-connected children can be fulfilled. StreetInvest does this by training professional and committed workers to serve as trustworthy adults in the children's lives.