Thursday, September 23, 2010

Visiting schools in eastern Uganda

‘What are your main priorities for improvement?’ I asked the depute head - a typical HMIE question.

I had just finished shadowing my DES colleague as she inspected this ‘up-country’ rural secondary school, and could see a score or more potential areas for improvement.  I thought the depute might mention the lack of a science lab; the lack of a library, the expired chemicals; the eight science textbooks shared among the 168 pupils in the one S4 class; the lack of electricity and, hence, of ICT for learning and school management; the four bare classrooms for over 800 students; the gaps in curriculum coverage because of minimal resourcing and the need to work in shifts. I could have gone on and on.

The depute leant forward and said intensely, ‘There are three things we must do.   We must build a hostel for the girls; we must build houses for the teachers; and we must feed the children.’

Why these priorities?

Uganda is an ambitious country.  It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, though the poor remain very poor and corruption is a major problem.  It was the first country in Africa to introduce universal primary education (UPE) and to successfully reduce the spread of AIDS.  It has other major challenges, of course, malaria for one and maternal and neo-natal death for another.  

One of Uganda’s newest targets is the provision of universal secondary education (USE), an aspirational national target well beyond the Millennium goals.   You might think that the country has got enough on its plate working towards the primary target, for numbers don’t automatically translate into quality.  However, now these younger children have started learning, it is both inevitable and right that they are able to continue learning into their secondary years, and beyond. Hence, the introduction of USE. 

Up till now, about 10-12% of young people transferred from primary to secondary school.  They pay fees set individually by each school, government as well as private, and provide their own uniform, jotters and books.  To meet the new target, the Ministry has designated some schools as USE schools, specifically those with the lowest fees.  These are the schools which take in the extra USE pupils whose fees (but nothing else) are paid by the government. The USE pupils, like the other secondary pupils, will have passed the Primary Leaving Examination. As a result of PLE, the percentage of the secondary cohort receiving schooling has now increased to around 25%.

Our DES colleagues are currently engaged in establishing baselines for Uganda’s major education policy initiatives.  These initiatives include USE and the introduction of Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards (BRMS) across all schools.   Last week, Stuart and I travelled about 300km across the country, right to the Kenyan border and north, to join some of the inspection teams.

We gradually left behind the tropical forest round Kampala.  As we went east the tree cover thinned, though never entirely disappeared, and the landscape became more like savannah.  

We passed through dusty mouldering colonial towns with deep potholes in their roads.  

We saw strange rock formations.  

Hills and mountains suddenly reared up above the skyline.  

We saw Mount Elgon with the town of Mbale. nestling below it. The low rectangular houses with their corrugated iron roofs were replaced by round huts with thatch.    

Most of the younger children went bare foot.    They still wore school uniform, but rather dustier and shabbier than the smart outfits we had seen in Kampala.  A good number of them were not in uniform.  They were playing in the dust, looking after younger brothers and sisters or doing household tasks like carrying water.  

In other words, they were not going to school.

The roads outside the towns were sometimes quite good and sometimes terrible.  We saw our first monkey family and a very impressive baboon (no pictures, we were driving too fast).  The country was criss-crossed by defunct railway lines.  Both roads and railways had originally been built by the British to carry raw materials from the west of Uganda across to Mombasa in Kenya, from where they would be shipped to Britain to feed our factories and contribute to our wealth.  The railways had been closed down 20 years ago, so heavy use by huge long-distance lorries resulting in badly deteriorating road surfaces.

Eventually, we met up with our colleagues. Stuart and I separated and, with our respective partners from DES, turned off onto dirt tracks and penetrated further and further into the countryside.  We passed children of all ages laughing and waving.   ‘Mzungu (white person, stranger), how-are-you?  I-am-fine,’ they chorused before collapsing into giggles.

During the week, we made half-day inspection visits to three secondary schools (one private, two government), a primary teaching centre (or college of education) and a vocational school.  In each school, we checked how staff were addressing USE and/or BRMS.  Our colleagues did more than we did.  Two schools a day was their norm.  Inspectors employed by the districts monitored the primary schools.

So, in this particular secondary school, why these three priorities?

In Uganda, many children are not safe and their health and wellbeing are not assured effectively.  The risks for girls of secondary age are particularly serious.  Whereas primary children normally attend schools which are relatively near their homes, secondary students may walk miles to gain an education.  They may set off before dawn, reaching school two hours later.  They study through the day, in many schools without food.  The school I was visiting had a borehole so it could give them a drink of water.  However, it had no budget for feeding them. The depute, supported by local politicians and officials, had pleaded with parents to provide their children with packed lunches (for example, beans left over from the evening meal), but to no avail.  As he said, hungry children find it difficult to learn, teachers find it hard to sustain their attention and class management can be a problem.  

At the end of the day, around five o’clock, the young people walk home.  Night falls quickly on the equator and it can be quite dark before they arrive.  Imagine what can happen to girls, in particular, on the way.  They may fall for the temptation of a ‘soda’ offered by a passing cyclist or boda-boda driver and be sexually assaulted or raped.  The number of unplanned  pregnancies is high.  Girls may also drop out because it is just too difficult to go to school or because their parents put pressure on them to help at home or to get married.  One of the government’s priorities is to reduce early marriage (often just after puberty).  The proportion of boys to girls in this secondary school was two thirds to a third, and the numbers dropped off as they progressed from S1 to S4.  A hostel, as the depute said, would keep the girls safe, or so he hoped.

So what about the teachers’ houses? Ugandan teachers are very poorly paid.  Some may receive only about £80 a month.  Many have other jobs to make ends meet, and almost all cultivate their own patch of ground to feed their families.  They are assigned to their schools by the authorities and often travel long distances to get there.  They don’t have cars.  Some may have bikes and others may travel by boda-boda.  Some have left their families in their villages and rent accommodation in the local area.  In many schools, there is a very high teacher absence rate, sometimes as high as 50%.  The first thing the inspectors do when they enter a school is to check the book which teachers sign on arrival.  They draw a red line below the last entry and then check on the number of absences and any latecoming.  I wonder how Scottish teachers would react? In one of the reports I read, the fact that all the teachers were in school was given as a key strength of the school!

For all these reasons it is quite common for schools to provide houses for teachers.  Nothing grand, just a room or two with a bit of land and somewhere to cook, but it makes teachers part of the local and the school community.  They are there on site and much more likely to put in the hours.  Their families are happier too.

So, for a whole number of reasons, the depute headteacher's three main priorities were probably pretty good ones.


  1. The priorities seem sound to me! Elisabeth, the blogs will make a fine book once you return home.

  2. Thanks, Morag, much appreciated. I love writing these entries and spend a good bit of slack time thinking about them. Regard it as 'writing practice'!