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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Celebrating educational success

It’s been a week of celebrations, and we haven’t even got to Christmas yet.  To be honest, Christmas is going to be a bit low key this year as far as the celebratory aspects are concerned, though it’s going to be absolutely wonderful in other respects.  (For those of you who don’t know, we’re off to a wildlife reserve in the west for a few days, and hope to be chimp-trekking, amongst other things.)

The week started last Saturday with a trip up to Soroti in the far east of Uganda.   The drive took us about five and a half hours, the last three of which were along dead straight good quality tarmacked roads through papyrus swamps and rice fields until we reached the strange rocky outcrops of Soroti. 

Papyrus swamp as far as the eye can see

Rice fields near Mbale
Rocky hills rise above the plain in Teso region
Except in the trading centres, all the houses in the countryside are mud brick and thatch, though here and there more modern houses are being built.  
Houses in Teso, mud bricks drying front right
Businesses in the trading centre.  We didn't stay at this hotel.
Teso, the name of the general area, is very poor and suffered until very recently from the incursions of the LRA and generalised banditry, though you wouldn’t know it from a casual glance.  The road, however, is a ‘giveaway’, straight and tarmacked, though now rutted and crumbling in places.  Like other ex-conflict areas, transporting troops has been a priority.   Soroti town itself is run down, but then so are many Ugandan towns.  You can still see the rather tired and down-at-heel remnants of the original Asian stores and some dilapidated colonial housing.
The broad streets of Soroti
Once grand colonial building crumbling away
In fact the school we were aiming for, Pioneer School, was originally built by Asians for Asians in 1939, but taken over by Africans once they were expelled in 1972.  Most of the building has been allowed to moulder away, like many Ugandan schools, particularly those ‘up-country’.  We were there out of term-time and on a Saturday, so no children.  Our purpose was to attend an award ceremony for teachers who had enhanced their skills and were to receive a certificate of recognition.  


The course, for teachers of the thematic curriculum in P1-P4, was about developing ‘child-friendly’ schools, introducing active learning approaches, and engaging in action research within their own schools.   The project has been led by the Ministry of Education and Sports, supported by USAID/Unity, with some help from Link.  The course was taught through distance learning, with Coordinating Centre Tutors (CCTs) from Soroti Core Primary Teaching Centre (a PTC is a teacher education college) and other core PTCs providing support to individual teachers.  The Teso area was chosen because of its poor results in the primary leaving examination, and its high dropout rate.

Renovated building at Pioneer School
What a joyous occasion it was! Three hundred teachers of all ages, some with infants, crammed into the disintegrating classroom, or stood outside at the door.  They had travelled miles, many of them down narrow mud tracks from remote villages in the bush, to collect their certificates from various notables, including the Commissioner for Teacher Education (the civil service head of department) and the local district education officer (and us!).  

Teachers gathering in the disintegrating classroom
Proud recipient of a proficiency certificate
Five of the teachers gave moving witness statements about the impact of the training on them as individuals, and on their work within their schools.  They described how their attitudes to teaching and to children had changed and how they had learned to reflect on how they were teaching.  Despite the large classes, results in reading, writing and maths had improved through the use of interactive methods.  They now looked far more closely at the reasons for dropouts and low attendance, and tried to encourage children to return to school.  Sadly, as in most of Uganda, the most common causes of drop out apart from poverty were early marriage (with its much-welcomed ‘bride price’ for the girl’s family) and ‘defilement’ (rape) resulting in pregnancy.  The course had transformed the way they supported children.  They strongly believed that all teachers should be able to undertake such study.  One distinctive feature of the course was the fact that it involved teamwork through membership of a closely-knit mutually supportive group.  

A group of teachers gathers round their CCT mentor

Participants had persevered in quite difficult circumstances supported by their fellow students and mentoring by the CCTs.  The teachers who made it to through to certification felt they were part of a ‘family’, linked by the nature of their endeavour and the quality of their shared experiences.

Course materials depicting
active learning in a child-friendly classroom
Support for reflective practitioners
The award ceremony was an occasion well worth celebrating.  As each teacher came up for his or her certificate the excitement grew and the applause got louder, culminating in piercing ululations.  We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Luckily the ceiling did not collapse onto the
district education officer
We left Soroti on a high.  Teso might be poor, it might be a long way from Kampala but it looked as if things were changing for the better. 



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