Saturday, February 5, 2011

Royal Pride Academy: celebrating success and planning for the future

Only a couple of blogs ago we were bewailing the fact that achievement in the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE), that crucial educational milestone, was out of the reach of nearly half of Uganda's children.  Nevertheless, we have a wonderful success story for you.  Six candidates sat the PLE at Royal Pride Academy and six passed, with very creditable results which include a couple of passes each in Divisions I and II.  I say ‘candidates’ rather than ‘pupils’ or ‘children’ for one was an adult from the community, for whom success will at once start opening doors and providing new opportunities.

These results represent a significant achievement for the school and for the individuals concerned.  The students had to travel to a Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) presenting centre some miles outside the city and stay overnight in another school’s boarding accommodation for two or three days while they did their exams, as it was too far to return home.  Sitting exams in such unfamiliar circumstances must have been very challenging, so the candidates’ success was even more impressive. 

The results were also a triumph for the teachers at Royal Pride, who have been nurturing and supporting these students in very difficult circumstances.  Life in the Mutungo slum is never easy, and helping young people to ‘stick with’ education over the seven years of primary schooling is a real challenge.  Families are large – often about 10 – and it is difficult for children to get peace to sleep in their one-room homes, let alone do homework (if they are lucky enough to afford the necessary paraffin for the lamp).  Children come to school tired and listless.   One of the most difficult aspects for older pupils, Godfrey the headteacher told us, was the fact that parents often do not provide them with any food during the school day, reserving what food they have for their younger children.  Many children drop out because of the sheer physical discomfort they experience as a result, and the tiredness which chronic malnutrition, HIV/Aids and repeated bouts of malaria bring.  But these young people and their older colleague did stick it out and have been rewarded.  Incidentally, Godfrey also attributed much of the success to the new reading books for senior pupils which volunteers had donated in early autumn.  So celebrations were definitely in order.

Waiting expectantly, the school community gathers under the awning.
Godfrey resplendent in white suit.
VSO volunteers were very privileged to be invited to take part in the award ceremony and help to recognise this achievement.  Indeed, one of our friends, Yvonne, had the daunting task of giving a speech and presenting the PLE certificates, which she did with great aplomb – and huge bursts of applause, particularly when she started off in the local language, Luganda!  There were things she had to get used to, though, for example the grateful recipients kneeling before her to receive their award!  Stuart and I have often experienced this in schools and feel quite uncomfortable.  However, we have to accept that it is part of the Ugandan culture and a sign of respect.  We once saw a middle-aged woman kneeling before a couple of ‘big men’ in the middle of a village street.

Proudly receiving his certificate from Yvonne on bended knee.

Successful learners...

...and confident individuals.
You might have thought that there would be a tiny turnout for half a dozen award-winners.  Far from it: half of Mutungo’s inhabitants were there and everyone was dressed to the nines.  Imagine the impact on younger children of such a ceremony!  What an incentive to stay in school.   And just to make sure that everyone was involved, the headteacher had arranged for presents of donated clothes and – a particular delight – teddies, provided through another VSO volunteer’s links with the UK charity Teddies for Tragedies for children further down the school.  In a society where toys are a rarity, having a teddy to cuddle makes a real difference to young children living in difficult circumstances.

Teddies with new carers.
But success in Royal Pride is not just about certificates.  Three of us, Romaine (our next door neighbour), Stuart and I visited the school on Friday.  While Romaine did a session on teaching phonics to some of the younger children and their teachers, Stuart and I spent time with Godfrey discussing the key priorities – and the main challenges - which the school faces over the next year or two. 

Waiting eagerly for Romaine.

New magnetic letters...
One concern is how to provide continuing education and support for a young man of 17 with severe language and communication difficulties who has been at the school since P1.  In many schools he would have been ‘encouraged’ to leave.  However, in Royal Pride he has been allowed to stay on because he is happy there and in order to develop his social skills, which he is doing quite successfully.  Of course, if we were in Scotland we would have some concern about this situation, and about age-appropriate activities.  But where else can he go?  There are vocational training institutions in Kampala, but his parents cannot possibly pay the fees.    Godfrey asked us for advice about appropriate learning activities.  We will try to gauge his stage of development and perhaps come back to some of you specialists.  Still, this young man represents a success for this school.  Instead of languishing at the back of his parents’ hut or mooching about the streets, he is occupied and interacting with others.

Other successes?  As many of you will know, much was achieved last year, when the Cowans were involved with the school.  For example, playground equipment was purchased, classroom resources donated and a classroom block and latrines were built.  Now the Cowans have returned to the UK, VSO support continues.  This support is not financial as Royal Pride is an ‘extra’ project, not part of VSO’s core work.  Support is given by VSO volunteers in the form of private donations of resources, time and expertise, for example, painting school furniture a couple of months ago, as some of you may recall.  We have also been collecting some recyclable materials e.g. cardboard and bottle tops, to use to help the school develop its resources e.g. for active approaches to maths.  Some volunteers have developed some learning activities using bottle tops and these are being matched to the Ugandan national curriculum.  Once this has been done, we can get to work with the teachers developing learning games.

Building houses in the nursery with donated Lego.
Stuart and I are acting as links with the school, but many other VSO volunteers are involved in providing practical support.  So far, we have worked with Godfrey to develop the school’s first high level improvement plan.  You can find a copy of this to the right of this column, including a review of progress over the last session.  (It hasn't come out very well, but you'll be able to make out the main features.)

So, what about plans for the future in Royal Pride?  The four big improvement priorities are:

  • improving accommodation and health and safety;
  • bringing the school up to expected national standards and achieving registration first as a Non-governmental organisation (NGO), and then, later, as a school;
  • improving teaching and learning and the curriculum, with a view to improving achievement; and
  • developing further the school’s links with parents and the community.

Health and safety are the major issues.  Other things don’t necessarily cost money, or not much money, anyway.  The long term aims in improving health and safety are to:

  • improve drainage so there are no more pools of stagnant water which attract mosquitoes, or damp which penetrates the old classrooms;
  • provide water for children to use to wash their hands after they have used the latrine, as there is no water on site;
  • provide a concrete foundation on which, eventually, to raise a new second classroom block above ground level; and
  • provide separate latrines for boys and girls, very important given the age range of the school.

How can this be achieved in a school with NO financial resources? 

Well, first, a big thank you to our wonderful ex-colleagues in HMIE who gave so generously.   The money you handed to Jane before Christmas (£375) has been put into a special savings account on which we can draw as developments take place.  What we have done with the fund so far is to provide Sh500,000 (about £150) to improve the drainage, essential before anything else can be done.  This will pay for enough ‘murram’ (the material out of which Ugandan roads are made – something between gravel and earth) to raise the playground area.  The school will cover the costs of labour in transporting the murram to the school, no easy task given that there are no roads, just winding paths in between houses.  Parents and members of the local community contribute to the school by providing their labour.  This work should be completed within the next week.  The next job will be to buy guttering and a plastic water tank for the most recently completed building so that rainwater can be collected and used for hand-washing. 

What are the issues faced by the school beyond accommodation and health and safety?  The biggest one is the non-payment of school fees.  Some of last year’s fees still haven’t been paid and now we are into the new school year.  Should these children be allowed to return without their parents clearing their earlier debts?  If this happens, how on earth is the school to survive?  When questioned, Godfrey said that all the families who had failed to complete their payments of school fees (usually done in small instalments) had genuine reasons relating to their economic position and the pressures on their family life.  Yet the school is unsustainable if this continues to happen.  However, thanks to you, two pupils who are orphans and whom Godfrey had turned away will have their school fees paid for this term at least.

Certainly this situation makes the need for the school to become registered with the Ministry even more pressing, as at least it might then become eligible for government funding, for example, under the Universal Primary Education Scheme.  To become registered the school has to meet BRMS - no, not Brian Stewart moonlighting in Uganda, but Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards.  Stuart and I will be working on this aspect with the headteacher, as it an area with which we are very familiar.  We have been liaising with a lawyer who has registered the name of the school and is making good progress in getting the necessary signatures from officials at various levels in the local council.  The headteacher had already put together a constitution so that the school is not far off gaining NGO status, which makes it official and deals with any tax complications.

Another worry for Godfrey is providing morning tea and lunch of posho (cornflour) or porridge, for his teachers.  This may sound terrible to you in Scotland, given that the children themselves are hungry.  However, the school is unable to pay the teachers proper, or regular, salaries and gives them lunch as some sort of compensation.

I must admit that by the time Stuart and I had understood the mountain of challenges the school faced, we were feeling almost overwhelmed.  However, the school exists, its situation is gradually improving thanks to the hard work and commitment of the staff and headteacher and the generosity of VSO volunteers and people like you back in the UK, and the children are happy and doing well.  What more can one ask?

The new P6/P7 starts the term well.
If you would like to help us continue to help Royal Pride, please hand in a cheque or cash to Jane or David, or, if you are not in HMIE, let me know by email that you would like to contribute ( and I will make individual arrangements for your contribution to reach the Royal Pride fund.  If you are coming new to this story you can find three earlier posts about the school on this blog, and some basic information and a slide show at the right hand side of this column.

Many thanks again for your generosity.

Thank you from me...

...and from me.

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