Saturday, July 30, 2011

I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road...

This week we have been ‘on the road’, across to the east then up to the north, a round trip of about 900 kilometres. As we gazed out of the car windows, what was the most common sight? Children milling around the playground and walking away from the schools, long snakes of them. And what was the reason?  Teachers have been on strike. 

In Uganda, we are used to students going on strike, of course.  Two or three secondary schools across the country are affected by strikes most weeks, a situation which says more about school ethos, student welfare and headteachers’ management skills than about the apparent intransigence of young people. Students’ grievances are usually quite understandable and relate to poor sanitation, inadequate food and absent or lazy teachers.  However, faced with obdurate officialdom, students often end up rioting and the police are brought in, often using live ammunition, as in Kibaale a couple of days ago: a typically Ugandan approach to conflict resolution.  However, this week both primary and secondary schools have been involved in strikes and it has been the teachers not the pupils who have had grievances to air.

What are the teachers’ concerns?  The issue, as you might expect, is pay. A primary school teacher earns Shs273,000 per month (about £67) and a secondary teacher Shs450,000 (around £110).  Teachers were given a 30% increment last year but there is some confusion in the press about whether this was actually paid.  Their union, Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) is now demanding a rise of 100%.  Like the rest of the population, teachers are suffering from Uganda’s high inflation – currently about 18.7% - which affects the price of food in particular.  And the expense they quote most frequently as a principal drain on their salaries is the need to pay school fees for their own children, ironically in order to keep them out of government-aided schools, the kinds of schools which they themselves work in.

Certainly the teachers have legitimate grievances, not just related to their poor salaries, and press coverage has been quite sympathetic.  Teachers’ salaries are paid directly into their accounts by the Ministry of Finance.  Payrolls are often not updated regularly and may contain fictitious names (‘ghost’ teachers are a nice little earner for some people) while not including many of those who actually have a job.  It is not unusual to go into a school and find that almost a third of the teachers are not on the official payroll. 

Even if on the official payroll, many teachers receive their pay only irregularly.  Six months arrears are normal and when their salaries eventually arrive they are not backdated.  If teachers are living away from their home area and don’t have land on which to grow food for their families, they can be in real difficulty.  This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to persuade teachers to move to more remote areas, despite additional allowances.  Many teachers have second jobs such as driving boda bodas or running shops, with an inevitable impact on their commitment to their substantive post. Astonishingly, some of the discussion in the press this week has been about the desirability of teachers taking out loans to start up businesses in order to support themselves! We are constantly flabbergasted at the things we read in the Ugandan newspapers.

However, bad though it is, the situation is not as straightforward as all that. 

It was not just this week that the children have been out on the roads. One of the things you immediately notice when you drive about Uganda on any day is that there are always a lot of children out of school, many of them in uniform. 

Now you might say, well that's hardly surprising.  Half of Uganda's population are under 15 and the only way for most children to get to school is on foot. This is true, but it wouldn't explain why the roads are thronged with children at 10.30 in the morning or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. 

Ugandan schools work long hours, officially from about 8am to 5 or 5.30pm.  Many reputable private schools or government schools unofficially work even longer hours.  It is not unusual for boarding schools to get their students out of bed at 5.30am for a couple of hours prep before breakfast, and work them through till 10pm at night.  As most boarding schools also have day pupils, you see young people trudging up and down the roads at what seem to us to be completely unreasonable times.  Think of the dangers, think of the impact on children's lives.  Letters in the newspapers complain of children leaving their suburban homes at 4am in order to reach their schools on time, one reason for the popularity of boarding.  On their return at 8 o'clock in the evening, children have to buckle down to do their homework.  One of our friends once told us that her cleaner's 3 year old son had been caned for arriving a few minutes late for the 7am start at his private nursery school.

And as if these school hours were not bad enough, many schools operate illegal study time during the holidays.  Here's a contrast for you: in Scotland, schools are commended for providing holiday activities such as broader study and enrichment for less privileged young people; in Uganda, schools which provide (or, indeed, require) students to attend such activities are criticised by Ministry officials for cramming them unnecessarily for examinations and, in some cases, running profitable financial rackets which extract even more money from the pockets of struggling families.  Some schools are even accused of deliberately only teaching part of the syllabus during the normal timetabled weeks in order to force students to attend and pay for extra holiday lessons.

Given the inhumane hours which so many schools insist on, why then are Stuart and I so used to seeing so many children on the road during the middle of the morning and afternoon?

The answer lies in the nature of Ugandan society. Uganda is a country of the haves and have-nots.  The haves go to well-run schools, private schools or famous government-aided schools. We have been to some of these schools and been impressed by them and by the headteachers and teachers who work there. The children wandering the roads in the middle of the working day are the have-nots.  They attend the poorer government-aided and private schools, those offering universal primary or secondary education (UPE, USE), particularly those in rural areas.

The gap between the rich and the poor, and between the slightly richer and the very much poorer is enormous. Uganda may pride itself on universal education, but few middle class children and, indeed, few teachers' children actually go to the crowded schools which provide it. Government-aided UPE schools are generally perceived to be for those who cannot afford anything else. Compare that with Scotland.  Only a handful of education professionals in Scotland send their children to fee-paying schools.  The general belief is that if a local authority school is not good enough for your own child it is not good enough for anyone else's.  Of course, that does not prevent teachers and local authority education officers moving into the catchment areas of the more desirable schools, but they will tend to be state, not private, schools.

In Uganda, however, while middle class children work all hours of the day and a good bit of the night in their 'good' schools, the vast majority of the country's children receive disrupted education in government-aided schools or in one of the thousands of poor quality private schools which continue to mushroom all over the country.  The children we keep seeing walking up and down the roads are the children of the poor, usually but not always the rural poor.

Colleagues who go in and out of rural primary schools all the time tell us that it is quite common for them to arrive at a school in which even by 10.30 in the morning only one out of the 14 or 15 teachers may have turned up.  In some schools, no teachers at all may turn up on some days.  Imagine that: the children arrive hungry, having walked for several miles, and there are no teachers when they get there. Even if the teachers are there, they are often not teaching. In the UK, we take it for granted that every primary class has its own teacher, who is responsible for almost all the learning which goes on in the class.  British primary teachers are busy, very busy, and long before the beginning and after the end of each day.

In Uganda, classes are certainly large, sometimes containing a hundred or even two hundred pupils.  However, more than one teacher is usually responsible for teaching that class.  These teachers divide up the curriculum between them. Although they may both be in the class together one may be dozing at the back or getting on with some preparation (if you’re lucky).  They will not, however,  actually be team teaching, an alien concept here. 

I once went into a P2 class of 70 or 80 pupils.  It was in the centre of a small town and hence was very well staffed, allegedly with the wives of local government officials who had persuaded their husbands not to send them out into the countryside. The class had three teachers – amazing, they could each have taken 25 pupils.  And how did those three teachers divide up the work?  One of them taught, one of them marked exercise books and one of them handed out chalk.  Seriously.  And from my seat at the back of the class I could see that at least half the children hadn’t a clue what was going on and nobody, nobody at all, came to help them.  Often the non-working teachers don’t even get as far as the classroom: they can be seen under the mango trees or in the staffroom.  Fair enough, there may not be enough classrooms to divide up the classes between them, but surely it would be better to teach smaller groups outside than to continue the practice of one teacher teaching an enormous class inside?  The disadvantage for the teachers?  They would actually have to teach all the time instead of just for a couple of periods each day.

So, the situation is a complex one.  And what do Stuart and I think? These are Uganda’s children – everyone’s children. Every day of every year, not just when the teachers are on strike, children’s futures are being destroyed and their lives blighted. A whole generation is being thrown away.  Education is about values.  Children should come first. Yes, it is bad that a dysfunctional system doesn’t pay its teachers regularly.  Yes, it is bad that salaries are so low.  However, it is also difficult to justify 100% pay rises when day after day we see unattended classes and children failing to learn.

Children learning - statue on the roundabout at Gulu


  1. Just caught up with this one. The teaching you describe is so familiar. When we were working at Kyebambe we were commended fro our "time management" which meant that we turned up for all our classes on time and actually taught fro the allotted period.Kyebambe also had prep morning and evening but all that this meant was that the girls aimlessly (and listlessly) turned pages of notes or dozed quietly as quite often prep was unsupervised. It also meant that girls frequently fell asleep in class during the day. It wasn't my teaching. Honest.

  2. And it is not just schools, Sandy. Meetings where people arrive two hours late. Positives in having a more relaxed approach to life, perhaps but negatives in nothing ever getting done!

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