Thursday, March 29, 2012

Glorious Preparatory School, serving the community in Kasese

Kasese is not a particularly attractive town, particularly compared with its pleasant northerly neighbour Fort Portal.  Kasese's setting, however, is pretty impressive. The town huddles on the floor of the Rift Valley, under Mount Stanley, the highest mountain in the western Rwenzori range, its loftiest peak, Margherita, an impressive 5109 metres. Not far south of Kasese a turning to the right off the main road takes you direct to the Congolese border, which is where Stuart ended up (by intention, not accident) when we were inspecting in the area a couple of weeks ago. And yes, he almost did...that is, cross over, for everybody else was doing it and he fancied wandering round the market. Rather disappointingly he thought better of it.

However, we were not intending to deviate from our route on this particular day, for we knew exactly where we were going. The hour-long drive from the north had taken us through the usual shabby trading centres and past the Hima Cement Factory - not a notable tourist attraction but one of the few sources of income in an area where almost two thirds of the population are below the official poverty line.

Hima Cement from the south

A hint of what's to come, hills looming beyond the mud and pole house.
The further south you go, the more rugged the skyline on your right until, eventually, you reach Kasese's most notable feature: its roundabout. Once at the roundabout, you're almost at your destination. Almost where? Almost at Glorious Preparatory School. British readers please note, the school is not as posh as it sounds!

Not an inspection this time: our visit to Glorious was simply for personal interest and enjoyment.

A private nursery/primary school of about 400 pupils, Glorious was founded in 2009, not that long ago. We had heard about the school and what it was trying to do from the Uganda Schools Trust, which is providing it with precious support.

The school serves its immediate local community, an area of self-built mud-brick housing on the site of what was until quite recently a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs).  Kasese and its immediate area was a conflict zone from 1996 until 2001, when the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) engaged in guerilla attacks from the mountains above the town. Remember, the LRA has not been the only rebel group operating in Uganda. There were getting on for a score of them at one time, not least the NRA, which ultimately transformed itself into Uganda's internationally recognised government. The ADF was a splinter group of the NRA, which fought to return to the NRA's original ten-point political plan.

During the ADF conflict, the people from the hills left their homes and came down to the plain for safety. Local people living on the hillsides continue to undertake military training, just in case. The government armed them during the conflict and unsubstantiated rumours circulate about a possible renewal of violence.

Always prepared.
Some families have returned to their mountain homes now that peace has returned, but some still remain and it is their children who form the nucleus of the school population. With war and displacement came social problems such as poverty, family breakdown, HIV/AIDs, alcoholism, prostitution and child abuse of different kinds. The children in the area frequently lack access to education and may suffer from poor nutrition and health conditions which affect their ability to learn and progress. The prevalence of HIV/AIDs in Kasese is 8.2%, 2% higher than the national average. Few families have paid employment. Many of the men just creep into the savannah next to their homes, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and cut down trees to sell as firewood or charcoal.

What a responsibility when you're in Baby Class!
Glorious Preparatory School was founded by Muhindo Ben and his wife Mbambu Jonah, the headteacher, with the support of their wider family. Their intention was to address some of the challenges described above. Ben himself had been orphaned at an early age and is acutely aware of the impact of financial and other hardship on young people. The school has a clear community purpose: to develop skills among young people which will enable them to support themselves and, in time, develop better lives for their own families. 
Ben, the Director, with textbooks supplied by UST in the cupboard behind.
Jonah outside her office.
Ben and Jonah hope to extend their project to secondary-aged vocational education in due course. Below is a summary of the project's long-term objectives.
  • Equip young people with the knowledge required for future administrative responsibilities.
  • Economically empower them to prepare them to take up investments in profitable projects.
  • Expose their potential so that the rest of the world can be in a position to trust them with responsibilities of all kinds.
  • Empower them with the knowledge and skills to successfully join the fight towards poverty eradication.
  • Provide them with basic information concerning their health  and encourage those who are HIV positive or having other STDs so that they avoid the stigma of having the disease.
  • Create a forum for them to meet and discuss issues that relate and benefit them, share experiences and push for a common future.
  • Create a single voice for them against all forms of mistreatment and abuse so that other people can come in to help and protect them.
Hard at work at the middle stages.
A welcome for the visitors.
It is still early days at Glorious, however, and at present the school just goes up to Primary 5. It has arrangements for children reaching P6 to transfer to neighbouring schools.

Mud floors and unplastered walls in the brick building.
The accommodation is modest: wooden classrooms, for the most part, with an administration block and a few classrooms built of brick, and hence more watertight and permanent. Classrooms have mud floors and the early years classes can have up to 90 children. However, despite the limitations to the accommodation, staff have made good efforts to make their classrooms welcoming places in which to learn. The children are happy and doing well.

Baby class look a bit stunned!
Visual aids made by teachers.
The school reminds us very much of Royal Pride in Kampala, with some of the same difficulties. As at Royal Pride, the latrines are a building priority as local inspectors will require adequate sanitation if the school is going to gain registration. We agree that this is an essential project and, fortunately the school is making good progress with the improvements.

Parent working on the latrines in lieu of school fees.
High mountains can be seen very faintly through the heat haze.
UST has helped with other improvements, for instance the water tank and 'talking' walls.

Water tank

Learning from the walls.
The school does its best to support local families. Although the nursery finishes for the day at lunchtime, a number of children bring something to eat and stay on in the afternoon, the school providing mats for them to sleep on.

Lunchtime for nursery children.
One of the encouraging aspects of Glorious is that the headteacher's and teachers' children attend the school, demonstrating a genuine commitment to its values and ethos.

The staff body, and us.
Stuart in full flow.
In a country where corporal punishment, despite being illegal, is still the norm in schools and classrooms often display the most forbidding sets of rules, it was a pleasure to come across one of the best behaviour policies we have seen.

  1. Be careful.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Always do your best.
  4. Care for school and other people's property.

The school's motto is Persist and achieve, straightforward, down to earth and utterly relevant to these children's lives. Determination, resilience and aspiration: these are the qualities which children in Kasese need.

After our visit, Ben took us up the mountain to Kilembe, a trip which gave us much more of a sense of the rural community living just a mile or two up the road from the industrial town. The landscape looked so familiar, we felt we were in Scotland again!

A highland burn near Kilembe.
The Kilembe area once had copper mines, closed during the Amin era as the manager was 'not indigenous': a good example of unemployment and poverty being caused by prejudice. The old industrial housing climbs up the hillside, managers' bungalows at the bottom and casual labourers' one-roomed cottages at the top, all now lived in by anyone. However, there is talk that the mines may be reopened. That may spell a more positive future for employment in the area.

Old mine buildings.
The Kilembe mines even have a golf course, so we are told. Unfortunately we came without the golf clubs.

Let's hope that through industrial investment and recovery and projects like the one at Glorious Preparatory School the Kasese community will regain its resilience and hope. The bright faces and happy smiles of the children certainly gave us confidence that it would and left us feeling quite optimistic about the future.

If you would like to learn more about Glorious Preparatory School and what it is trying to achieve, visit the Uganda Schools Trust site where you will find a whole section devoted to the school.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Teaching the teachers

It is worrying that some learners reach P7 and can't write their names. It is the fault of the teachers. (The Commissioner for Planning, Ministry of Education and Sports, quoted in The Daily Monitor)

We're what it's all about.
This year's National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) report has just concluded that pupil performance in Uganda is declining. Proficiency in core subjects has fallen from 36.7% in 2008 to 19.6% in 2011: potentially humiliating in international terms, bad for the national economy and tragic for individual children.

NAPE reported on levels of literacy and numeracy in P3 and P6; performance in English language, mathematics and biology in S2; and (this year for the first time) teachers' performance in the same subjects. It showed that teachers with higher qualifications such as A level performed better than those with lower qualifications. As a result, the Ugandan National Examinations Board (UNEB) has asked the government to raise minimum requirements for students wishing to train as primary teachers from O Level to A Level.

How do you become a primary teacher in the first place?

There are 45 government-aided primary teachers' colleges (PTCs) in Uganda, of which 22 provide only pre-service training and 23 (the 'core' PTCs) provide both pre-service and post-service training. In addition, there are private establishments, many of which are of poor quality. Some government PTCs have demonstration schools attached to them.

Demonstration school at a core PTC
Most young people go to PTC after O levels, aged 16 or so, and stay for two years. Some may go to PTC after A levels and a few post-graduates follow a year-long course. Primary training is the only 'free' tertiary education in Uganda. As with all forms of apparently free education, parents still have to pay hefty fees to cover all sorts of materials and services, for example access to computers (if there are any and, sometimes, even if there aren't).

Most PTCs are in rural areas, far from any distractions. Students wear uniform, follow rules just like those in schools and can be expelled for returning late at night or getting drunk. They eat 'school food': posho (maize flour pudding) and beans. Boarding hostels may consist of crowded dormitories with bunk beds, little privacy and, often, outside pit latrines and washing facilities. When students go on teaching practice they may travel on the backs of lorries, carrying their mattresses and bedding, bags of dried beans and bundles of firewood; all ready to camp out on the floors of the classrooms where they are going to be teaching.

And how are prospective teachers themselves taught during their training?

As intermittently as they were taught in schools, some of them. Like school teachers, PTC staff often have homes in other parts of the country. As a result, many spend Mondays and Fridays travelling, leaving only three days in which to do their paid work. Although PTCs may provide some accommodation, it may not be good enough for their families. So, just like pupils in schools, student teachers may often receive only about half of the training they are due: not a great work ethic on which to model one's future teaching career. Such a situation also has implications for the range and depth of the knowledge and skills they acquire.

Lessons in PTCs may often be like those in school, mostly direct teaching. Nothing wrong with direct teaching, of course, particularly if you are going to be working with large classes, though other methods of learning are also possible. However, we get the impression that many PTCs may not be at the forefront of educational development. I was astonished to see examples of elaborate and time-consuming 'scheming' and planning which would significantly reduce the time available for essential teaching activities like assessment and reporting. PTCs do try to introduce their students, however, to the idea of making their own resources, for example posters, an essential teaching skill.

And the PTCs' own resources?

In one core PTC I visited the science lab was an ordinary classroom and all the chemicals sent by government suppliers were two years out of date, piled higgledy piggledy in an unsecured cupboard. The ICT suite had a dozen donated computers but virtually none were working and they all had different, incompatible, software. There was no internet access. One of the key uses of the computers would have been to access the revised curriculum guidelines on the website of the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC), as print copies are scarce. We know hardly anybody who has copies of curriculum guidelines and we certainly don't. Alas, there is no online access to such an essential resource because NCDC apparently wants to sell, rather than give away, the materials they have. Are there any copies for sale? Not as far as we know. So, difficult for anyone working in education to keep up to date with curriculum development then, though, to be fair, schools do receive copies at dissemination workshops.

Stuart and I haven't had much to do with pre-service training in PTCs. However, we have been involved in accompanying our colleagues in the Directorate of Education Standards (DES) when they were monitoring the work of coordinating centre tutors (CCTs).

Visiting the coordinating centre - the official DES car
The DES team attracts considerable interest in the school
attached to this coordinating centre. The nursery teacher hadn't turned up.
So what about post-service training?

CCTs are outreach tutors responsible for providing continuous professional development (CPD) for headteachers and teaching staff in about 50 primary schools linked with the coordinating centres which act as their base. Each core PTC has a number of coordinating centres, each with its own CCT and located within a school compound. CCTs may have a house on site, together with an office and a hall to use for training teachers. The centres we have seen have been well built and attractive and are usually covered in handmade posters illustrating topical educational issues or exemplifying the kinds of displays which teachers could replicate.

Coordinating centre with CCT's house beyond

There is nothing special about the schools in which CCTs are based
CCTs carry out training sessions for school staff, for example, on leadership and management or aspects of the revised curriculum. Creative, aesthetic and physical education (CAPE) is one of their current concerns as pupils in P6/P7 will now be expected to broaden their learning beyond English, maths, social studies and science - and quite right too.

Classroom for teachers in a coordinating centre
At the time we were making our visits, the CCTs were running sessions on Safe Schools, a national policy which deals with aspects of violence in schools, gender issues and health, sanitation and safety. Promoting positive approaches to managing pupil behaviour and eliminating corporal punishment are important aspects of their work.

'I have a question...How does beating teach me anything?
Violence-free childhood is everyone's right.'
CCTs are particularly responsible for disseminating government policies to teachers, such as those on HIV/AIDS. PIASCY is a worthy but particularly time-consuming aspect of their work. (PIASCY is the acronym for the catchy initiative: The Presidential Initiative on Aids Strategy for Communication to Youth.) PIASCY is behind the hilarious 'talking compounds' you see in most schools: exhortatory notices on avoiding sexual behaviour scattered across school compounds, which nobody ever reads - except us, of course.

The sign says 'Beautiful queen say no to sex'
CCTs are expected to monitor the quality of education in individual schools, including observing teaching and learning in classrooms. This is an advisory, not an inspectorial role and largely relates to the implementation of Uganda's Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards. Inspection of primary schools is the responsibility of local district, municipal and county inspectors who submit their reports to DES for which we work.

A pretty good poster. Pity there's no mention of children.
CCTs receive an allowance for each in-service session they conduct, an allowance which is paid to their PTC by the government or by funding agencies. And yes, in the age-old tradition of Uganda, the amount they receive may be unofficially 'top-sliced', a certain proportion allegedly disappearing into the capacious pockets of the bursar, principal or deputy principal outreach before it ever gets to them. It is also said, with what truth we don't know, that some CCTs themselves manage to sift out a bit for themselves, 5 million shillings given for training becoming only 3 million by the time it reaches the in-service session.

Another age-old Ugandan tradition is the provision of 'facilitation' above and beyond travel and subsistence simply for turning up to meetings. So, when CCTs themselves undertake training by government departments, donor organisations and NGOs, they are actually paid money (as are district officials, bizarrely). And the same happens with the teachers who come to their own sessions. In fact, many teachers make a living through attending courses, because they are often several months in arrears with their salaries. 'Facilitation' is an astonishing system which drains the country and individual charities of resources which could otherwise be used to improve the education of children in schools. However, be that as it may, CCTs are at least kept reasonably up to date with current policies and approaches and they appear to do their best to cascade their training to teachers in schools with minimal resources at their disposal, just chalk and talk and the occasional flip chart.  Coordinating centres are no more likely to have electricity than the schools in which they are sited, so forget the Powerpoint presentations.

I can almost feel the ache in the wrist...
Another task of CCTs is to support schools in improvement planning. We have seen little enough evidence of school improvement planning in Uganda, except in those primary schools supported by our own organisation Link Community Development (LCD), so they still have quite a lot of work to do here. Fortunately a number of CCTs have been trained by LCD to carry out the evaluation exercises which form part of the review process.

Unfortunately, CCTs may also end up responding to every whim by every NGO which ever set foot in Uganda. NGOs are always trying to get CCTs to train school staff on whatever bright ideas they are currently running with, As a result, it is extremely difficult for CCTs to spend the time they should on their substantive jobs. Honourable exceptions are, of course, the VSO/UNICEF volunteers who work in partnership with PTCs, within national policy and in support of the Education Sector Plan.

Looks as if the CCTs' hearts are in the right place.
How on earth do CCTs manage to carry out all these tasks across so many schools spread out across their 'patch'?

Some schools may be 50 or 60 kilometres away from the CCT's base. CCTs are given motorbikes on which they bump along the rutted and muddy country roads and footpaths leading to individual establishments. These machines are not always in the best of condition and lack of fuel is common problem. As a result CCTs are sometimes accused of making fewer school visits than they should.

So, that is the life of a coordinating centre tutor. In our experience, most CCTs do conscientious jobs and a few of them do very good jobs indeed. Yes, we have also found a few who have gone AWOL and are rarely seen in schools, but they are in the minority. Whether, of course, CCTs have the influence to compensate for the chaos and corruption which dogs local and national government and damages the provision of education in countless schools by countless teachers is another issue.

It is easy to say that low educational standards are the 'fault' of teachers, as the Commissioner said. However, there is at least one group of professionals which is trying to do something about it.

You may also be interested in the following posts about nursery/primary education.

Learning at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains

Visiting schools in north-western Uganda

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Helping girls to achieve: Kyebambe Girls' Secondary School

For one reason or another, we've been spending quite a long time in western Uganda over the last few weeks. This has not been a trial. On the contrary, it has been a delight, for western Uganda is a stunningly beautiful part of a very beautiful country. In between various work-related activities, and trips around the local area purely for pleasure, we were fortunate to be able to fit in some personal visits to schools. These are schools with which we or our friends have some sort of a connection. Kyebambe Girls' Secondary School in Fort Portal is one of those schools and has received, and continues to receive, considerable support from the Uganda Schools Trust (UST), a small charity in the north-east of Scotland.

If you've read this blog before, you will know that improving the achievements of girls is a key educational priority in Uganda. Too many girls leave primary school before sitting their Primary Leaving Examination (PLE), most being illegally married off in the final years of primary school. If girls are lucky enough to get into secondary school, they usually perform more poorly than boys, unlike their counterparts in the UK. Educating girls is key to improving the education and health of families, increasing access and equality and developing the nation as a whole. So to be able to write a good news story about girls' education is a pleasure indeed.

Kyebambe is a government-aided school for 800 or so girls, all of whom are boarders. The school is well known not just in Fort Portal but also across the whole of Uganda. Over the last hundred years the school has had a significant impact on education in the Kabarole area.  You will find Fort Portal at the far left of this map, not far from the border with DR Congo.

When we British think of a 'boarding school' we immediately assume that such a school serves only the well-heeled and privileged. Not so in Uganda. Many schools, both primary and secondary, are boarding establishments. Boarding enables young people from remote rural areas to gain access to education. It also reduces the risk of sexual harassment for girls who may have to walk several kilometres a day in the half light or, indeed, the dark. In fact, it is not at all uncommon to see young people walking home from school along pitch black and pot-holed country roads. Boarding also guarantees young people an adequate diet and proper beds where they can get a good night's rest: rare enough experiences for large numbers of children of both sexes in Uganda but significant factors in ensuring educational success for girls. In the photo below you can see new A level students and their parents gathering in front of the administration block with their mattresses, bedding, wash bowls and other necessaries.

Although Kyebambe is government-aided, it does not provide 'free' education under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) scheme. Nevertheless, it is not a school for wealthy students. Its fees are quite low - 350,000 shillings or so per term (about £100). The elite schools can charge about a million shillings, some far more than this. Many of Kyebambe's pupils are in fact from very poor homes.

Like most government-aided schools, Kyebambe's facilities are modest. Below you can see one of the newer classroom blocks and below that a general view of the campus, with other classroom blocks in the distance.

Classes are also much the same size as in other non-USE secondary schools elsewhere in Uganda: about 60 pupils in each. The picture below is of a sixth year A level class.

In Uganda, the government target is for one textbook for every three pupils. This is very difficult for many schools to achieve and it is common for the ratio to be far higher. Kyebambe is no exception.

One of the main difficulties schools like Kyebambe face is the lack of specialised classrooms such as science laboratories, let alone the IT suites which British schools take for granted. In the photo below you can see the science block in the centre, glimpsed through the trees at the front of the school. UST has contributed to improvements to the lab facilities and established a link with the science departments at Banchory Academy, an Aberdeenshire secondary school, which has helped to provide a range of resources.

One very positive development over the last year has been the development of an ICT suite. The Ugandan government has chosen Kyebambe to be one of the pilot schools for digital teaching and learning in science and mathematics. While the Ministry of Education and Sports has provided staff training and software packages, the school itself has had to provide its own hardware, including computers, screens and projectors. UST's support in helping the school to develop the ICT facilities has been invaluable. The photos below were taken before all the computers were fully operational.

Not before time, the government is also planning to rebuild classrooms damaged by an earthquake in 1994 and subsequently condemned (see below). Fort Portal is in Uganda's western Rift Valley where earthquakes are not uncommon due to shifting tectonic plates.

Kyebambe's examination results have improved significantly over the last couple of years, success which Joyce, the Director of Studies (below), puts down to the support the school has received from UST. In fact, one of Kyebambe's students, a girl sponsored by UST, received the best A level results in the whole of Uganda.

Kyebambe has one of the best equipped libraries we have seen since we have been in Uganda, very largely thanks to donations of books by Banchory Academy and UST.

Friends of UST sponsor fifteen girls at Kyebambe, all of whom come from very poor backgrounds. We spoke to one sponsored student, who is now chair of the School Council. She told us what a relief it was to be able to concentrate on her studies instead of having to continually worry about whether her parents would be able to pay her school fees.

Recently UST arranged for Balinda Richardson, Kyebambe's deputy headteacher, to make a study visit to Banchory Academy. Such experiences can be illuminating for Ugandan teachers, who rarely have the opportunity to see education in unfamiliar contexts. They are also, of course, equally illuminating for the Scottish teachers they meet who may know little of the challenges faced by teachers and students in developing countries.

I asked Joyce what difference it made that Kyebambe was a girls' school. She was quite adamant that it made all the difference. In addition to the kinds of risks I have already noted, she felt strongly that girls needed to concentrate on their studies away from boys and also away from families which demanded they carry out time-consuming domestic tasks. Sad to say, many men in Uganda have a predatory approach to relationships with underage girls and schools often find it difficult to protect their female students. In Uganda, male students may sometimes prey on their female peers, while older 'sugar daddies' are a well-known risk to young women. Kyebambe aims to protect them from all such risks and enable them to reach their potential.

These sentiments may sound as old-fashioned as the school motto on the PE kit above. In Scotland, we expect adolescent girls to have the confidence to stand up for themselves and make their own choices. Girls in Uganda, on the contrary, are expected to be submissive and obedient. This makes it very difficult for them to resist pressure from their families, from society and, particularly, from men.

The young women at Kyebambe are fortunate in being able to develop their confidence and self-esteem away from the distractions of their swaggering and often overbearing male counterparts. As a result, they flourish in both academic and personal terms. It is through their success and the success of other girls like them that Ugandan society itself will be transformed.

If you are interested in learning more about the work of the Uganda Schools Trust, please visit their website.

You may also be interested in the following posts about secondary education in Uganda.

Visiting schools in eastern Uganda

Young, female and the world at their feet...well, perhaps

Life of a secondary school student: exams, fees and a whole lot more

The following video is about the work of UNICEF in supporting girls' education.

Girls Education Movement helps girls to attend school in Uganda