Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Yes we can! Aiming high at Goshen Academy

Over the last few months, I have become only too aware that much of the education news from Uganda which I relay through this blog is pretty depressing. Partly this is because Stuart and I tend to see the worst of education here. We usually visit the rural schools and those providing universal primary or secondary education: schools often with pretty poor standards.

Another reason why our blog tends to reflect the worst of education is that the nature of our placements makes us acutely aware of deep-seated problems at national level. These issues can seem overwhelming and so intractable as to appear virtually insoluble.

However, there is another side to education in Uganda. Stuart has visited a few of the elite international schools attended by rich Ugandans and been impressed by the education which some of them provide. We have also accompanied our colleagues on inspections of some good-quality government-aided primary and secondary schools, although such schools have been very much in the minority. 

In another context, however, away from our official work we have been able to make personal visits to a small number of private schools which have impressed us with the service they provide to their local communities. We must stress that many private schools are not like this: they are simply money-making ventures which take hard-earned cash from gullible and needy families who want to do the best by their children but cannot afford anything better. However, there are good people working in education, who often bridge the gaps in the system and provide ordinary Ugandan children with a good quality education at a reasonable cost. Every so often we will write about schools like these so that you can see another side to Ugandan education. What links them all is the clear vision they have of the quality of education they aim to provide, and strong leaders and committed staff who strive to make that vision a reality.

A young Obama
The first school we are going to focus on is Goshen Academy, a rural nursery/primary school several kilometres from Mokono, a town north east of Kampala, about an hour's drive away from the capital. Travelling to Goshen involves driving along straight red murram roads punctuated by occasional trading centres. Edward, one of our colleagues, and Josephine his wife founded the school a few years ago in memory of Edward's father who had worked as a teacher in the area all his life, as had his wife. We have made two or three visits here over the last few months.

Edward in the headteacher's study
A welcoming smile from Sylvia, the headteacher
Even just a quick look at the headteacher's study makes it clear that this is a child-centred place of learning. We are used to bare, shabby and forbidding school reception areas. Not so at Goshen.

The teachers have made great efforts to make their classrooms attractive and stimulating. Almost all the resources and display are made by teachers themselves.

School library on the right and well-organised files on the left
As you have probably already gathered from the motto  'Yes we can' on the back of the children's T shirts, the school is doing its best to foster confidence in its young people and raise their aspirations.

Yet this is not some grand city-centre private school. It is a rural primary which draws on the families living in its locality. Fees are modest, Shs 65,000-100,000 per term depending on age and stage (£20-30), which includes porridge for the nursery children who finish at lunchtime and posho and beans for the primary classes. The school regards feeding children as very important, and is currently building an insulated fuel-efficient stove to cut down costs.

Porridge for the nursery, cooked over the existing wood stove
Dining area in the shade
The new well.
A safe water supply
Classroom furniture is attractive and, in the nursery classes, desks are arranged in groups. In Uganda, learning at all stages is more formal than in Scotland. Children learn to read and write from the age of three and even wear uniform at that stage. Nevertheless, Goshen is trying to make learning experiences as active as possible, using some of the synthetic phonics approaches familiar to many of you. When it holds professional development sessions for its own staff, it asks along staff from neighbouring schools, acting as a beacon of educational development in the local area.

Exercise books ready for parents' inspection on Graduation Day in December

Nursery class in groups
As is common in Uganda, children are taught to greet visitors with welcoming speeches, clapping songs and even  the occasional dance.

We are Top Class

We are Middle Class
Baby class coming out for playtime, not yet sure about greetings
Primary children too welcome any visitors to their classrooms.

Relationships among staff and children are warm and friendly. One advantage of a private school is that owners and headteacher can select staff themselves, rather than having them sent out by central or local government. This means that they can choose teachers who are committed to the values and ethos of the school.

Ready for Graduation Day

Welcoming the visitors
Goshen, as we have said, is a country school. It is set in the middle of woodland which has been carefully managed to create both playing and learning spaces for children.

In fact, an area behind the school itself is a 'forest school': a clearing where classes do their sports and physical education activities.

PE in the open air
Legs in the air, everyone!
Last time we were there, the classes danced and sang for us under the trees. A memorable occasion.

Traditional dances from the older children
Boys and girls have their own roles
Teachers at the drums

Action songs from the nursery
All good preparation for Graduation Day!

Marching proudly through the village
Top Class in their Graduation gear

Envious watchers wish they were at school too

Then it's time to entertain the parents.

No lack of confidence here
or here
The dancers were a great success.

So much so that the mums joined in!

Real parent participation
Soon it was time to collect the certificates from Chief Guest Stuart, and cut the cake.

A school with happy children...

...and proud and happy staff.

Sylvia with Josephine, the deputy headteacher


  1. Elizabeth, Goshen Academy looks like an amazing place for children to learn and thrive. The staff inparticular are clearly dedicated and love what they do.

    What an Inspiration

    Glenis Bonini (Cardonald College Childrens Centre Glasgow)

  2. You're right, Glenis. There's a great spirit about the place.

  3. Hello,

    I think that I need to see something uplifting but at least I can have a look by proxy.