Sunday, February 17, 2013

So, what WERE we doing in Uganda and did we make a difference?

We have rarely written in detail about the work we came out to Uganda to do. Partly this has been out of discretion while we were still out there and partly because we wanted to give an overall balanced view, not one swayed too much by the emotions of the moment. As it happens, we did occasionally mention specific aspects of our work in particular posts, usually when things were too much for us to hold back. However, now that we have left, it is, perhaps, time to reflect on the experiences of the last two or more years in their entirety. So, here goes.

Stuart and I were asked by Link Community Development (Scotland) if we would be willing to go out to Uganda to support the education inspectorate - the Directorate of Education Standards (DES), part of the Ministry of Education and Sports. At the time we were both still in senior posts in Scottish educational institutions: HM Inspectorate of Education and Learning and Teaching Scotland. (These organisations have since merged to form Education Scotland, a fact which is irrelevant to this post.) Neither of us was particularly thinking about leaving our job at that time; however, we had already discussed the possibility of working abroad for an NGO once we did feel ready to go.

Well, it took a couple of years for us to make up our minds. Leaving our current jobs was quite a wrench. The financial and professional implications of leaving were also significant. Although we knew that financially we would be okay, it is difficult to turn one's back on the possibility of topping up the pension or climbing further up the professional ladder. However, the opportunity to live abroad and do something which sounded very worthwhile was too tempting to turn down. Link persuaded Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to support the placements and before we knew it, we had left our jobs and were packing to leave. And, let me make it quite clear before you read any further, this was the right decision and, looking back from where we are now, we wouldn't have missed what was a life-changing experience. That did not mean it was all plain sailing, of course.

Our farewell from DES - some of our colleagues
It is quite difficult for any volunteer to be parachuted into another organisation at the other side of the world, with its own culture and way of working. Although we did have a remit which had been agreed among DES, Link and VSO (we assume!), we felt at first that no one quite knew why we were there. Having worked under considerable pressure in our jobs in Scotland, we sometimes felt we were 'twiddling our thumbs' in Uganda. Everyone there thought we were working hard, and we were certainly busy during the working day, but we thought we should have been working an awful lot harder. The whole pace of life was so different and took a lot of getting used to - if we ever got used to it!

We were impatient to get on with things. We knew that children only get one chance at education. In a country where three-quarters of children drop out of primary school, the waste of talent and potential was heartbreaking. Uganda, however, is a country where things move slowly. Change, inevitably, takes place in 'baby steps' - one of the main things we had to learn. We also had to remember that we were just 'advisers'. It was other people who were responsible for actually making the changes which would improve things for children.

So, what were we supposed to be doing?

The remit was two-fold:
  • to support and mentor the senior management team and Director based in Kampala and help DES roll out school improvement planning across the country (a major area of focus for Link); and
  • to train and support the team of 40-50 national inspectors in four regional offices and, beyond them, the 250 or so local inspectors employed by Uganda's 120 or so (and rising) districts and municipalities.
And, to be fair, by the end of the more-than-two years we were there, we had pretty much done most of that remit.

Here we are making presentations and facilitating discussion among local government inspectors at Kabale National Teachers' College as part of a training session.

You may think that neither part of our remit has anything much to do with improving the life chances of Ugandan children. In fact, however, inspectors play a key role in helping schools to improve. In whatever country they work, school inspectors have - or should have - the best interests of children at heart. Improving the learning, achievements, safety and happiness of children is what their job is about. It is also their responsibility to give policy makers accurate and reliable information about the quality of education in their country, to enable appropriate decisions to be made about education at national level.

One great challenge of our placement was that it was country-wide in a country with poor transport and communications. Although we did make it out to all four regional DES offices on various occasions, and really relished the opportunity this also gave us to see Uganda, we didn't manage this as often as we would have liked.

The DES office at Mbale
UK taxes paid for all the DES offices in Uganda

As far as training the district and municipal inspectors were concerned, we only scraped the surface. The need for training and support at local government level was major but the geographical challenges and turnover of staff were also major. The result was that no sooner had we helped our DES national inspectors provide staff development sessions, (unavoidably using, I am afraid, a cascade model) than these trained staff would move on to other jobs and a new cohort of local inspectors would be appointed. Fortunately, during our time in Uganda, DES introduced a new system of providing permanent links between national and local inspectors and much of the work we did in our final months was to provide support for this approach.

Before we got as far as providing any training, however, we ourselves had to find out about education in Uganda. With our national colleagues, we visited government and private schools and teacher education colleges in areas of eastern Uganda bordering Kenya (Tororo, Soroti and Mbale), in the north (around Lira, Otuke and Gulu), in the west, on the borders of Congo (Masindi, Kamwenge, Fort Portal and Kasese) and in central Uganda (near Luwero, Kiwoko, Entebbe and around Kampala itself). Over the two years, we also carried out training in many of these places and in centres of population like Kabale, Mbarara and Arua. We became well acquainted with Ugandan roads and Ugandan driving!

We certainly got around!


For most of the time in a venerable Toyota Landcruiser provided by Link, which was virtually indestructible and survived every dusty bone-dry crater we rattled over and every muddy swamp we got stuck in. Stuart's driving became distinctly Ugandan. He learned to weave in and out of traffic on whatever side of the road seemed sensible at the time. He learned that vehicles which flashed their right-hand indicators were quite probably turning left, stopping at the side of the road or demonstrating their insistence in driving right down the centre. Occasionally, they were even turning right, but that was rare. We managed to avoid the car being dismantled by curious primates or squashed by irritated hippos and elephants. We followed indistinct tracks to schools out in the bush and bounced along endless red murram roads to non-existent 'ghost' institutions which had only ever existed on paper or in someone's briefcase.

We saw dilapidated government primary schools with disintegrating walls, stinking latrines and hardly any teachers (at least, in school). We saw squalid private secondary schools with minimal, if any, science and technical facilities, absent headteachers and tiny compounds. Classes were either huge, with not enough seating, or small, with most of the children absent. Almost without exception, the children who were in school had walked miles to get there, were keen to learn, put up with considerable physical discomfort, including hunger and thirst, and copied down religiously every word their teacher put on the board, even if they didn't understand. In many cases, little was done to help them understand.

We visited other kinds of schools in Uganda, of course, for example, the international schools. These are schools for the elite, both Ugandan and expatriate, with fees often paid for by parents' employers. Few of the elite, of course, would want their own children to be restricted to the narrow Ugandan curriculum and teaching styles, with their rote learning, theoretical bias and lack of opportunities for questioning, discussion and intellectual exploration. In contrast, the education provided for children of the very wealthy provided plentiful opportunities for active learning and the development of critical thinking within a broad context.

In between these two extremes we saw established government and private schools with better facilities than most (often provided by former students) and a proven track record in achieving the best examination results through a range of means, including beating children, making slower learners drop out of school so they didn't lower the overall pass rates, or not letting them into the school in the first place. Most pupils in such schools board so that they can spend as much time as possible studying, often from before dawn until late into the night. Most of the boarding accommodation is illegal and does not meet the government's basic requirements and minimum standards. That, however, does not stop parents from enrolling their children.

And our job? To develop approaches to inspection which focused on evaluating children's learning and achievements and helping schools to plan for improvement.

Ugandan inspectors have customarily been used as data collectors for national government and donor organisations. The national inspectors alongside whom we worked were able experienced educationalists who were skilled in communicating with school staff and children. They had far more to offer the education profession than a life spent ticking checklists, wading through paper files and counting things. The term 'inspection' was used by government departments, public organisations and international agencies across Uganda very loosely to describe activities which were low-level, rushed and superficial. Few of these activities were capable of providing the depth and breadth of information or the reliability and accuracy in evidence-collecting and evaluation which are essential for inspection to have a positive impact on the education system. Inspection used a seen/not seen approach which did not encompass questions of quality, scope or effectiveness and which took place almost exclusively in the headteacher's office with little, if any, dialogue with learners, parents or teachers. For school improvement to happen, it must involve the whole school community. Rushed visits by school inspectors might produce reports for officials but they did not engage, involve or support the people who were responsible for nurturing learning or the young people who experienced it.

So, how successful were we?

This is a difficult question to answer. Our greatest impact, we felt, was on the hearts and minds of the 40 or 50 national inspectors with whom we worked directly. They wanted to do a worthwhile job. They wanted to make a difference. By the time we left, inspection models and approaches to evaluation had developed to focus on children's needs, learning and achievements, in the broadest sense. Whether they will remain that way, who knows. Pressures from donors and officials elsewhere in the system  may well result in a return to data collection at the expense of evaluation and improvement. There may also be pressure from local government inspectors who may regard the new approaches as too time-consuming and demanding. Data is important, but it doesn't have to be gathered by the country's most experienced and skilled educationalists. Inspectors are users of data; they don't actually have to collect it themselves. Other people can count latrines and measure the floor space in hostels. Districts should gather such information themselves, routinely. Inspectors, however, should ask  - and endeavour to answer - important questions like:
  • Are the children in this school safe?
  • Are they learning?
  • Do they enjoy learning?
  • Are they doing as well as they should?
  • Will they want to carry on learning when they leave school? 
  • Are they happy?
  • Have they developed the skills and acquired the knowledge they will need in their future lives as workers, parents and citizens?
  • How well is the school supporting its most vulnerable children?
It is no longer acceptable to be satisfied if most children are doing well. Every child matters, regardless of gender, social and family circumstances, health and disability, ethnic and language background, past experiences of life and education and geographical location. Ensuring the wellbeing and learning of all children is challenging for every country; it is particularly difficult in countries like Uganda which have experienced conflict, which have dysfunctional or non-existent public services and where the gap between rich and poor is widening fast.

To help our national inspectors raise these difficult questions and to support them in their work, we worked with them to produce a set of six guides to evaluation and improvement. These guides are based on the staff development we carried out with DES inspectors and are for use in induction and further staff development within DES and with inspectors and other officials in the districts and municipalities. Link and Tullow Oil paid for the guides and VSO has promoted them in all the countries in which it works and published them on its website. UNICEF and VSO have produced CDs containing the guides and a range of the other staff development materials we developed, and circulated them to districts and primary teachers' colleges. I have attached links to the guides at the bottom of this page. Here you can see groups of local government inspectors and other officers and headteachers working on the draft booklets with Link staff at teachers' coordinating centres in Kamwenge and Kyenjojo, western Uganda.

So, much that is positive, then.

However, there is no denying that there were also difficulties, major difficulties which we often found discouraging and which, ultimately, led us to question whether there would be any lasting impact from our work at all. One of our biggest failures was our inability to penetrate the rest of the Ministry. That meant that key messages about the purpose and role of inspection in improvement were never transmitted to, or accepted by key officials who could have made the necessary changes in the system.

We also did not manage to improve the planning and administration of inspections. Everything was last minute and and decisions lacked transparency. Funds for inspection were delivered late or not at all, so that our people were left kicking their heels when they should have been out in schools. We were pretty sure that some of these funds were syphoned off elsewhere. Sometimes our inspectors would be told two days in advance of an impending inspection and were called down to Kampala to be briefed on the Sunday before the Monday on which they started work. That meant travelling by overnight bus, matatu (minibus) or boda boda (motorcycle taxi) from all corners of Uganda. At least we succeeded in persuading UNICEF to provide them with laptops, for which we are very grateful to UNICEF's Head of Basic Education. Before that, our inspectors had to write their reports by hand and carry them, again by hand, to the main office in Kampala. Local government inspectors still have to work in this way. And DES inspectors still have to pay for their own internet access to enable them to email their reports.

However, the most negative effect of the rest of the Ministry's lack of interest in our work or in developments in inspection was its refusal to table the Annual Report produced by DES for the Education Sector Review in November 2012. We have written about this already. The 2010/2011 report had been circulated and delivered by the DES Director at the previous year's Review, but unconvincing reasons were given for the omission of the 2011/2012 report from the agenda of the 2012 Review. It is difficult to imagine any country omitting a major report from the national inspectorate from a national review of education. The report was the most authoritative inspection report ever produced and was based on the widest and most reliable evidence base. Not only was it omitted from the agenda, but the paper copies were not even circulated. Producing this report had consumed Stuart for some months. This censorship resulted, of course, in key messages about the quality of education across Uganda being suppressed and, in particular, kept away from the media. It also meant that national plans for education were potentially based on flimsy and inadequate evidence; not a good example to set for schools which were supposed to be engaging in their own improvement planning.

The failure to publish this report was our greatest disappointment. We can predict that no one will produce such a report next year or for some time. Why should they? What a waste of time and effort it would be. All the work we put into modelling the process and mentoring our colleagues has therefore been wasted. You can read more about the content of the report in this post: The national report that never was. You may like to think about whether it deserved a wider readership than simply DES inspectors and a few donor organisations and NGOs.

So, we didn't manage to influence Ugandan education at its highest levels. However, we did manage to influence how our colleagues thought about their work. One of the most encouraging pieces of news after we left was that our friend and colleague Edward had used our booklets and other materials to provide very successful training on improving approaches to learning and teaching for staff in his family's school (Goshen Academy) and from other schools in his local area. This training programme will continue in future years. The nursery at Goshen has developed a link with the early years centre at Cardonald College Glasgow, hence the Saltire, flying alongside the Ugandan and Bugandan flags.

So, at grass roots level, some of our work is having an impact. One of our last activities before we left was to attend the prize-giving at Goshen.

So, that was it, really. On reflection, more highs than we realised, though we found the lows very difficult. Sadly, no one is replacing us at DES: no one to nag the senior management team to hold meetings, no one to acknowledge the improvements which are being made, no one to continue battering away at the door of the Ministry. However, we did succeed in making links between DES and other organisations working to improve education in Uganda, such as FENU, the Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda, and ANPPCAN, the African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and, particularly of course, with VSO, one of our sponsors. These locally-based networks of Ugandan educationalists are the key to improvements in education in the country.

Above all, we did succeed in persuading more people to recognise that children are at the heart of inspection.

More about what we did in Uganda

Here is an article we wrote for the Education for All blog on the website of the Global Partnership for Education:  Changing the World, One Inspection at a Time

Here is the series of booklets we produced on Evaluating and Improving the Quality of Education, with the help of our colleagues in Uganda. Please feel free to download and use them.

How can we improve our school?
How well is our school led?
How well are our learners doing?
How can we improve our teaching?
How well do we support our learners?
How we inspect

There is also an article on our work in Aspect: Improvement magazine.

The following posts also show some of the work we were doing. Please note that we did not carry out inspections ourselves; we sometimes joined our colleagues in the inspections they were doing to help us plan the training we gave.

Visiting schools in northern Uganda
Teaching the teachers
Hard at work in Arua, and enjoying it
Through a young person's eyes
Learning skills for work: new hope for Ugandan youth


  1. I stumbled upon your blog on Lilongwe Golf Club (member 1981-83), got curious and continued to this piece which I really enjoyed reading and which in some respects took me down memory lane. Given time, I will read more of your blogs.

  2. Of course you made a difference! There are many good, kind, generous, and often very poor Ugandan people, who would appreciate your efforts.

    I wrote some blank verse about my time in Uganda:

    i went to africa

    the people i met

    had few possessions and few coins

    they did not have to befriend me

    yet they did

    they did not have to be kind to me

    yet they were

    they did not have to accept me

    yet they did

    they did not have to guide me

    yet they did

    they did not have to share with me

    yet they did

    alight from from your golden chariots or you shall not know such joy


    I believe that not too long ago there were further discussions in Westminster about reducing overseas aid because of corruption. It's true----there is corruption in the Ugandan plutocracy. It operates at many levels: some of my friends as school kids even did the school homework for some of the rich children. They found it hard to decline the money. Extreme poverty gives rise to such things.

    I believe it was the current PM who said that what is needed instead of aid is practical help at ground level. Okay, but WHERE IS IT? Except for a few British citizens doing VSO and similar voluntary work, there is no practical help from the British at ground level whatsoever. In fact, the British presence is conspicuously absent, compared to other nations, even though the British are admired and respected by many Ugandans; despite our shared history.

    There are business opportunities in Uganda, but where are the British companies? Scared? They need not be. Companies from other nations are investing.

    Perhaps there is some kind of emotional resonance of empire in the UK, which is preventing us from looking outward (Brexit). Surely it is time to move on from the past. We should have a presence in Uganda, a presence of mutual benefit. And we do have an historic obligation to do what we can to assist the Ugandan people; that is beyond doubt.

  3. Thank you for this very thoughtful response. Yes, I am sure we did have an influence. However, I think it is difficult for ex-colonial nations to develop appropriate relationships with their ex-colonies. I also think there is a danger that these countries rely too much on external help.

  4. Dear Elizabeth, thank you for your reply, which is appreciated. I hope that you find time to get more writing done.