Tag Archives: education

3 steps to improving Uganda’s education system

This is an edited cross-post from Anya Whiteside’s blog.  

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Education in Uganda is in crisis. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact. Out of all the children who start school in Uganda, only 33% complete primary education. This is compared to 84% in Kenya, 78% in Tanzania and 81% in Rwanda. In addition, many of the children who do remain in school are not learning. In fact, less than half of children in P6 reach the defined proficiency levels in numeracy and literacy.

I could continue with the facts – 1 in 20 children of school going age have never enrolled in school at all, 84% of teachers want to leave their jobs and on average teachers are absent from the classroom an equivalent of 2 days a week – I could go on but you get the picture.

Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with 49% if the population under the age of 15. This crisis in education is their crisis, and it is a crisis for Uganda. Given all of this, I have inevitably spent a lot of my time here trying to work out why education in Uganda is in such a crisis and what could be done to improve the situation.

There are many, many answers to this question. I could talk about the drop in education funding – the dilapidated classrooms and shortage of textbooks. I could talk about the plight of Uganda’s teachers – badly paid, de-motivated, poorly supported and badly trained. I could talk about the failure of Universal Primary Education – free education in name only as children have to pay for textbooks and uniforms and parents have disengaged from a process they have been told is now the state’s responsibility. I could talk about corruption, inefficiency and the politicization of education funding. I could talk about all these things and more and they would be true. They all contribute to the problem.

Yet the thing that is continually baffling the Ministry of Education, NGOs and big donors in Uganda is what to do about it. Because time after time after time ‘interventions’ , ‘solutions’ and ‘projects’ have been designed to improve education here, but things do not seem to be getting significantly better – in fact if anything they are getting worse. Books have been provided, teachers have been trained, all manner of stakeholders have been ‘sensitised’ over and over again. Vast amounts of money have been thrown at improving education in Uganda, yet the system keeps spiralling out of control with a will of its own.

Despite all this, I cannot feel completely hopeless about it. You can never feel completely hopeless in Uganda – the vivacity, friendliness and strength of the Ugandan people forbids it. But I do feel that Ugandan children – from my grinning, squirming neighbours’ kids to the children exploding with excitement at the Mzungu passing by their village – deserve better. This is why I continue to battle to try and understand what ways forward there can be in this bubbling bureaucratic melting pot that is education in Uganda.

One necessary step is to look beyond the dilapidated classrooms, lack of books and fed up teachers to try to unpick some of the systematic and underlying causes of Uganda’s broken system. There needs to be a public debate in Uganda as to what these are and some hard choices may need to be made on prioritisation of funding – both how much should be allocated to education, and which parts of the education sector the money should go to.

One underlying issue that hits me in the face wherever I look is the lack of accountability and incentive from top to bottom in the education system. In the government education system here there seems to be little benefit in doing your job well and little consequence to doing it badly.

Teachers face an incredibly difficult job in Uganda and teaching has become the last option that people choose when they can’t get a job anywhere else. Add to that the fact that neither promotion or pay are linked to performance and very few teachers are held to account for what they do, and it is easier to understand why so many education interventions are failing. In this context providing new books, building beautiful spangly classrooms or telling communities they ‘really should send their children to school’ will have a limited impact. After all it is not ideal to teach children under a tree, but it is possible if you have a teacher who really wants to teach, and a system that supports that teacher to do so.

Instead I would argue that money could be best spent improving some of the broken systems at the heart of the education crisis in Uganda. There are three I suggest should be particularly prioritised:

  • Creating a functioning scheme of service that links teacher (and all education officials’) promotion to performance.
  • Overhauling the entire teacher payroll system so that teachers are paid on time and so-called ‘ghost teachers’ (those teachers who don’t exist but are on the payroll, meaning the money being paid to them is going somewhere else) are removed.
  • Investing in inspection and ensuring that the follow up is rigorous – no head teacher should be allowed to rape children because he is mates with the right people. This also means working on how to ensure the Directorate of Education Standards at central level and school inspectors at the District level can work together to ensure proper follow up and accountability.

These are not the only issues that need to be addressed in the education sector in Uganda, but from my time here I feel they are some of the central ones. Mending Uganda’s education systems will not be easy, but it is the only way that education in Uganda will be improved. Without political will and funding to do so, we will continue to see sticking plasters trying to mend a gaping wound.

More information:

(Steve adds) If you are interested in education in Uganda you might also be interested to read:

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Uprooted by conflict – stories from West Nile

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside. Anya works for the Forum for Education NGO’s in Uganda and is also my fiance. 

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

‘I was a business woman in Bor and then when the trouble started I just had to pick up my children and run’.

I am standing in Ajumani in West Nile region, in the North West of Uganda which borders both the DRC and South Sudan. The woman I am speaking to is heavily pregnant and her three young children cluster round her. One of her daughters is about four and spends the next half hour sidling up to me to stroke my white skin all cheeky grin and dirty t-shirt. ‘My husband was in Kenya getting treatment for an illness when the fighting started’ she continues. Now she is sleeping on the floor of a school in Uganda hoping that he will come and find her.

I am in West Nile as part of an inter-agency assessment of the schools in the areas of Uganda where South Sudanese refugees have flooded in the recent weeks. My colleagues are from various NGOs, the UN and the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports. Well over two thousand people cross the border every day into this remote, hot and dusty part of Uganda. Add to that recent new arrivals from the DRC, as well as many generations of refugees who fled here in the past and you have a patchwork of stories.

The schools are due to open in the first week in February and are likely to receive large numbers of refugee children enrolling to join the classes. Our role is to assess what additional support they are likely to need. ‘I have one thousand children in my school’ one head teacher tells me, ‘but I expect an additional four hundred refugees to enrol this term’. Even before the recent crisis the schools in this area are full beyond capacity. It is not unusual to see a teacher teaching 90 children with four or five children squeezed onto each desk.

Over and over again as we interview head teachers in the area they tell us they will enrol the extra children and they are happy to welcome them into the school, but that they need support to be able to cope. They need additional teachers to help teach and translate what they are teaching, textbooks, latrines, desks and classrooms. All resources they look unlikely to get, certainly in the numbers they need them.

I am amazed by the way the schools in West Nile are so welcoming to the new influx and wonder how primary schools back home would react if in a matter of weeks you asked them to enrol 50% extra pupils many who speak a different language.

One of the reasons may be that the area is so used to hosting refugees. For many years refugees have fled across the border from DRC or Sudan seeking safety from fighting. Some go back and some stay. Some of the new refugees have fled back to areas where they were refugees before, or gone to stay with family still in Uganda. Outside the reception centre it can be hard to tell who is a refugee and who is not, as people start to build mud huts in land allocated to them by the Ugandan government.

One man who has been in Uganda for many years and is elected in the refugee settlement as a local leader tells me how his father was a politician under Mobuto’s regime in DRC. ‘When Mobuto was overthrown they chased him and cut him up into pieces’ he tells me, ‘and then they came for me’. He tells me how he drove away in a car full of people, but it was stopped before they could leave the country. All the women in the car were raped and then everyone was shot. After being shot he was thrown in the river. He was injured, but not killed, so was dragged out further downstream and rescued. He then escaped to Uganda he explains to me matter-of-factly while we are walking to visit a local school.

Some Ugandans understand more than most the trauma of being uprooted from your home. ‘I hate seeing people here’ says my colleague as we drive into a refugee reception centre where newly arrived refugees clutch bags and look for shade. I have known my colleague for a while as a vivacious, hilariously funny and very competent member of the NGO community who went to University in Europe and now works as an education specialist. ‘Seeing it just reminds me of running away and all that time spent as a refugee in the jungle’, she explains.

My colleague is from West Nile, the area where Idi Amin came from, and after he was overthrown the area was targeted for reprisal killings. Her house was set on fire and her and her family fled into the jungle in DRC. I wonder as she talks how many other people I know have terrible stories which I know nothing about. I also wonder how a country can heal from these stories when they are buried so deep and rarely talked about.

Experiences of displacement in Northern Uganda are also more recent still. In 2005 the war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw 1.8 million internally displaced people in camps across Northern Uganda.

After a week of talking to head teachers and local District official, hours and hours of bumping along dusty dirt road, visiting some of the refugee reception centres and hearing some of the refugees’ stories I am left with twin emotions. On the one hand I am sickened by conflict and the horrendous things it does to people. And on the other hand I am amazed by the human resilience and ability to cope.

I return to Kampala thinking of all the refugees in the world and just how horrific it must be to flee your home. I am welcomed by the sickening news that of the 2.5 million  Syrian refugees, my own country, the UK, has agreed to host a mere 500 Syrian refugees over a year. I am aghast and wonder how a country like the UK can choose to refuse safety to so many, when countries with so little resources such as Uganda receive thousands of refugees a day, or a tiny country like Lebanon can hosts over a million.

As I rant and rave at the selfishness of my own nation I think back to the drive out of a refugee reception centres on our way back to Kampala. As I looked out the window I saw a group of scruffy children playing football. In the last month their whole lives have been uprooted and many have lost everything. They shout and skid through the dust imitating the moves of famous footballers.

I wonder what will become of these children and hope against hope that they will experience peace and better times ahead.

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A visit to Royal Pride school in Kampala

Heavy balls of rain lash down, their weight and intensity exaggerated by the tin roof under which we shelter. Looking out, the playground which minutes earlier had swarms of children playing in is now inches under water.

P1000317Godfrey, the headmaster of Royal Pride School looks out and predicts that it will “stop in 30 minutes”. I wonder to myself how he can know this, but chose not to question and stare out at the black brooding sky.

I begin to ask Godfrey about his school. He tells me that it is only eight years old and takes in about 280 children. Looking at the 8 small classrooms, 4 of which look under disrepair, it is hard to imagine that so many kids could fit into such an improbably small space.

Inside one of the small classrooms we are met by a swarm of children running and shouting, each waving their exercise books at me showing me their work. As I start to run out of unique adjectives to praise each child’s work, the teacher steps in and starts the process of trying to calm the children. It proves to be close to impossible while the ‘muzungu’ is still in the room so I follow my colleague out into the court yard leaving cries of “Muzungu muzungu” behind me.

Uganda September 009Back in the headmaster’s office I ask what the biggest challenges are to the children’s education. Without hesitation, Godfrey responds, “The biggest challenge that these children face is not education, but finding the money for their education. It costs them 30,000 Ush [£7.30] a term. I want them to come for free, but I need to pay the teachers a small salary”.

Indeed, a small salary it is. Some of the teachers earn as little as 90,000 Ush (approximately £22) per month.  Despite the small salary, all of the teachers look engaged and enthusiastic interacting with the children.

With no electricity all of the teaching is done with a blackboard at the front of the class. From the headmasters office I can just see one teacher writing, “My name is…” on the board while a hoard of youngsters eagerly copy.

For many children education of this description is nothing more than an aspiration. 18% of children don’t enrol into basic primary education. Of those that do attend, there is an average dropout rate of 66%.

Uganda September 008I ask Godfrey about this high dropout rate and he tells me that one of the best ways to keep kids coming to school is to offer food. Twice a day at Royal Pride kids get a bowl of porridge as well as access to running water.  This enough to keep them coming back, as Godfrey explained:

Many of the children who come to the school don’t have the basics in their houses. They don’t have water, or food. We can give them that”.

Inevitably, teaching in this environment can be a challenge. The teachers have to think about basic sanitation as much as they do mathematics or English. I asked Godfrey if the teachers stayed at the school for long. He answered saying, “When a teacher comes to work here, we sit down together and discuss the types of children we have here. They have to know what kind of community we are in.  We have to put aside our own time to go and visit each family at home”.

The more I talked to Godfrey the more I became inspired by the incredible work he was doing with these kids. The place struck me as much as a social project as it did a school.

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I asked Godfrey what drove him to want to be a Head Teacher of a school. Godfrey is only 32 years old and I was curious as to what led him to Royal Pride.

With a wry smile, Basiime Godfrey looks out into the driving rain and says:

This is a long story. I have no mother, I have no father. I was with an organisation”. He breaks off for a second to compose himself before continuing, “Sorry, when I speak about this, I feel like crying”.

Tears start to dwell up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks and I tell him that we don’t have to continue. He takes a step back and says, “Where I came from, it was a sad situation. I was living under a tree. Some people came to us and paid for [me to] go to school. This is all I want to do.  I’m sorry…”.

I break off the interview at this point and let all the pieces drop into place around us. Godfrey turns away from me and wipes tears from his eyes. Water drips down onto some paper work through the tin roof as we stand in silence.

Godfrey is someone who has worked tirelessly for these kids because, as he had said to me earlier, “I know what it’s like for these kids”.

As I walk up the hill away from Royal Pride there is open sewage running down the hill to the valley bottom where the school is located. Kids who are not in school peer out at the white people walking in the rain and openly stare in amazement.

I stare back and raise a half smile. Only now does it dawn on me that the kids at that school are the lucky ones.

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