Tackling Uganda's lack of school places

PEAS school in Uganda Only a quarter of Uganda's young population have secondary school places

It's always good to have your preconceptions punctured.

Uganda, like many sub-Saharan African countries, faces major challenges to build up its education system.

At the most fundamental level it has to provide enough places for one of the world's fastest growing populations. There are more Ugandans under the age of 18 than there are adults.

So when a new type of award-winning school, supported by an international partnership, is being promoted to fill the gap, what is the great leap forward?

Is it the curriculum, the technology, new buildings? What makes it so much better?

A senior teacher in Kiira View secondary school, near the town of Jinja, says the best thing about the school is that staff get paid on time.

It's such a simple but important point. What is called "teacher absenteeism" is a major barrier.

Missing teachers

When teachers fail to get their salaries, or don't earn enough, they take second or third jobs to pay the bills. And it means no-one is there to teach the children.

Kiira View, Jinja, Uganda Kiira View, not far from the River Nile, is run by a social enterprise

It's encapsulated in the pages of a local newspaper. On the front page is a big story about pupils taking national exams and how significant it will be for their future. It shows a country that really values education, where children will walk for miles under the equatorial sun to study.

Open the next page and there's a threat of strike action by teachers still waiting for last month's pay cheques.

The World Bank also emphasises the importance of such basic administration. Last month it published a report commending Uganda's progress in widening access to school, but warned it was being undermined by poor school management.

It reported that teacher absenteeism, whatever the cause, meant that "40% of public school classrooms did not have a teacher teaching in them".

These are not the type of issues that appear in the education speeches of global leaders, but here, at the end of a dirt road not far from the source of River Nile, it's what counts.

Transparency

Kiira View is part of an experiment to change how some of Uganda's schools are managed, with a growing number becoming private-public partnerships.

Uganda street scene Uganda has a rapidly growing population and an expanding economy

A social enterprise called Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS) is an important part of this, running an expanding network of schools that aims to raise standards and ensure that schools are managed properly and transparently.

The Ugandan government contributes part of the funding and the PEAS network, with headquarters in the UK, monitors the educational quality, efficiency and accountability of the schools.

It already operates 21 schools in Uganda and the charity's Kampala-based managing director Susan Opok says they aim to expand to 100 schools.

The project won a prestigious award this autumn at the annual WISE international education summit in Qatar.

The WISE awards are designed to "showcase and promote innovative educational projects" - and it commended the PEAS scheme for delivering high-quality school places at low cost and for developing the public-private partnership with the Ugandan government.

The particular challenge being addressed by PEAS schools is Uganda's lack of secondary level places.

Self-sustaining

The country has been successful in enrolling more than 90% of children in primary school. But only about a quarter of young people remain in secondary school.

Namugabwe, Kiira View A schoolgirl now but planning to be a lawyer

This is a huge bottleneck for any ambitions to improve the job opportunities for young people or to think about expanding higher education.

It traps people in very visible poverty. In and around Kampala are sprawling encampments of makeshift huts, assembled from wood, earth or scrap materials, and occupied by millions of people. It's rare that the word "slum" should seem like a cosy understatement.

The PEAS schools want to provide more good quality secondary places for poor families in the places they are most needed.

A key difference is the concept of creating schools that will be self-sustaining into the future. The charity's founder, John Rendel, says he wants support from the UK to be no longer necessary after 2021.

As well as creating more places, PEAS provides a structured, systematic approach to standards and the curriculum, which will be able to be replicated. It makes improving the quality of teaching a cornerstone.

Fee charging

It's not without controversy, because PEAS schools charge parents a small fee. The argument is that this money, along with the government payments, will give the school a viable independent financial future. It means teachers get paid.

It also prevents schools from becoming short-lived show projects. In a country desperate for school places, PEAS is planning to take over 25 schools that are lying unused. Creating schools is not really about opening buildings.

But any level of fee has been seen as a deterrent for taking up school places, in reports by Unesco.

Canteen, Kiira View The school canteen has a message about the risk of HIV/Aids

"It's a very big sacrifice," says Ms Opok, for parents who are poor and illiterate.

It's also controversial for the Ugandan government to hand over state funding for schools to be run by private providers.

But an education ministry official in Kampala says that the reality is that the state sector does not have the capacity to provide all the places needed.

The government views PEAS as "good partners" and expects to see the network expanding.

Lack of electricity

Many of the challenges facing schools are really about wider, non-educational questions of infrastructure.

Teachers and pupils in Kiira View mention the huge need for computers, but the school does not have access to mains electricity. An affordable, reliable electricity supply could be the biggest innovation for education.

Refugees displaced by fighting are entering Uganda, Nov 2013 Uganda last month faced an influx of refugees displaced by fighting

The World Bank education report highlights how many schools lack basic equipment such as text books.

But there's no shortage of energy or ambition among the children. In spartan classrooms, they describe what they want for their future. There are would-be doctors, lawyers and engineers.

They have been taking O-levels to decide how much that will be possible, with exam papers driven by motorbike to the local police station for safekeeping.

The school, with its neat hedges and tended lawns, goats and chickens, is an island of optimism.

And it would be hard to overstate the importance for Uganda of strengthening its education system.

Sharing growth

In every rural village on every suspension-busting potholed road, there is an extraordinary hive of human activity.

Kiira View, Jinja, Uganda Pupils want computers, but the school has no mains electricity

There are people trading, selling and making. Gravity-defying stacks of fruit are carried from lush fields on bikes. Churches and mosques seem to be on every corner. It's as intense as the country's bright red earth.

Millions of rural people have migrated to the cities, looking for work. And in Kampala it feels like most of them are trying to ride a motorbike taxi through the city centre at the same time.

Many end up in the vast, ramshackle slums. But it's not a one-sided picture. From what looks like apocalyptic poverty, a young man steps out immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, emerging from chaos without a crease.

There are young women who seem to be heading to work in the type of floral dresses that wouldn't look out of place in a 1950s Women's Institute meeting.

Uganda's economy, forecast to grow at 6.5% next year, is attracting investment, not least the visible presence of Chinese firms. How will local people share in this growing economic wealth?

With tens of millions of extra young people, this could either be a story of a young confident country with growing affluence and higher-quality education. Or else it could be a volatile tinderbox of tens of millions of unskilled and workless youngsters.

Big risks, big stakes, big opportunities.

Will African countries be able to create enough school places? What are the problems they will need to overcome

I am a trustee at a UK Charity working to provide secondary education in rural Nigeria. Apart from the problems identified above, we have found that the lack of 'secure infrastructure' is a major deterrent when seeking to provide schools with books and computers. For example the secondary schools we work with have no functioning library to speak of nor computers and we cannot provide those materials because the school does not have the infrastructure to store these expensive materials securely. As a result, we are currently trailing a project where the charity provides the school with the infrastructure i.e. a secure purpose-built library and internet suite thereby allowing the school to approach parents and other members of the community for assistance in equipping it with books and computers. So far, the response has been positive with at least one local foundation agreeing to entirely fund all the new computers for the IT suite and future running costs. Our charity believes this could form a blueprint for the future in dealing with this age-old catch 22 problem with regards to the provision of expensive educational materials in rural Africa.

Tunji, Sevenoaks, UK

Their governments should understand the need to value teachers. If teachers are not being paid, as happens in many African countries it effects, students, results, graduates, and general morale. Having worked with teaches who are not being paid I have seen the effects. The students are the first to suffer. While I agree with the need for free education, the system in Uganda is not working. Maybe this is the way forward as an interim measure until the government systems can better handle education for all.

Chris, Winnipeg, Canada

I spent several months teaching in rural schools in Uganda. Whilst there are some teachers hugely devoted to their work and to the children, others often don't turn up to lessons, leaving classes of children either teaching themselves from the charts on the walls, or just sitting and doing nothing. It's unjust that families are paying school fees and their children are not being taught. Many teachers are also under-educated and often simply copy the text book onto the black board, for the children to then copy into their books with no explanation. The biggest problem I saw was that children don't learn to read and write properly, so when they sit their exams, whilst they might know the answers, they can't read the question, or write down the answer. We found that teaching phonics to both students and teachers made a big difference in the schools that we worked in. There seems to be a school on every corner, but each one has 5 kids squashed onto a bench made for 2, and there are still scores of children in the local area who aren't in school at all, usually for financial reasons. The biggest problems I saw in Ugandan schools were: Underpaid and under-motivated staff, Lack of literacy (both for teachers and students), Finance both for the schools and for families wanting to educate their children

., .

I am a trustee of a small UK based charity and at the end of October I had the privilege of staying for a few days in a school in Uganda which against all the odds and difficulties described in your article are providing secondary education to about 460 children of both sexes some of whom are now continuing their studies at University. The school was started by dedicated local people who saw the need of children, mainly in slum areas, without hope of secondary education in any form. Though the school founders have a strong Catholic Christian faith the school welcomes any needy child whatever their faith, tribe or colour. During the last few years our charity has been able to support the school by responding to it's needs for basic water and sanitation and have encouraged others to share by providing books laboratory equipment, wash rooms etc. In the context of the article and perhaps of general interest the school financial model is that they have a number of paying pupils, others who can only contribute a portion of the fees and those, many orphaned by HIV Aids, who can pay nothing. Partly because of the continuing and increasing pressure to accommodate children with no financial support whatever this model is barely sustainable and on a previous visit we found the school was down to two sacks of maize to provide meals for the children. We are now helping with some basic funding to develop a Food Security Project for the school even if this is successful it will continue to struggle for the basic requirements of running a school. Is this model repeatable? I wonder, as it has only been brought about and continued by the total dedication of the founders and key teachers. Would government support help? Getting money without strings is unlikely as Governments everywhere will have their say on how it's spent. Maybe they should but how do you do this without damaging the extraordinary enthusiasm and dedication of the staff.

Norman, Southampton

Well done to PEAS and thanks to BBC for highlighting this situation which prevails in most of Sub Sahara Africa, although the space issues seem particularly acute in Uganda, which is in the top three countries in the world for population growth and therefore has one of the youngest populations in the world -- needing schooling. Only about 40% of Uganda children complete primary school, so the crisis starts early, of whom about 75% transition to secondary school. In some districts, like those in the Teso region, less than 20% complete primary school. At Mvule Trust, we landed on a model which supported the few adolescents in very poor districts who did complete O or A levels to train as nurses, foresters, teachers and other sorts of professionals. These were short diploma or certificate trainings. Our tracer study found that the majority found work in their districts and used their salaries to support younger siblings in school. These younger siblings were also motivated by their older brothers and sisters' success. Many different approaches are needed

Cathy, Kamala

Warm congratulations to PEAS and, in my view, we need more projects like this which dare to charge small fees for the services they provide. Aid, that leads to some no-fee but often poorly-administered schools, is not the whole solution. Yes, some of the free schools work out well but it is no bad thing to have a good private offer as well. James Tooley has shown the impact this can have in India. We allow it in the West; why not in Africa? If there is a revenue, the project is more likely to be both sustainable and accountable.

Ralph Tabberer, Southwell, UK

If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • A map of social media interactionsClick Watch

    Twitter's map of the Middle East conflict – how the two sides react to each other on social media

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.