Tackling Uganda's lack of school places
- 8 January 2014
- From the section Business
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
In every rural village on every suspension-busting potholed road, there is an extraordinary hive of human activity.
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.