From the age of four until I graduated at eighteen I was lucky enough to attend the International School of Uganda, a beautiful school perched on the edge of a hill overlooking Lake Victoria, on what used to be an old coffee plantation. I never really appreciated how lucky I was until I got involved in various community service projects, many of which were in aid of local schools.
I can remember one of my first visits to a rural school. I was utterly amazed at the crumbling grey building, and the few tattered posters dotting the walls. The classroom was filled with children squeezed onto tiny wooden benches and standing up around the edges of the room. As we shuffled towards the back, it became clear that not all the children in this ‘Early Years’ class were of the same age. Several of the children looked to be around ten or eleven yet had been lumped together with five and six-year-olds.
I’ve gone on to visit many Ugandan schools thanks to the success of my book, ‘How the Crane Got Its Crown’, and these sorts of crowded and mixed classes have become an all-too-familiar sight. In Uganda, it is quite common for students to have a delayed start to their education, often because the children are needed at home to help care for their siblings or to work in the fields or as cow herders. Other older students might also be kept in the same class because they fail their end of year tests or don’t complete enough days of schooling to move into the next year as a result of illness.
But late starters aren’t the only problem. Uganda has the second highest primary school drop-out rate in the world. A shocking 68% of children won’t complete primary school, and over 10% will repeat at least one year.
One issue at the heart of this problem is the lack of pre-school learning opportunities. Many younger children drop behind, fail their tests, or don’t turn up to school simply because they are completely and utterly unprepared for what school is. They arrive on their first day not knowing what to expect and without the confidence they need to do well.
Most countries now recognise that children need an opportunity to learn through play in their early years – they need to grow up in a culture where learning is valued, and nurtured. But in many parts of Uganda, and particularly the most rural, that is far from the case.
Instead, young children suddenly go from helping out at home or working hard in the fields, to travelling long distances to alien, crowded classrooms, often with 100 children to a single teacher, surrounded by children they don’t know, who are much older than them. They are expected to start learning in a regimented way, and they are punished if they don’t manage to keep up. Bullying is also rife by older children and by some teachers. And children can often go entire days at school without food, finding it impossible to concentrate, before they face the long walk home again.
It’s not an experience conducive to learning, but nevertheless the children know that trying to learn is their best chance at a route out of poverty.
Although it is easy to criticise Ugandan schooling, I’ve often been impressed by the sheer commitment and dedication of the teachers, and the children’s appetite for learning, all within the most difficult of conditions. The seeds are there, but they need better cultivation.
It is only now, having completed my school education, and ready to leave Uganda to live in the UK, that I can appreciate how well my experiences and privileged education have prepared me for life. I really wish more Ugandan children had an education of the same quality as my own, and yet that depends on many factors – one of the biggest being a positive start to schooling. Development charities such as Build Africa, which focuses on improving education and livelihoods in some of the most deprived rural areas, are doing work in this area that is vital and represents a step in the right direction.
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