Tag Archives: schooling

Old Students, let us restore the glory of historical schools

The issue of schools is on most people’s lips following the release of exam results by the Uganda National Examinations Board. As students report back to school, the school fees expectations of most private schools have left parents agape. Matters are made worse by the non-school fees requirements that in some cases amount to nearly 50% of the school fees charges.

Back in my home village located in Naweyo sub-county, Butaleja district lies the once great Bukedi College Kachongha. This school was known for its academic exploits in the same vein as others like Tororo College, Nabumali High School, Teso College, Ombaci College, Jinja College, Busoga College Mwiri, Nyakasura School, St Leo’s College Kyegobe, Sebei College, Comboni College, Manjasi High, Tororo Girls School, among others. All this happened during their golden years of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Bukedi College disintegrated due to a multiplicity of factors only to become a shadow of itself. A few years ago, some old students started pushing for the revival of this school and I happened to be a well-wisher/observer of these efforts. I saw how they battled all odds to restore sanity at the school as well as get it streamlined. Small efforts created small achievements that built up one day at a time. It is therefore no wonder that after so many years in the doldrums, the school has registered its best performance over the last decade.

Some of the old giants that are still on top of their game like St. Mary’s College Kisubi, Kings College Buddo, Namilyango College, Gayaza High School, Mt. St Mary’s College Namagunga, Ntare High School all have strong and functional Old Students’ networks that play an active role in the school’s affairs. Seeing what Bukedi College Old students have been able to achieve in just two years lends further credence to this school of thought.

I then ask myself, what if those of us complaining about the failure of schools that we studied in decades ago chose to be more proactive and worked towards reviving them? Couldn’t this be an opening towards better performance hence increasing the school options that today’s parent has? Why should a parent from Kumi send their child to a school in Mukono district yet well functioning Teso College lies within their environs?


BCK Students lining up for lunch in the dining hall

The massive drop in performance of most government aided schools fostered the growth of private led secondary schools that took on the mantle of giving parents hope in good grades for their children. These schools then begun pegging their school fees on performance. Since they churn out numerous distinctions, they use that as a right of passage to have their fees increased year in, year out. Parents seem not to have any fall back position and hence have become victims of this plot by the private schools. If something isn’t done to arrest this, future generations shall have an even bigger problem on their hands.

Some of the benefits of reviving these historical schools include among others:

Lower School Fees. The capacity of these government aided schools is averagely 1,000 students and if only their standards can be improved, it means that close to 20,000 places can be availed nationwide in just 20 historical schools for students to study in a competitive environment and have a chance of passing well. The biggest losers if this happens are private schools whose fees structure hardly matches that of these government schools. This should push them to lower their fees or even close shop. For the uninitiated, there was a time when the likes of Tororo College would send over 100 students to Makerere University in a single year.

Less Congestion. The congestion in schools within Central Uganda i.e Kampala, Mukono, Wakiso, Lugazi, Mpigi is likely to decrease. Parents in Kampala for whatever reason could choose to take their children to a well performing upcountry school and less countryside parents would struggle to get their children into schools around greater Kampala.

Increased Nationalism. The existence of decent schools across the country could help us relive the days when it was not strange for an Easterner to send their child to study from Kabale. This has the effect of opening us up to the entire country as citizens thereby fostering greater understanding and appreciation of one another. Today, it is not surprising to find a person that has never travelled beyond 50Km from their home.

Cultural Understanding. Since most of these historical schools are located in places with distinct ethnic backgrounds, they offer parents a chance to expose their children to their culture. I may choose to take my son to Bukedi College Kachongha so that he can get a chance to master the Lunyole language as well as understand the people better. The same would apply to a parent from West Nile where Ombaci College and Mvara SS are.

The continued survival of that historical school is highly dependent on you the Old Boy/Girl. Remember, ours is the last generation that saw the greatness of some of these schools. If we do not act now to restore them, our children are very likely never going to know their importance in Uganda’s education space. Let us learn from the demise of Namasagali College.

Adapting from Bukedi College, below are some highlights on how the OB network is transforming it.

  • Commenced engaging the school in 2015.

  • Student population had dwindled from 1,200 to 130 only.

  • The school was a dumping ground for indisciplined teachers.

  • It had been turned into a mixed school as well as a day section introduced.

  • There was no Board of Governors in place.

  • In 2017, student population dropped to 54. The school nearly lost its centre numbers.

  • There were no first grades for the last five years.

The OBs then decided to take action in liaison with other stakeholders;

  • Lobbied for a new Head Master and Deputy.

  • Took on a new bursar

  • Got a laboratory attendant

  • Instituted a Board of Governors

  • Relieved non performing teachers of their duties

  • Hired temporary teachers

  • Introduced incentives for teachers and students

  • Repaired student dormitories

Results? The UCE 2018 has shown a significant improvement with the school registering 6 first grades, 11 second grade and 11 third grade. Considering the fact that for the last five years there had been no single first grade, what appears like a simple performance to others is a very big step in the right direction. I can only predict a brighter future for this school.

This is my parting shot, take time to think about the wretched nature of your old school, do not give up, mobilise your network of old students and start changing things for the better. One day, you too shall be proud of that school the way SMACK, Namilyango, Gayaza, Buddo, Namagunga old students are of their own.

Take charge.

James Wire is a Business and Technology Consultant based in Kampala, Uganda.

Follow him @wirejames on Twitter

Email lunghabo [at] gmail [dot] com

Has Uganda’s Education system gone to the dogs? #GuestPost

I have read James Wire’s blog post on how Budo, SMACK, Gayaza et. al. are digging their graves and thought I should take the time to share my thoughts.

Before I do, I’d like to establish my bona fides, since what I have to say may strike some as pretty radical. I am a product in part of the Ugandan school system. I sat for P.L.E some time in the late eighties. I knew my place at Kings College Budo was guaranteed, seeing as I had heard my name announced on radio as one of the best performers that year. After Budo, I won a scholarship to attend a leading Ivy League university. After four years there, I won another scholarship to attend one of the Oxbridge universities for a post-graduate degree. I have taught for many years at a local university and also been active in consulting and business. In short, I have been through the Ugandan education system, been through (what many rightly see as) the gold standard in education systems, taught in the Ugandan system, interacted closely with the products of P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E and for years employed them as well. I would tentatively suggest that I am as qualified as the next man to critique the system in broad terms, and to offer possible solutions to parents seeking to give their children the best they can.

James, though a careful and honest thinker, is dancing around a core truth: That the education system is fundamentally broken. That it makes no sense at all for a middle class parent of means to put their child through the current P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E system, and that those who are making money off the fiction are happy that no one is examining this system closely. The underlying, often unspoken, myth of this system is that top grades lead to success in life. Parents as a result are stampeded into doing everything to try and ensure their children attain those high grades: soul-crushing school hours, creativity-sapping rote learning, buying of places in top schools, etc. The result, in my modest experience, is a lost generation, unsuited to the world they will experience as adults. The problem is of course that the parents are as lost as their children. For some reason they don’t try to honestly assess current world trends (in terms of what those mean for future employment or work opportunities) or are too afraid to deviate from the norm.

First, let me restate the obvious. Given current trends, Uganda’s formal sector cannot possibly generate enough jobs over the next ten or twenty years to match the number of graduates (or indeed post-secondary leavers) the education system is putting out. The results are everywhere you look. The implied promise of the current education system is that if you get good grades, then you will get a good job. The jobs are not only few, with the current pressure on the grading system (where a 1 in a PLE subject may mean scoring above 96%), those good grades have become as elusive as the American Dream. The only people who benefit from this edifice are the schools, extracting ever-growing fees, and the education management bureaucracy.

Secondly, and again to restate what must surely be obvious, Uganda and Africa are brimming with opportunity and promise, just not so much in the regular, formal sector. I despair when I meet one of my former students, all shirt-and-tie-and-clerical-job, whose father is still struggling to run their family farm in Kiruhura District as he has for the last twenty or so years to educate his children. I despair because on close questioning, it soon emerges that his family is still making quite a good income living off the cattle. The son, if he went back, could improve the farm’s earnings even more, and have a vastly richer life (and experience) for it. Yet both father and son will not hear of it; success means Kampala and a Kampala life! I understand of course that this is borne of a system that was created by the colonialists to train city types, karani class, and that we haven’t taken the time to examine it and reform it for a new era. The city needs its workers, but it is surely not optimal that all our best and brightest are jostling for a piece of city life, and ignoring vastly richer pickings out in the wilds.

To put my money where my mouth is, I can confidently say I will not put my children through this system. I have no intention of raising their hopes, only for them to walk from one office to the next, CV in hand, begging for non-existent jobs. I have no intention of wilfully training karani. Africa’s future requires a cadre of widely educated men and women. Men and women who, whatever their formal schooling (doctor, lawyer, etc.), are able to quickly interpret new environments and make the right decisions. The ideal well-educated African of the next twenty years should be perfectly capable of earning a law degree and after that going off to Karamoja to establish a new game reserve on long-disused ancestral land. (Yes, the earnings, in twenty years, from a modest game reserve will far exceed those from lawyering away in apartments in Ntinda.) We have focussed too much on schooling and not enough on education.

And so, you might ask, what does this education of such a future African look like? Let me tentatively offer a random selection of my thoughts on this:

  1. Walk away from the P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E track. No half measures. You can’t put your child in that system and still protect them from its creativity-sapping, soul-crushing effects. The imperatives of this system are to generate top grades. That means long hours, masses of homework, cheating and all other vices. Instead, I recommend home schooling or (better) putting your child into one of several smaller institutions that follow ‘international’ curricula (typically A.C.E but there are other good ones). Most of these have grown out of home schooling arrangements. And they are growing in number. A key advantage of these schools is that the curriculum is much more focussed on your child understanding concepts rather than rote learning them. The pace is also a lot less soul crushing; kids get to play a lot more, which is great for mind development. I am not a huge fan of your run-of-the-mill international school; you know, the one charging thousands of dollars ostensibly to deliver a result our local system will not. First, because such schools tend to attract a certain type of parent (typically more money than time or indeed sense – see below) and so apart from breaking the bank, your child tends to grow up in a surreal world, second because I believe fundamentally that delivering an outstanding education is incompatible with the profit motive. Any time you are unjustifiably asked to pay huge sums for education, take a step back. That said I accept that some of these schools may in fact provide a good alternative for some parents.

  2. Education is not something you simply throw money at. A parent needs to be actively involved in educating their child. A parent needs to have time for their child. This means not only supplementing where the school may fall short – for instance I believe strongly that where the alternative system may not have a Ugandan or African History (or Geography) syllabus, the parent must step in and ensure the child is educated in these important contextual issues. Education is not merely about that which will be examined. While all children need to be given a strong foundation in Literature, Mathematics and the physical sciences, a good education is not about just these subject areas. Ensure your child picks up knowledge in lots of other subject areas as well (local/regional history, literature, etc.) Provide the exposure even simply by making key books available to them.

  3. Education is about learning your environment and what it takes to live and work with it. How often do you take your five-year-old child to market day at Nakawa with you? And if not, how will they learn about some of the realities of the country in which they live? How will they learn to parse local slang, learn to weave through Ugandan crowds, avoiding a boda boda here, a charcoal carrier there? Does your seven-year-old child sweep and scrub the floor, wash dishes or wash their clothes? Or are these considered jobs for workers? Does your twelve-year-old know how to prepare a full meal? Children must learn early to work with their hands, and consider it absolutely normal performing even the lowliest of tasks. Any child who grows up with lunkulu will find it hard to prosper in Africa. When his/her farm workers tell him it is impossible to trim a small bush, he will go hire a tractor, instead of picking up a panga and shaming them into action by doing it himself. The best leaders (and leaders is what you want to create) are those who don’t just tell others what to do but can show them what to do. That’s where the premium lies.

  4. Related to the above, education is about exposure. Allow the child to encounter (in a deftly controlled manner of course) a diverse array of people and settings. The Baganda had it all figured out: a future Kabaka never grows up in the palace. He grows up in the provinces as a commoner, interacting with his future subjects as one of them. Take your child to a rural uncle’s home and leave them there. Let them learn to overcome challenges their modern lifestyle would not ordinarily throw at them. Learning to navigate the modern world (iPads, Social Media, Dubai malls, etc.) they can learn later in life. What they will have difficulty learning at an advanced age is how to immerse easily in their own country, across social classes and across the myriad cultures of this land. Train your child for Africa. Not for Europe or America. They represent the past, not the future. Ensure your child speaks a local language well. Luganda is a must. (Yes, way!)

  5. Teach them patient self-application. I do not believe in giving your five-year-old child an iPad. That’s just stupid. (Yes, really.) I also don’t believe in TV, but I understand that a little bit of it may be acceptable. Instant gratification is the best way to destroy your child’s future.

  6. Expect to spend money on your child’s university education. A degree is still important, and will be important for years to come. I have met a lot of very smart, very capable people who don’t have a degree. They struggle. Not for lack of ability, but because the world demands that third-party validation that a degree provides. A degree essentially certifies that this person is educated. I know that this is increasingly not true in our country, but don’t start fights you can’t win; find the money, and send your child to a decent university. In Uganda, I rather like UCU and Nkozi. The rest, I am not so sure; many of them seem to have been overwhelmed by UPE products. Standards have suffered as a result. If you can afford it, and careful saving over ten or so years means for a lot of parents can, send your child to a decent university abroad.

  7. Stop trying to turn your child into a bog-standard ‘professional’. You know, lawyer, doctor, and engineer. Especially if that child is of above average intelligence. What no one tells you is that you don’t have to be that intelligent to make it in most of those standard professions. Allow your children to dream while at the same time having their feet firmly planted on solid ground. Teach them to measure success not in terms of ‘prestige’ but in terms of real value: How they improve society, what they build/create, etc. Teach them to find always seek to make/find a way, and not to accept defeat easily.

  8. Controversial as it may seem, ensure they have a knowledge of and fear of God. The arguments are long, but for now trust me on this one. While at it, do not allow them to become so narrow-minded in their beliefs that they are too quick to dismiss our traditional ways without first examining them intelligently.

Enjoy the journey. And try and overlook my failings in this article. Instead focus on the broader message.

PS: I don’t wish to become the story; rather I would like you, dear reader, to focus on what I have to say. To that end, James agrees not to reveal my identity, since it is not central to what I have written.