Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

Phoenix arises from the ashes

Work on creating new Humanist primary schools from the ashes of bankrupt religious schools, is proceeding well.

Peter Kisirinya has been leading the refurbishment a former Evangelical school. Dirt floors have been concreted, doors and windows installed, walls plastered and painted; Blair toilets, a cookhouse and a kindergarten for pre-school children constructed. Other improvements include 4 x 10,000 litre tanks to capture rainwater from the roofs, electricity for power and lighting, and a surrounding wall to keep children safe. Over the last 6 months, Peter and his team of local builders have worked hard on the project. As we can see from the pictures, the primary school has been transformed.

Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School

Work on a new kindergarten will soon be finished and local parents are looking forward to having the first pre-school education in the area. We know from international research that pre-schooling makes a significant difference to how far children progress with their education and the level of their final outcomes.

Constructing furniture

The local community lobbied Peter to take over the failed primary school and to operate it as he does the Isaac Newton Humanist High School, which has gained great respect as the first Humanist School in the world. Peter says “local people are tired of organisations that run schools to indoctrinate children with one narrow-minded view of the world”. They like the Humanist philosophy which does not discriminate between children based on parental beliefs. They see that every child matters in Humanist schools and they foster open and enquiring minds with strong feelings of personal and community responsibility. Peter is delighted to see that parents who had taken their children away from the previous school, due to indoctrination and low educational standards, are now seeking admission to the Humanist school. In both the primary school and kindergarten there are more children wanting to join than places available. When the school reopens, children of Kateera will be able to benefit from an inclusive Humanist education based on reason, compassion and tolerance from the age of 3 to 19.

Peter aims to have Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School ready to take children as soon as the Uganda government considers it safe to do so. Schools were due to reopen two weeks ago but a new Covid surge led to the closure being extended. This has been a huge disappointment to staff, children and the whole community of Kateera. Peter reports, “They were all expecting the terribly challenging situation to come to an end soon but now feel devastated. Teachers had been working hard to prepare lessons for a restart in September. However, they are now turning their efforts to preparing scholastic materials to enable our children to learn from home. As children live within an easy walking distance of the school, teachers will deliver the materials directly to children’s homes. Home schooling will ensure some continuity of education between now and school reopening in January.”

Progress on the new Mustard Seed Humanist Primary School is also progressing. The owner of the former Muslim school only vacated the site in August, but early work on the school can be seen on Moses Kamya’s Facebook page:

Recent bequests have made a huge difference

Uganda Humanist Schools Trust receives income from both one-off and regular donations. Two-thirds of regular donations pay for scholarships, which enable bright but needy children to get a good education in the Humanist secondary schools. The rest is used to buy books and learning materials, to improve the welfare of students and teachers and to pay for small building works. From time-to-time we receive large donations in the thousands of pounds. We rely upon these to fund major building works in the schools. For example, individual donors have paid for boys’ and girls’ dormitories and other single buildings and donations from one donor have, over several years, funded the construction of an entirely new primary school for the strife torn community of Katumba, near the Congo border.

The Covid pandemic put severe strain on our resources. However, progress on building up the Humanist Schools has continued thanks to a successful appeal which raised £45,000 towards the purchase of two bankrupted primary schools.  These are currently being refurbished to serve as Humanist feeder schools for Isaac Newton and Mustard Seed High Schools.

The receipt of money from the wills of dedicated Humanists who have sadly died in the past years has made a huge difference to UHST’s capacity to support the development of Humanist Schools in Uganda.

In October 2020, North London Humanists selected UHST to receive £35,000 from a legacy left in the will of Terry Mullins, one of their long-standing members.

Following discussions, the group decided that they would like the money to be used to help with two new Humanist Schools near the Congo border, Kanungu and Katumba Humanist Primary Schools. Both communities had tragic recent histories, in which hundreds of people had died in cult killings and the new schools are creating hope for better futures for the children and their families.

Kanungu (where 780 men, women and children were murdered in a church), has had money to build:

  • a Kindergarten with 3 rooms to provide pre-school education for 3–5-year-olds
  • 2 classrooms for Primary 6 & 7 classes
  • School furniture

Katumba Parents Humanist Primary (where over 100 fathers were killed in a cult uprising) has been allocated funds:

  • To construct school furniture
  • To buy tanks and conduits for rainwater harvesting
Socially distanced children at Kanungu Humanist Primary School during Covid

This left £10,000 which has been used for a wide range of essentials across the Humanist Schools, including:  play materials, books and learning resources, helping destitute families to pay school fees, and buying sanitary pads for the older girls and many other things. For example, an entirely new secondary curriculum reform has been implemented in Uganda, so funds were used to buy new textbooks and laboratory materials.

Thelma Taylor, who supported UHST from our first appeal in 2009, sadly died in March 2020. We received £15,000 from her estate in October 2020, and a further £43,750 in April 2021, when her house was sold. Thelma had no close relatives, so she chose to leave money to help Isaac Newton and Mustard Seed Schools, whose progress she had followed closely in the final years of her life. 

The money she most generously left has made it possible to complete a new boarding house for needy boys who had been either walking long distances to and from school or sleeping in classrooms. The boarding house will make a huge difference to student welfare, by providing a safe place for needy boys to live, work and play. We know from experience over the past 12 years that when students have an opportunity to board their learning and exam results improve substantially.

Money from Thelma’s will has also enabled Isaac Newton School to construct a much-needed large multi-purpose hall. With 600 boys and girls in the school, they needed a large indoor space for dining, assemblies of all kinds, examinations, music, drama and debates, and for community meetings. This fine new building has effectively completed the infrastructure of the school.

New Hall at Isaac Newton School: work on dining tables with stage in background

Money from these two bequests has also helped us to relieve some of the stresses caused by Covid. They have provided funds for handwashing stations, disinfectant and for anti-mosquito paint, which enables classrooms to be used in the evenings for catch-up classes without exposing boys and girls to malaria.

You can find out more about bequests to UHST in this link:

What do children gain from Primary Education in Uganda?

UHST now supports 4 primary schools: Katumba Parents Humanist Primary School, Kanungu Humanist Primary School, Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School and Mustard Seed Humanist Primary School. So, it is very important that we have a good understanding of the forces shaping primary education in Uganda, in order to help our primary schools to do the best possible job for the children in their communities.

Children of Katumba Parents Humanist Primary School below the Ruwenzori Mountains

All 4 schools are in poor rural locations where, historically, children have had little access to affordable schooling and where the general quality of education has been low due to large class sizes, lack of books and learning resources and low teacher morale due to very low and intermittent pay. This has been true whether the schools are private or state run. Private education is growing in Uganda and accounts for one-third of primary and two-thirds of secondary schools. Primary participation has increased to 96% since the government introduced its Universal Primary Education (UPE) initiative in the year 2000. However, still less than a quarter of children have access to nurseries and other pre-school opportunities, which we know from studies around the world, make a huge difference to final educational achievement. One-third of children drop out without completing their primary schooling and fewer than a half of children who gain a Primary Leaving Certificate move on to secondary school. 

Several factors hold back educational progress in Uganda. The country has one of the highest birth and fertility rates in the world. Currently half the population is under the age of 17. The demographic transition is beginning, and family sizes are falling as more women come into the labour market. However, although the government is spending more each year on education, it is running to stand still given the rising number of children each year. 

All schools, including government ones, charge school fees. Yet, the fees are very low as many families have small and irregular cash incomes. Average household expenditure on primary education is just £40 per child per year in rural areas, and £100 in the central region around Kampala. The £2 to £10 per year that schools receive from government does little to plug this regional gap in funding between schools. The consequence is widespread under-resourcing of schools. There are also substantial inequalities between urban and rural schools, between state and private schools, and among private schools, where fees vary in direct relationship to their examination success. Class sizes can be as low as 30 in the better funded private schools but well over 100 in some of the more deprived rural areas. While the average class size is over 50, classes of 70-100 are common. Such large classes stretch resources and mean that many children must learn to read with flash cards, and without having access to books. A UNESCO study found that 40% of children were scarcely literate in Primary 6, the year before they take their Primary Leaving Examination. Another concern is the low levels of welfare in many primary schools. Many schools have limited access to water for drinking and handwashing, toilet facilities may be poor and insanitary, school food is inadequate and physical and even sexual abuse of children is common. According to a study by UNESCO, 24% of children in Uganda have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the time they leave primary school.

Primary Education covers the age range 5 to 13 (Primary classes 1 to 7). Children are generally taught in English from the beginning of primary school, although a local language may be used in the first three years. Basic literacy and numeracy are taught and reinforced using themes that interest children, such as: Our Community, Food & Nutrition, Our Environment, Energy, Human Body & Health, Living things: Plants & Animals, Culture & Gender, Child Protection, Technology. From Primary 4, learning takes place through subjects: English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Religious Education (Christian & Islamic), Music, Dance, Drama, Art, Technology & Physical Education, Local Language, Kiswahili.

At the end of Primary 7, children take their Primary Leaving Examination which comprises 4 test papers in Mathematics, English language, Science and Social Studies. Each paper is 135 minutes, except for Mathematics which is 150 minutes. The papers are graded 1 to 9 so the best possible aggregate mark is 4 (which is a grade 1 distinction in each subject). The lowest aggregate is 36 (9 points for each subject, which is a fail). Students with between 4 and 12 points gain a first grade, or division 1; aggregate scores between 13 and 23 results in a second grade; 24-29 awards a third grade; 30-34 pass with a fourth grade and those with 35 or 36 fail. Only two-thirds of children who enter primary education pass their PLE. In the 2021 results only 11% gained grade 1, 46% grade 2, 20% grade 3, 13% grade 4 and 10% who entered for the exam failed completely.

What difference does passing PLE make to children’s lives in Uganda?

Here is an account given by Robert Magara, the Director of Kanungu Humanist Primary School:

As soon as the PLE results are published, parents started hunting for vacancies in secondary schools. For many parents, the top-most consideration is a school’s performance over the years. Much as this is an important parameter, it cannot be the only one. They must also take account of what school fees they can afford from the meagre incomes they receive from selling their cash crops.

The job market is changing and by the time children leave school, a lot will have changed. For the many children who do not go on to secondary school, PLE success will determine access to a whole range of possible jobs. So, the additional opportunities children have when they have completed PLE are many!

With a Primary Leaving Certificate, children at the age of 13 can go for a three-year craft training in farm and technical schools and in vocational training centres.

Community polytechnic schools offer three-year full-time courses to primary seven leavers, leading to the award of the Uganda Junior Technical Certificate (UJTC).

Many primary leavers spend a year earning money to pay fees to enter secondary school a year late. If they can fund themselves to Senior 4, and gain O-levels, then they have a chance to go for vocational certificate courses and later upgrade after two years to go for diploma courses. Those showing great determination can also take the long route onto a vocational degree course.

Those children who cannot afford to pay fees or high fees rates in secondary schools go for shorter courses in vocational institutions. Those children who drop out of primary school still have other chances of training in practical skills through working alongside more experienced workers. We need people who can build roads, build good houses, who can wire electricity and we need people to train in tailoring, plumbing, carpentry, joinery and metal fabrication. These jobs can provide appropriate skills to the students that the current system of education fails. Of course, despite the opportunities many of the children who fail to complete primary school or perform poorly in the PLE have to return to the land as farmers.”

Children of Kanungu Humanist Primary School at lunch