Uganda has an under-resourced school system but educational administration at national and local levels works well. There are national standards for schools which are professionally monitored by school inspectors. In order to overcome the shortage of resources within the state sector the entire education system was opened up to allow investment in new private schools by individuals, businesses and voluntary groups. This liberalisation of the system has led to the creation of many new schools – some of them in very fine buildings and charge high fees, others, especially in rural areas, are grossly underfunded. The Humanist schools fall in the latter group.
The government is happy that new schools are being set up and they take a pragmatic approach when monitoring them at the start. Schools, even private ones, are inspected regularly and they are expected to show consistent improvement. However, all secondary schools are required to have: an adequate number of classrooms, offices for staff and administrators, access to fresh water, a science lab and at least 8 full-time qualified teachers. Additionally, if they want to be able to run national examinations on the school site, they are required to have a school hall with windows to keep out the wind and rain. Schools without a hall have to make arrangements for their students to go to a school which is an approved examination centre, and this can be some distance away.
All the schools supported by the Trust have been established since 2005. Currently Uganda Humanist Schools Trust provides financial support to two secondary schools: Isaac Newton High School, Kateera, near Masaka, and Mustard Seed Secondary School, Busota, near Kamuli.
We also provide substantial support to two primary schools near the Congo border: Katumba Parents’ Humanist Nursery & Primary School, near Bundibugyo and Kanungu Humanist Primary School.
Kasese Humanist Schools (3 primary + 1 secondary school) also receive help from UHST for books and other learning resources and for staff development.
Interest in the Humanist Schools movement is growing and committed young Humanists are creating new schools. As they meet they meet the standards laid down by Uganda Humanist Schools Association we will endeavour, within our means, to assist in their development.
The secondary schools have a growing estate of buildings.
Isaac Newton High School is the most developed of the schools. It has the following buildings: an administration block, a four and a three classroom block, two large science labs and prep rooms. It also has a solar-powered computer room (foreground in picture) with a network and 20 work stations. As a result of a bequest and a large grant from supporters in South Africa and St.Louis in the United States, we have been able to fund the construction of two purpose built girls’ dormitories. Two boys’ dormitories have also been added. There is a well-equipped kitchen with efficient wood-burning stoves and two rooms where teachers can sleep.
The school has water from two sources. One system pumps water from a well in the bottom of the valley to a header tank where pipes gravity feed water around the site. Recently we have paid for a mains water supply to be brought into the school and the villages around. Unfortunately, the charges the government levies for the metered water are high, so the school tries to rely as much as possible on the pumped water from the valley and rainwater stored in a large underground concrete tank. The school has been connected to mains electricity as part of a project funded by members of Leicester Secular Society and a Briton, now a UHST trustee, working for Google. This project has brought power to the wider rural community and, in so doing, has transformed the local economy. New “Blair-VIP” vented toilets for boys and girls, additional wash rooms, a reception room at the school gate and a school tuck shop have been added in the past year.
The school educates over 600 students. The recently added teaching block allows the school to run two non-streamed classes, north and south, in each year. This has reduced classes to a more reasonable size of 50 (previously they taught over 100 students in some classes). In time we hope to equip each classroom with audio-visual facilities, giving classes access to modern on-line teaching resources. The latest addition to the school has been a large multi-purpose hall which will be used for dining, assemblies, examinations, community meetings and music, drama and debates.
Mustard Seed School operates on a split site. The rather cramped original site houses the school administration, a computer lab, science lab and reading room and book store. There are other small rooms where teachers do their lesson preparation and marking. The site also houses a girls’ dormitory and the school kitchens.
Additional land and buildings were purchased near the original site. The buildings were refurbished into classrooms and a boys’ dormitory was built alongside them, together with some small sleeping rooms for staff. Additional land has been acquired to allow further expansion. A large piece of rough land was cleared and leveled to create a playing field. Around the playing field we have funded the construction of a new 4-classroom block, with additional staff rooms, a girls’ dormitory and, some way away, at the far corner of the site, a boys dormitory. A fine new school hall has been built for assemblies and music, dance and drama performances. After temporary steps to provide water from boreholes and electricity from solar and a generator, the site is now served with mains water and mains hydro-electricity. The most recent addition is a second boys’ dormitory.
In 2018 we started to support primary education. This began with Katumba Parents Humanist Primary School, near Bundibugyo, a border crossing point with the Eastern Congo. This schools was constructed in temporary buildings by parents, including many women who were widowed and left as single parents after 100 men from the skill were killed in an abortive cult uprising. We are building a completely new school for the community on a more suitable plot of land above to flood plain. By the end of 2020, the new site had 3 nursery classrooms, 4 infants classrooms and a toilet block. We have also funded the extension of mains water and power to the site. This brings safe water and electricity to the community and will help to transform the economic fortunes of the place. In 2021 we are adding a 4 classroom junior section to the school and a kitchen with an efficient externally-vented wood burning stove.
In 2020 we started to provide funds to build Kanungu Humanist Primary School, near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to mountain gorillas and also very close to the Congo. This community lost 780 men, women and children who were poisoned and burned to death in a church in a Christian cult massacre in the year 2000. The original school was cheaply built and blew down in a storm. New school buildings, accommodating classes from Kindergarten babies (aged 3) to Primary 7 (aged 12), have now been completed on a dry site nearer to Kanungu town. The new school opened fully in January 2022.
The most important resource in any school is its teachers. Each of the schools has a small, loyal group of teachers who do their best to deliver the curriculum. All the schools are gradually employing more full-time teachers but they still rely heavily on part-time teachers to provide coverage of the whole secondary curriculum..
Raising sufficient money to offer secure salaries for well-qualified teachers is a challenge. The Trust is working with the schools to find ways to improve their ability to attract and retain good teachers. We have provided funds to refurbish staff rooms to improve the conditions of teachers for preparation and marking. In 2011 we also instituted an annual staff bonus for teachers who have stayed with the school for the whole year. This helps teachers over the long vacation between the end of one year and the start of the next and has greatly improved staff retention.
The schools give as many teachers as they can contracts of work and enrol them in the National Social Security scheme, so they can accumulate pension credits. This is a contributory scheme where teachers pay in 5% of their salaries and the schools contributes a further 10%. This has a substantially improved morale and retention. Schools are also introducing staff saving schemes to help teachers with their financial management.
The high schools have made considerable progress in improving staffing by employing full-time fully qualified graduate teachers. They have also been making use interns, bright undergraduate students from top universities, who rely upon part-time teaching at the schools to pay their way through university. Former students from the schools, who have been away to take degrees and teacher training, return to the schools to put something back into their community and the schools which gave them their break in life. Up to 20% of the teachers are former students of the Humanist high schools.
Having clean water for drinking, washing and cleaning has been a problem in all schools. Initially, water had to be carried in jerry cans into the schools. There was little water for drinking – perhaps one drink a day – and students were not always able to wash their hands after visiting the latrine. This was a serious health issue. The Rationalist Association and readers of New Humanist paid for the first borehole and lift pump at the Mustard Seed School, but this has now been pumped dry. We have recently paid for the school to be connected to piped water, from a new pumping station on the River Nile, a few kilometers from the school. This has completely solved the school’s water problems and has brought water to the community around the school.
We helped the Isaac Newton School by putting in two large 5,000 litre tanks to store water collected from the roofs of classrooms, and Walsall Rotary and Birmingham Humanists paid for a similar collection system on the new girls’ dormitory block. Increases in student numbers in 2012 and recent droughts made the situation still more critical. UHST made it a priority to find a substantial amount of money for an ambitious new water system which uses an engine to pump water from a newly constructed well in the bottom of the valley to a header tank several hundred metres up the valley side. This allows the school to use gravity-fed water pipes to take water around the school, starting with the girls’ dormitories and kitchen. With the growth in student numbers it has been necessary to construct a 100,000 litre underground tank to store rain water to boost supplies. With 600 students in the school we have recently part-funded a scheme with the World Bank to bring piped water to the school and local community.
School meals and cooking facilities
Two-thirds of the high schools students board in the schools, but many of the rest walk a long way to school and few have breakfast before they leave home. As a result concentration falls with blood sugar levels. To combat this problem the schools have found that they need to provide the students with breakfast of porridge and a lunch each day. Constructing a kitchen and employing cooks are necessary costs and the schools are all making an effort to grow some of their own food. The students help with this and it provides a practical aspect to agriculture which is taught as an examination subject. It has been a priority to improve the kitchens in the schools and to install efficient means of cooking instead of relying on the inefficient method of placing cooking pots on three stones over an open fire. The growth in student numbers and in boarding at Isaac Newton and Mustard Seed School has required us to find money to invest in new kitchens at the school. Now each school has efficient wood-burning stoves which have eliminated smoke inhalation by the cooks and reduced wood consumption by over two thirds. The new kitchen at Mustard Seed school is illustrated.
International educational research demonstrates the important contribution that books and reading make to raising educational standards in rural schools in developing countries. Fostering a reading culture is particularly crucial for the schools, because they all operate in areas where primary education is basic and many students have poor levels of reading and writing when they enter secondary school. Also, as Humanist schools, they see it as important to foster a spirit of independent enquiry, and they appreciate that high standards of reading and writing are important if students are to be successful in adult life. Although books are expensive, the schools want to provide every student with their own textbook in each of the main subjects. They are also trying to build up libraries to encourage reading for pleasure. At the present time they are a long way from the ideal and would appreciate assistance from individuals and groups. The photograph shows the Isaac Newton School’s new lending library. All teachers acknowledge the huge contribution the rich supply of books has made to improving educational standards and exam results. The high schools now have a good stock of general reading books and they hold an annual Reading for Pleasure Competition, where students have to advocate a particular book that they have enjoyed reading.
In the early years of the schools, there was a desperate shortage of visual material in the schools, which made teaching difficult. For example, in Geography lessons on glaciation students had to be content with listening to the teacher and copying notes from the chalk board. There were no pictures available to show the students exactly what a glacier looks like – even though there are glaciers on Mount Stanley in the Ruwenzori Mountains of Uganda! After flooding the schools with books over the past decade and equipping the schools with well-resourced computer networks there are now very good resources, text, visual and audio-visual, to support learning and for private study.
Science equipment, computers and electricity
Humanist schools value the contribution that science makes to human progress and seek to reflect this in the curriculum. The Isaac Newton School was the first of the schools to have a dedicated science lab, built with assistance from IHEU. Mustard Seed has built a science lab with help from the founder’s family and UHST.
UHST is now working with a science supply company in Kampala to provide the schools with adequate laboratory equipment for them to do science in a practical way.
The need for electricity has risen up the list of priorities. UHST worked with HAMU, the Norwegian Humanists, to connect the Mustard Seed to mains electricity, and we have recently extended main power to the new school site. We have recently funded additional solar power as a back up during frequent mains power cuts.
Solar panels that we have put into the Isaac Newton School have enabled the school to install a computer network. This has brought a huge increase in learning resources including a huge off-line encyclopedia, 800 electronic books and many DVDs of films and Shakespeare plays. We have also provided funds for solar power on the girls’ dormitories to provide lighting and power for a radio and mobile phone charging for the matron. We are currently in the process of funding the connection of Isaac Newton School to mains electricity.
We have just funded the purchase, for each school, of new high-speed, low running cost RISO printers, which will greatly reduce the cost of printing, which has been done outside the schools up to now.
We would like to make laptop computers available to teachers in each school to help them with their lesson preparation and record keeping and would welcome donations of these.
Learning resources of all kinds
As we all know, a good school is more than buildings. It is defined by the richness of the activities that take place within it. Teachers, books and equipment are important as are the whole range of curricular and extra-curricular activites which the schools offer their students. When the only resource is a chalk board, chalk becomes a significant item of expenditure. While students are normally asked to provide their own pens, pencils and exercise books, the schools also have to have stocks for children who cannot afford to buy their own. Stationery and printing has to be arranged outside the school for essential handouts and money must be found for national examination fees.
In a recent meeting, where students were asked to discuss how they would like to improve their schools, one child quoted his father as saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” We might wonder who taught his father the phrase but the implications are clear. The boy went on to say that their school had cleared land and made goals to create a football pitch and they had a team that had won matches in the local school league. However, their only football had burst so their playing was temporarily halted. They urgently needed a new football and other students put in an impassioned plea for basketballs and netballs. The two secondary schools enter both boys and girls in their district football championships and each school has emerged the winners on more than one occasion.
All the schools promote dancing and singing, which are low-cost activities, but they are also very keen to obtain materials for arts and crafts. The schools are trying to create school farms and establish stock rearing in order to bring agriculture lessons to life. The Isaac Newton School, for example, promotes pig rearing in the small farms around the school. This also gives the agriculture students valuable practical experience.
In recent years, both Mustard Seed and Isaac Newton High Schools have seen substantial improvements in their examination results. Each school has students who have achieved Grade 1 aggregates at O-level, achieved only by the top 8% of students in Uganda. Their first A-level students have shown outstanding achievement, with growing numbers of students in each school gaining government scholarships to study in universities, national teachers’ colleges and nursing and health workers colleges. In the Uganda national ranking of schools on the basis of their examination performance Isaac Newton ranks 143rd out of 4,123 schools in the country and Mustard Seed stands at 165th. They also rank 5th out of 35 schools in their Districts. Both are remarkable for rural schools.
Already among the best performing schools in their Districts, they have each experienced large increases in student recruitment. This is to be welcomed as it moves them closer towards being self-sustaining. However, in the short term, it means they need increased support if progress is to be maintained.
Would you be willing to help?
Although recently established, the Humanist schools in Uganda are making remarkable progress in bringing secondary education to children who would previously have had none. They have committed and energetic school managers and teachers with a vision for the future. We hope you will want to work with us to help the schools to develop by making a donation.