It's private education, but not as we know it

In Uganda, as in the rest of the world, parents want the best for their children, so they are turning to the low-cost private schools plugging the gap left by an inadequate state system. So essential is the role of such institutions that many believe universal primary education can't be achieved without them. William Stewart reports
5th December 2014, 12:00am


It's private education, but not as we know it

King David Primary School doesn't look like much. Built on top of an old stone quarry in a slum in Kampala, Uganda's capital city, the school has barely enough space for its 10 cramped classrooms. They surround a rough dirt courtyard. When I visit, one is lacking chairs and desks, let alone computers and whiteboards.

This is not a government-funded school but a private business started by a couple - both teachers - who spotted a gap in the market. The pupils are extremely poor and the local area has been blighted by riots and police shootings. The primary, and the community it serves, are also facing the very real threat of being bulldozed by developers.

A growing number of academics, educationalists and politicians argue that King David Primary, and other low-cost private schools like it in many developing countries, now represent an essential part of world education.

These schools have sprung up in some of the most deprived parts of the planet - where parents have no confidence in state education, or where it never developed in the first place. They are proof that no matter how little money people have, many are prepared to spend a high proportion of it on school fees if they think this will improve their children's life chances. The growth of this type of education shows that where demand exists, enterprising teachers will set up schools to meet it.

According to Sir Michael Barber - an education writer who served as an adviser to Tony Blair when he was British prime minister - these often informal private schools are now an unavoidable part of the future. "So many poor parents have voted with their feet that it is no longer possible to solve the problem of universal primary education without taking the low-cost private sector into account," he has written. "The cat is out of the bag."

Poverty and privilege

To understand these institutions, you must abandon any preconceived notions of what a private school is like. Privileged backgrounds, state-of-the-art facilities, bountiful resources and eye-watering fees can all be forgotten.

Such institutions do exist in Uganda, as they do in every country in the world. Less than two kilometres from King David sits the Gems Cambridge International School Kampala. Its huge new campus includes two swimming pools, a sports hall, a "state-of-the-art" science block, five computer rooms and several libraries. But fees of up to pound;9,000 a year for primary pupils at the day school place it out of reach for all but the wealthiest Ugandans. Its patrons are the chief executives and senior government officials who can afford to educate their children alongside the offspring of Chinese business people and Russian oil company employees.

But look out from one of the school's picture windows - beyond the neighbouring, exclusive Royal Palms housing estate - and you can clearly see Kasokoso, the hillside slum where King David Primary serves a very different section of society. The journey there is just 20 minutes, but it takes you to another world. After leaving the paved car park and tight security of the international campus - which cost tens of millions of pounds to build - you eventually pull off on to an unmade road. Red dirt coats the walls and wooden shacks on both sides of the track, making it feel as if you are driving along a deep, rust-coloured trench.

The scent of sewage wafts by and at the bottom of the hill people are standing in a large rubbish dump, picking through plastic refuse. A cow is tied to a tree and funk music is blaring out from a wooden shed called "Olivia's Hotel". The road up the hill - virtually impassable during the rainy season - takes you into Kasokoso proper, past a stall where they sell the local moonshine. "You can smell it," my guide says.

At the top of the hill, a street is lined with shops in shacks, built from sticks rather than planks, selling everything from live chickens to chapattis and fruit. Around the corner is King David Primary, where we are met by the school's director, Jack Muyanja, and his wife Susan, the headteacher, who are accompanied by a noisy scrum of excited pupils.

The couple established the school in 2007 and have overcome considerable odds to make it successful. Finding the right staff has been a long-standing problem. "It was not easy to recruit at all because the teachers are not hard-working," Susan explains. "They are lazy. We had to train them."

"Many times we had to let some people go," her husband adds. "We had to fire them because of incompetence." Bringing in teachers from outside the area could have been a solution. But that would have involved paying for expensive transport or accommodation - difficult for a school surviving on very little money.

Jack describes the parents who send their children to the school as "low-income earners". "Most of them work in this area, in the stone quarries," he says. "Others own businesses along the street - they are street vendors selling vegetables and snacks."

King David's fees have been set accordingly, at no more than the equivalent of pound;106 a year. But despite being about 100 times less than the international school down the hill, the cost is still too much for some Kasokoso residents. "We were able to identify people who were in great need, so we are supporting some children, some are not paying," Jack says.

His school is by no means a charity, however. It is a money-making enterprise that the Muyanjas started because the salary of a government teacher was "not sufficient to meet my personal costs", Jack says. The couple are not from Kasokoso and the school's location is the result of a hard-headed business decision. "This is a place which has a lot of people, a huge population," Jack explains. "So we knew that it will not be very difficult to market the product, the service. That was the main driving force."

They heard about the area from a friend. "I was searching for a place, then he convinced me, saying: `Come here - there are so many children and we don't have any government schools nearby,' " Jack says. "The government school is quite a distance and, because in this area there are so many stone quarries, they had to pass very big holes so it was risky for the children. So when we came up with this idea it was a welcome intervention."

Work in progress

The school started slowly, opening with just 30 pupils. Today there are 350 and that number is likely to rise to 400 by the end of the year.

Jack puts the success down to effort, saying: "We are really hard-working people." Susan adds that there was always a clear goal in mind: "We worked because if the performance was good then more people would come."

However, success has brought its own problems. With average class sizes of 40, the spartan classrooms (designed for half that number) are overflowing. Space was always going to be an issue for a school set up by two teachers with limited means, even in an area like Kasokoso.

"The first thing was to have a piece of land and then to put up the structures," Jack recalls. "It was difficult. We did not have any assets which would guarantee us a bank loan. So we depended on the little savings we had and then assistance from friends and relatives. We wanted a bigger space but we couldn't find any."

Everything has been done to make the school, which sits next to a muddy ditch and has corrugated iron roofs, look as good as possible. The outside of the building is a cheerful blue and murals of the alphabet and numbers help to brighten up the internal courtyard with its rough earth floor. A huge sign on the wall next to the entrance proclaims the school's name and encourages people to note, among other things, "children's right to education" and that "with God all is possible".

But all the paint in the world could not compensate for the obvious physical limitations of King David Primary. You could fit the entire institution into the gleaming entrance lobby of the Gems Cambridge International School.

Despite their vastly differing circumstances, the two schools are not completely unconnected. The Muyanjas have benefited from a teacher training scheme run by the philanthropic arm of Gems Education, the Dubai-based chain behind the international school. King David's pupils have also visited the lavish facilities enjoyed by their neighbours. And although King David's parents might be much, much poorer than their elite counterparts, they have equally high expectations for their children. "Within one term they want to hear children speaking English," Jack says.

But is that possible? "No!" he laughs, before pointing out that the situation is "worse" in government schools where "they learn in the local language".

The comparison with the state sector is a frequent one. "The teacher-to-pupil ratio in government schools is very high," the school's director continues, noting that his classes are less than half the size of the 100-plus groups in government schools. "Teachers cannot mark books, they can't supervise children and they are not motivated."

Susan believes the problem comes down to money. "[Government teachers] know their salaries will come whether they turn up or not, so they don't mind," she says. "But in private schools - I pay for service. If you don't give me service, no payment."

Low-cost private schools tend to thrive in areas where state education is non-existent or inadequate. So you might expect the private sector to dwindle if genuine efforts were made to improve and expand state education.

But in Uganda, at least in some areas, the opposite has been true. From 1997, the government began to introduce free primary tuition to government schools through its universal primary education (UPE) policy. The vast expansion of pupil numbers didn't go entirely smoothly, as it was not accompanied by a proportionate increase in funding. The result in many government schools was much larger class sizes, a shortage of teaching materials and strain on buildings ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx.

And the policy had another negative impact, according to Rogers Nambuli, headteacher of Mackay Memorial Primary in Nateete, an area on the other side of Kampala. He supports UPE but says his government-funded school, one of the oldest in the city, had around 2,000 pupils before the policy was introduced. Today, it has less than half that number.

The reason, according to Nambuli, who is working hard with limited funds to restore the primary's reputation, is that more affluent parents saw the consequences of UPE and voted with their feet. "They were very worried about the quality of education that would be provided in government schools now that any students could go," he says. "That is why the number of private schools has grown in Uganda - to meet the demand for people running from UPE schools to what they think is a better education. They want something tangible for their money."

Perennial problems

So the private sector is in a win-win position. The absence of state education can prompt the opening of low-cost private schools and the expansion of state provision can lead to the same result.

That is not to say that the Ugandan government lacks involvement in the low-cost private sector. Schools like King David follow the same curriculum and use the same exams as their state counterparts, and have their buildings and results monitored by government inspectors. But when asked if the government supports his school, Jack is less than effusive.

"Technically," he says. "Basically they [inspectors] pay us a visit and they advise us here and there, that's all. We have to meet their transport costs. They demand money for fuel."

"They sure can't visit you and return empty-handed," Susan adds. "Sometimes that's why they come. They just come and sign in your visitors' book."

Asked if the inspectors are supposed to request travel expenses, the couple chorus "No!" in unison.

So they are corrupt? There is nervous laughter before Jack finally, and slightly unconvincingly, offers: "It is supporting each other. At times they supply us with the textbooks."

But despite the inspectors, lazy teachers, hard work, demanding parents and lack of space, the Muyanjas are more than happy with what they have achieved. The school makes a profit, "a good living" - enough to meet the considerable expense of putting their own children through university. "We are also helping this community a lot," Susan adds.

They want to continue for many years and have plans for a nursery section and a two-storey building that will cost "lots of money" and might take a decade to achieve.

Late last year, the future of the whole community seemed to be in doubt when the National Housing and Construction Company, which is part-owned by the Ugandan government, unveiled plans to evict Kasokoso residents and develop the land. The subsequent demonstration made the national news, as riot police fought running battles with local protesters, firing live rounds and spraying tear gas.

Jack was unfazed. "Initially they were saying we had to go," he recalls. "They were not talking about compensation or anything. So we petitioned Parliament and they put everything on hold. There was a lot of fighting and there was a riot, in fact. But they will not come back here. We paid for this land."

Since I visited, the housing corporation has continued to push for eviction and more riots have erupted. It is a reminder that although the role of schools such as King David in the developing world may be assured, the existence of individual institutions remains every bit as precarious as the slums they serve.

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