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Stability amid the gunfire

Governor-trainer Michele Robbins describes her latest visit to Uganda, as part of a British Council project to improve school governance

THE VOLATILE security situation in parts of northern Uganda has been in some ways a blessing in disguise for its younger citizens.

Areas such as Kitgum and Lira are close to Sudan, where the Lord's Resistance Army - fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government - is active. It has been accused of kidnapping

children, selling the girls into slavery and making the boys into soldiers.

But living in the protected camps of Kitgum has given Ugandan pupils a learning environment that is actually more stable than in more peaceful districts. "Pupils in the camps don't have to walk miles to school and back for lunch since the schools are in the camps. They have more books and food. These are things other pupils can only dream about," says New Vision, a local newspaper.

This situation demonstrates the scale of the problems facing schools in Uganda. Problems I was only too aware of as I flew out to my second week of work with the British Council in Kampala in February.

Together with the local private educational institutions' association, we were to finalise guidance designed to enhance the governance and management of Ugandan private schools.

The first draft of the guidance had been produced at a workshop last year (see TES, governors page, January 7, 2000). This visit was to complete it, and to introduce it to governors at pilot schools.

The workshops were again characterised by total commitment, good humour and a hunger for information. Last time we explored vision, values, and key roles for governors. This time we decided to include in the guidelines the five-stage cycle for school improvement and SMART targets (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-limited).

The guidelines will be launched at a ceremony hosted by Kampala city council. Councillors and the senior inspector for schools have played a key role in ensuring that the interests of both the state and private sectors are accommodated and protected during the project.

Days three and four of the workshop saw the arrival of school governors and proprietors. We began by exploring what they enjoyed about being a governor and what hindered their wrk. Positive points raised included:

Seeing the school run smoothly, with good results and discipline;

Contributing to the future of students and, ultimately, Uganda;

Solving problems and dealing with challenges;

Feeling part of a team and having good social interaction; and

Providing a link between government, school and other stakeholders.

Barriers identified included:

Heads who are also proprietors ignoring governors' decisions;

Irregular meetings, which undermine decision-making;

Lack of knowledge about what being a governor involves;

Having to make personal andor financial sacrifices, which can demotivate.

There was also some disappointment that standards aren't higher. With relief we found that participants believed the guidelines would be a valuable tool.

The challenge facing Uganda's schools was underlined by the minister for secondary education, who, at the workshop's closing ceremony, urged all private schools to increase the number of places available.

Around 6.5 million children are emerging from the country's primary schools, but many - despite passing exams - will be unable to afford the fees to continue their education.

Several of the schools I visited do their best to accommodate pupils who cannot pay. In one, students spend their spare time doing building work around the site, or cooking and washing to pay their way.

At another, 100 14-year-olds were crammed into a single classroom. My guides laughed when I expressed astonishment that this class had just one teacher.

At a third, the head spoke of how they are trying to achieve a ratio of one textbook to every four students. How's that for a SMART target?

Everyone realises how crucial it is that schools in both private and state sectors are effectively managed. They must capitalise on the expanding economy and opportunities provided by the easing of the country's burden of debt. The intervention by the British Council is timely and well focused.

Michele Robbins is an education officer with Oxfordshire County Council.Oxfordshire schools have donated a ton of textbooks for Kampala - but more books and equipment are always needed. If you can help, telephone Michele Robbins, Oxfordshire governor services, on 01865 815119.

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