The issue - When school's out, the work is only half done

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Ugandan children's education is often neglected because they have to earn money. One teacher is trying to offer them a better future

In 2011, I built a school for the children of my Ugandan village who otherwise would have had to trek for an hour to get any kind of education. I am not a property developer. I am not a government worker. I am a 26-year-old teacher and mother of two. So why did I take it upon myself to set up a school?

Because I believe that every child deserves an education. The long walk to the nearest school would have been too much for most children. And for one group in particular it would have been impossible to even contemplate attending: the children who have jobs outside school.

I am not talking about working for pocket money. I am talking about exhausting jobs with long hours on multiple days. My school has 120 students and 25 of them work in this way, partly to pay for the things they need for school. Almost all children in Uganda do chores and farming for their families, but working children have to do these things as well as earning money.

The youngest working student is 7 and looks after cows. The oldest is 13 and sells sodas or carries people's luggage on market day. The markets are every Wednesday and Saturday, so most of the working children are absent from school on those days. They get up at 5.30am, work on their family's land for a few hours, go home for breakfast and then work in the market until about 6.30pm. The girls work as housegirls, cleaning and cooking.

This obviously affects the children's studies: they get very tired and they worry about money, so they find it hard to concentrate in class. On top of everything, they have to work extra hard to catch up on the study they miss when they are absent.

I am determined to do everything I can to help these children keep up and stay in education, so my school has developed strategies. We don't like to leave them behind, so we try not to introduce new subjects on market days. When the students return to school, teachers tell them what they have missed and set them extra homework. We also give them past exam papers to look at and ask them to share their questions with us the next day. But that is not always possible: they have chores to do when they get home and it's hard for them to study after dark as the kerosene lamps make them sleepy.

We are also focusing on cultural change. In the past, Uganda had presidents such as Idi Amin who didn't go to school. Today, leaders are elected on their skills and qualifications. I use these examples to inspire the children and make them realise that if they don't study, they will miss out and be left behind.

The trouble we often have is that parents or guardians are not educated themselves and don't see the value of school. We try to talk to them about the importance of learning and the sacrifices that have to be made to ensure that children get an education, but they are generally not interested in helping.

The students also face challenges at home. Many are orphans living with grandparents. One boy's father frequently gets drunk and can't look after his cows, so he stops his son from going to school and makes him look after them instead. It is often difficult for me to ask caregivers to cooperate. I would be willing to conduct extra lessons over the weekend to help children catch up, but they usually have to work.

Teachers all over the world will recognise the traits of students who have jobs: sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, lack of time to do homework and no opportunity to catch up at the weekend. The circumstances may be different in each country but the outcome is the same, and the issues teachers tackle are universal.

My ability to help may not be as great as elsewhere in the world. My school has four classrooms and a few benches for the older children but no desks. The iron sheet roof is not yet finished and some classes are conducted under a tree. I want to build five more classrooms and a boarding section for children who live too far away to walk. Then I would like to open a secondary school and a health unit nearby, so that when students fall ill they can receive medical attention quickly.

But when I consider what we have already achieved, I feel hopeful for my community and my country. When people see others sending their children to our school, they are inspired to send their own offspring, too.

At present, about a quarter of all children in Uganda have to work. I hope that one day everyone will value education and do everything they can to make sure that all children go to school. I am sure this is the aim of teachers in other countries facing the same dilemma.

Marium Msubuga's school, Bright Angels Academy, was built with the help of the Bukomero Development Foundation, which uses money raised through Sport Relief, a UK charity event. Sport Relief 2014 is taking place this weekend (21-23 March). For resources, visit the campaign's collection page.

What else?

Read this information sheet for an overview of Uganda.

A presentation explains why schools in Africa need our help.

There is still a long way to go in the race for universal education.


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