Learning comes out of shadows
In Bushenyi towards the south-western borders with Rwanda and Zaire there are the normal state schools built of brick and cement with corrugated tin roofs. Fifty to 60 uniformed pupils per class sit in rows copying notes on academic subjects from the blackboard in strict silence.
And there are village learner centres, based in church halls or thatched women's group shelters made of bamboo packed with mud. There, in the early mornings or late afternoons, 30 to 40 children in torn, dusty casual shirts huddle in groups discussing topics from the same subjects before going out to a carpenter's workshop or a shamba (vegetable garden). There they tackle practical maths problems or learn farming techniques which they can use for growing cash crops such as coffee or cocoa.
The learning centres are the first in a government-backed alternative education scheme, based on flexible learning hours, low capital investment, cheaper school fees and a curriculum delivered through vocational skills training.
Over the next two months the scheme will be extended to three other areas - Arua in the North, Masaka in the South and Kamuli in the East. This follows hard on the heels of President Yoweri Museveni's decision earlier this month, to switch responsibility for non-formal education from the ministry of local government to the ministry of education.
The tropical East African country, once dubbed the Pearl of Africa because of its fertile soil, is slowly emerging as one of the more stable, democratic nations in a region simmering with unrest. But a decade after the end of its civil war, the government remains starved of funds for investment in basic infrastructure such as Tarmac roads - which don't exist over whole swathes of the country.
It does not have the money to provide compulsory free education and as a result 45 per cent of children never enrol in school because their parents, who are mainly peasant farmers, either can't afford even the Pounds 6 or so it costs per child per term in their first years at primary school, or can't afford to spare their children from working. Many of them earn extra cash for their families by selling firewood or roasting chicken for street vendors.
At the 1990 World Conference on Education for All in Thailand, Uganda signed the pledge to provide universal primary education (for six to 14-year-olds) by 2000. Since then the government has already had to push back the deadline to 2003 and it seems inevitable that it will be pushed back further. The alternative education scheme based on learner centres is seen as a low-cost way of plugging the gap in the meantime.
Sam Onek, assistant commissioner for education, explained: "Nearly half of school-age children are outside the formal programme and it is not ethical to wait until universal primary education is achieved. We need to introduce a 'friendly' option. It's seen as a temporary but critically needed response. "
The learner centres will target children who have never attended a formal school, but not drop-outs, even though the latter group also presents a massive problem. This is because the government, like many in developing countries which have shied away from introducing a non-formal system, fears parents would switch pupils from mainstream schools if there was a cheaper alternative that would allow their children to work during the day.
The difficult task of enforcing this criterion for enrolment will fall to the village-level resistance councils, which will also establish steering committees to collect funds from parents for the new centres. Local headteachers keen not to lose pupils from the formal schools will be represented.
In fact the Ugandan initiative is neither non-formal nor formal, but semi-formal. The curriculum, though delivered through a vocational context, shadows the curriculum in formal schools and allows pupils to join the formal system three years later if they wish.
It is hoped, however, that the focus on locally useful skills will give even those who do not rejoin the formal system a better preparation for life in their community, whether as craftsmen making furniture or peasant farmers.
The government believes the semi-formal scheme will eventually reach more than 10 per cent of the primary age population, but it is relying heavily on the commitment of non-governmental organisations to spread it. UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has been instrumental in researching the demand and helping draw up a curriculum specifically aimed at bridging the gap between the life skills needed to survive in barely developing rural areas and the more academic focus of the formal schools' timetable. Britain's ActionAid, Norway's Red Banner, and America's World Vision are among the NGOs set to replicate the system.
Teachers will be given only one month's initial training but two days per month follow-up training ad infinitum.
They will also be visited weekly by subject specialist supervisors and district school inspectors to maintain standards and pupils' skills attainment will be monitored weekly against a strict checklist of criteria.