Peer power

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Ugandan pupils hit by war, Aids and poverty have become role models for disaffected British boys

Peter Kayemba, 15, was always late for school. Now he is punctual. Samuel Okullu, 22, was a class rebel. Now he has stopped fighting altogether.

The reason behind the transformation in both these boys from St Kizito secondary school in Uganda is simple: last year Kayema became timekeeper prefect and Okullu became mess (food) prefect, and both were trained in leadership.

"Without leadership you are always sitting on the potential of the child," says Elizabeth Odyek, St Kizito's headteacher.

Kayemba and Okullu's transformation at school is all the more remarkable given the hardship and trauma they and their peers face in their daily lives.

St Kizito is nestled at the foot of Bumya Hill on the fringes of a wealthy suburb of the capital. Kampala, with its 10 evergreen hills, is one of the lushest cities in Africa. But the shadow of death hangs over Mbuya, the school's catchment area on the edge of Bugolobi. Here, almost half the population has Aids, and diseases such as tuberculosis, polio and cholera are rife. Most families live in mud-walled shacks and survive on occasional labour.

St Kizito opened in 1997 in a rundown health clinic with 40 pupils. The school now boasts 700 students, with mixed boarding facilities for 160. It depends solely on fees and the money is often late as the majority of pupils rely on sponsorship. Half have been orphaned (they have lost either one or both parents, mostly to Aids), and 60 have been displaced by the war in the north. But the school is a safe haven for these children; prayers are said regularly, the cane is forbidden and students who fight receive two warnings before being expelled.

St Kizito's peaceful environment is down to the vision of Odyek."Our non-violent approach gives the children self-awareness; they are treated with dignity and they understand they have to promote a culture of peace," she explains.

Odyek exudes warmth and compassion - the glue that sticks the school together. "Many of our pupils are fractured (orphaned or displaced by the war) so each student has a parent-teacher to journey with and bring out good values in them," she says.

Teachers from Deptford Green school - a 1,150-pupil secondary in Lewisham, south London - have experienced St Kizito's pastoral care firsthand.

Headteacher Keith Ajegbo visited the school last year as part of the British CouncilNational College for School Leadership's (NCSL) International Placements for Headteachers scheme.

He was bowled over by St Kizito pupils' dedication to learning, despite having 70 children to a classroom and a daily diet of boiled maize flour and beans. He was also struck by how they helped each other and viewed school as a "community they wanted to be a part of"."It enhanced my belief in the power of education," he says.

Realising that his school (almost half of his students are black African and Caribbean) could learn a lot from their Ugandan counterparts, Ajegbo forged a partnership with St Kizito. He aims to change the way his pupils think about education, fostering communication between students from both schools through letters, videos, joint curriculum work and eventually school visits.

The partnership was launched in February this year with funding from the Department for Education and Skills' Teachers' International Professional Development (TIPD) programme . Four teachers from Deptford Green, including assistant head Wendy Bisiker, spent one week at St Kizito gleaning good practice on student voice, responsibility and motivation. They are using the experience to strengthen their school's pastoral provision and revitalise citizenship and English studies.

At St Kizito, a week-long behaviour change programme is used to encourage good conduct and leadership qualities in new entrants (Year 7 equivalents).

Pupils are split into groups of 40 to discuss how to overcome personal difficulties and avoid the perils of theft, violence, drinking and sleeping around.

"We teach them to appreciate each other and forge a different way forward," explains Odyek.

Older students reinforce these messages during the term, with workshops on "good manners", "critical and creative thinking" and "values".

Back in Deptford Green, design and technology teacher Jackie Phillips is using aspects of St Kizito's behaviour change work to enhance Year 7 induction and mentoring programmes. "I was amazed how quickly the behaviour of pupils on the bottom rung of the ladder is turned around. We believe it's important for our pupils' development to unlearn certain behaviours and learn others," she says.

A third of Deptford Green students speak English as an additional language and over half are eligible for free school meals. With increased responsibility and more comprehensive leadership training, Phillips hopes her pupils will develop self-worth like their Ugandan peers.

At St Kizito, pupils live by their school motto "dare to be wise".

Twenty-nine democratically elected prefects (a third of whom are girls) and 15 appointed school councillors uphold tolerance and enforce the school rules with pride. If a pupil rebels, the prefecture takes them aside and, fearing isolation, they usually mend their ways. Odyek admits she could not run the school without them and that they have considerable clout. In the past few years, they have successfully campaigned for sports days, a meat meal mid-week, and a television to watch films about HIV.

When Peter Kayemba and Samuel Okullu were elected as prefects they received a day's training in leadership service (where they are taught to serve others ), teamwork and conflict resolution (where they learn how to maintain discipline and be good judges), which is repeated each term. They are now so dedicated to their jobs even Odyek cannot believe the turnaround.

Samuel says: "Being a prefect has changed me personally. Before I did not want to get up at 4am to study and Ialways wanted to fight when people annoyed me, but being a leader you have to calm down. Istudy harder now because Ihave to be a role model, and if you fail, the other students won't follow what you are saying."

Ajegbo wants to draw on Odyek's student leadership strategy to raise the aspirations of his own black boys. Citizenship teacher Anthony Barnett will show student school council leaders a film of the Ugandan prefects. They have already watched Barnett's other film, where the Ugandan pupils try to understand why some black boys at Deptford Green lack motivation."They were shocked because they pride themselves on their knowledge," Barnett explains. "They thought discrimination might be the cause and suggested that our black boys take positions of responsibility and set up peer study groups."

But Ajegbo is realistic."The global partnership cannot transform black boys' underachievement by itself, but it can eat away at the problem," he says.

"It's no good saying those pupils are wonderful, and you're not, because London students have different pressures. But it's good to see black boys in Africa being incredibly hardworking, responsible and committed."

Some boys at Deptford Green are understandably defensive about being stereotyped. But others are more receptive. Year 9 pupil Asharne Litchmore has totally changed his view of education, for example. The 14-year-old second-generation Jamaican has received letters from five students at St Kizito and been surprised to learn that the Ugandans enjoy school despite being poor and learning in cramped conditions.

"They have to pay for their education," he says, with a sheepish smile. "It makes me think that we take our school for granted and it makes me feel bad."

As time goes on Deptford Green's teachers hope the partnership will change the self-perceptions and global view of more pupils. They are happy to have laid firm roots at St Kizito, which will be forever symbolised by the coconut palms they planted with the Ugandan teachers.

More exchanges are in the pipeline. St Kizito teachers plan to visit Deptford Green to learn about leadership and middle management in September 2005, and Deptford Green staff hope to return to St Kizito in February 2006. Student trips to the UK and Uganda are also planned.

Odyek is confident the partnership will last. She says:"It's a relationship for life which will bring us limitless sharing."

Deptford Green has applied for funds from the Department for International Development's Global School Partnership scheme, which supports good quality links. For details of this, and the British CouncilNCSL's International Placements for Headteachers scheme, and the DfES's TIPD programme go to Teachers Programme: Green school: St Kizito secondary school: email


* Clearly identify aims and conduct "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats" analysis before visiting the African school.

* Create blocks of quality time in the timetable for jointly planning the development of the partnership, but allocate one teacher with overall responsibility.

* Continually look at new ways of embedding the experience into areas of the curriculum, such as citizenship and English.

* Maintain weekly email contact with teachers and members of the senior management team at the African school and exchange examination papers and ideas on creative teaching.

* Publicise the partnership widely on your school website and in newsletters and hold events, such as a Celebrate Uganda evening, to promote interest in the link.

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