I remember the sighs that accompanied the unenthusiastic train commutes to school; the same faces, the same scenery, the same dated upholstery seating – everyday seemed like I was stuck in an educational purgatory. However, in the summer of 2019 I discovered just how fortunate I was to have received so many academic opportunities, even if it meant suffering through an hour of daily boredom, when I volunteered in rural Uganda for 10 weeks to teach local school children and youth.
Put plainly, the Ugandan education system is one that lacks compassion and understanding for the destitute. You attend school if you pay your fees; no room for negotiation, no financial support, no exceptions. Considering this you might think that the standards of the educational experience would be higher for the students who do manage to procure the required funds, but unfortunately this isn’t the case.
Entering Kisega High School the immediate atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable; students hurried to sweep the courtyard under the intimidating watch of staff, while others scurried between classrooms like mice in fear of detection. Certainly not comparable to the energetic environment found in the corridors of the average UK school. The first step upon arrival was to greet the school’s senior team and gain a better understanding of the situation.
The school consisted of 10 ‘classrooms’ – a large hall with a tin roof, sectioned off with thin pieces of battered wooden screens; 2 rooms were allocated for each year group, labelled ‘East’ or ‘West’. Classes were not ordered by ability and were completely randomised. The age range within the year groups and class sizes varied strikingly; in year 7 the number of students per class averaged 80, where we found several 16-year olds mixed amongst 11- and 12-year olds, held back due to breaks made in their studies to save up for school fees. This created a complex power dynamic in the classroom, making it difficult to plan sessions that both age groups would find engaging.
In direct contrast, year 11 classes were almost empty. The largest group of students that we were able to muster during our time there was a meagre 12. This plummet in attendance was a shocking revelation for the volunteers, but for those from the area it was perceived as inevitable.
The excessively huge/minute class sizes combined with minimal effort displayed by staff to consider possible alternatives to compensate for the imbalance portrayed an overall lack of interest in the quality of the educational being received by the students. Even new teachers who you would expect to demonstrate vigour and passion seemed indifferent – more concerned about staff meetings than teaching their next lesson.
Much more remains to be said surrounding the neglect of hygiene and wellbeing, but the main message here is the importance of acknowledging the privilege of a structured educational system, and despite the obstacles that may arise, take full advantage of the resources that those in less forgiving countries could only dream of having.