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In search of a First Grade

By Edgar Tushabe Muhairwe

How one man’s mission led a school that had gone without one for 14 years, to get six First Grades

The last electricity pole in Nyamuyanja sub-county stands in a village called Kishuro. From this point on, the sub-county in Isingiro North county of Isingiro district on the Tanzanian border in south western Uganda becomes truly rural.   Green banana trees intercropped with beans, potatoes, and cassava line the dust roads in seemingly endless plantations. Yet Nyamuyanja is not your typical village. The influences of the neighbouring Isingiro Town Council, the main urban area in the district, are slowly sipping into the area. At the heart of the transformation are some of the area’s well-educated, travelled, relatively affluent men and women. Among them is Silver Mwesigwa; the Speaker of the Isingiro District Council.

A plump man of average height, neat close-cut hair, sensible dress and unpretentious demeanour, Mwesigwa does not at first strike you for what he is; a transformer. This trait creeps to the surface in the passion with which he speaks about his dreams for Nyamuyanja.

“Yes; we do not have electricity yet,” he says, “but it will also come.

“Some things we have attained without anybody ever thinking that we will make it.

“We have had many successes as a community.”

Mwesigwa is doing his rounds of the area, a weekly ritual he has done since he became a Local Councillor and Speaker four years ago.

At the edge of Nyamuyanja trading centre, we enter Kiihwa primary school. Here, Mwesigwa shares something that had tormented him for a long time. He says for 13 years from the time the government introduced free Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997, the school had only been able to record one first grade in the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE).

Mwesigwa; an alumnus, says recalling the school’s glorious past spurred in him a quest to change that. He sensed that what was lacking is what he calls “on ground monitoring and evaluation” and recalled that the task was done by the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) which collapsed when UPE was introduced.

“During our times at this school, we had this parents-teachers association and it was easier for us to make it,” Mwesigwa recalled, “parents would pay their money and take the extra effort to see that what they have paid for is delivered.”

He says free education made parents abdicate their duties and children performance was not followed-up at school.

Together with other area leaders, Mwesigwa in 2010 convinced parents to revive the PTA. “The parents decided to retake the running of the school back into their hands,” he recalls, “In their first meeting, they voted to contribute a fee to the school for every child they send.”

John Kakuru, a parent recalls those trying first months. He had four children at the school and suddenly he was expected to pay Shs80, 000; the equivalent of about half the salary of the teacher, for all of them per term. It was a pretty sum but Kakuru was hopeful.

“What the government gives the school is very little and it usually comes late, so we thought it prudent for us to top up,” he says.

Benedicto Ayebazibwe, the vice chairman of the PTA, and a parent at the school says that they found out that teachers were hugely demoralised by the puny and late salary, lack of accommodation and poor teaching facilities. It was clear they could not deliver results.

With the help of leaders like Mwesigwa, he says, the school hired a bursar to manage their PTA revenues. They did not want them mixed with government money.

“We did not want people to think that the management of the school can swindle our money. So we got our own person and employed her as the bursar and she is responsible for giving accountability of our revenues. The trick is that when we collect enough, we get some remedial lessons for our children and give bonuses to their teachers. This is very motivating and you can see the results.”

The results were immediate. In 2010, the school registered two First Grades in PLE. In 2011, they registered two, 2012 they got one, and 2013 they got 2. Last year, 2014, was too good to be believed in all of Nyamuyanja. The school registered six First Grades.

Now everyone is upbeat. The deputy headmaster, David Tugume, says they expect even better results in 2015. It is amazing what the vision and determination of a community to transform itself can do – instead of waiting for the government to do it for them.

Beyond government’s contribution

The government contributes 10 teachers to the school.  Ayebazibwe says these are too few for the 800 pupils in classes P1 to P7. He says this would mean that the teacher to pupil ratio is 1:80 when the recommended ratio is 1:40. So, using their PTA funds, they hired another five teachers. That brought the ratio down to 1:50. Not ideal but far better.

The teachers are now able to rent better living quarters nearer the school and organise remedial classes for the pupils. The PTA has also built some more classrooms to ease on the crowding.

Not everything is rosy. Some parents are still reluctant to pay their dues and accuse the administration of turning their school into a private school. They claim that Mwesigwa and the headmaster are hobnobbing to harass some parents.  They are mainly unhappy about the fees. Every child from P1 to P5 is supposed to pay Shs5,000 (about the price of a 1kg loaf of bread) and P6 to P7 Shs20,000.

Kiihwa is also starting to feel the heavy weight of its success. Pupil enrolment is swelling, and since it is a government school, area children cannot be locked out. So there is pressure to erect new classrooms. Even amenities like ablution rooms and latrine pits are filling up fast. On the day we visited, Ayebazibwe, Kakuru, and Tugume had gathered to appraise progress on three new classroom blocks they are building alongside a main hall. They have some tough decisions to make. But the increasing First Grades they expect make their hard work worthwhile.

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