When the Education and Employers charity published the findings of its research into career aspirations amongst primary school children across the globe the headlines made surprising reading. Newspapers drew attention to the conclusion that Ugandan children hold higher career aspirations than their counterparts in the UK, who are seemingly more interested in becoming social media stars and football players than going into careers as doctors or scientists. You can’t help but feel that these headlines were first and foremost clickbait, meant to disparage the state of UK education and feeding the myth that “things aren’t what they used to be”. However, reading the headlines triggered memories of my time volunteering at Ruhanga Development School in rural South West Uganda, and made me wonder whether the headlines might just hold some kernels of truth.
Before arriving at Ruhanga Development school I knew nothing about Uganda other than what I’d seen in the historical fiction film starring James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland. What I found when I arrived at the school was something very familiar whilst at the same time unrecognisable.
The school itself was founded in 2008, and like many other Ugandan schools is attached to an NGO which acts as a lifeline for the school. Although Primary school education is compulsory in Uganda, there aren’t nearly enough government schools to go around, and Ruhanga Development School is one of a multitude of ‘private schools’ in the country, filling the void where government schools are inaccessible. Classes start at 7.30am and finish at 5.30pm, with extra classes for children living at the school running until 10pm. The curriculum is taught in English, a second language for the vast majority, with focus on core subjects Maths, English, Science, Religious studies (Christianity and Islam) and PSHE. The pervasiveness of rote learning based on read and repeat makes for a tedious school day, and class sizes of more than 65 make class behaviour management a crucial skill for teachers. The frequency of assessment is also striking and makes you wonder whether ex-Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had a hand in designing the Ugandan education system!
While the structure may resemble an education system not that dissimilar to our own, the day-to-day differences are notable, underpinned by the poverty that is universal in Uganda. While there is an official school uniform, many of the children cannot afford shoes let alone the official skirts, trousers, jumpers and shirts prescribed by the school board. Malnutrition and illness is something the children contend with daily. Malaria is widespread, and on any given day multiple children would be unable to attend class as they were afflicted by the illness. The ‘porridge’, provided freely by the school, was also a lifeline for many children, giving them much needed calories.
Despite these difficulties the children themselves give reason for hope. They are happy, energetic, optimistic, resilient and, as the research by the Education and Employers found, ambitious to improve their lives. Given the conditions in which many Ugandan children grow up, it is not difficult to see why they place such value on education, as they know this is how they can get on in life. In a country where a career as a footballer or in social media does not exist, it is unsurprising that these are not careers Ugandan children aspire to go into. Instead Ugandan children look to the role models that they do have around them. The teachers who help them to learn. The doctors who help them to heal. The police who protect them. As with children in the UK, Ugandan children aspire to succeed in life. The career aspirations of Ugandan and UK children reflect the available options that will allow them to achieve what is ultimately the same goal, that of health, happiness and prosperity.
I suspect that most (if not all) of the social commentators writing the headlines were equally unfamiliar with Uganda as I was before my time spent volunteering at Ruhanga Development School, but perhaps if they had spent some time there then they wouldn’t be so quick to use Ugandan children as a crude benchmark with which to berate UK children and would recognise that, actually, children are children no matter which country they are from.