Maisie le Masurier and Rebecca Unwin are the 2014 Young Ambassadors for the Send My Friend to School campaign. They have just returned from a trip with the charity Sightsavers and the Global Campaign for Education to Uganda, where 22 per cent of primary-aged children are not in school.
A high proportion of the country’s population suffers from visual and mobility disabilities, which can lead to a chronic cycle of poverty. It is children with disabilities who have the greatest obstacles to face in getting a quality education.
Maisie and Rebecca met some of these children and also saw some steps towards progress in delivering quality education for all. Here are some extracts from their trip diary.
Day 1: Arriving in Kampala
From the airport we bolted down the chaotic roads of Kampala and got a glimpse of Ugandan culture and way of life.
Arriving at the hotel we met Juliet, the Sightsavers Uganda education programme officer who made us feel extremely welcome and gave us some background.
In Uganda, special needs teaching is not seen as a good job, and there is often a stigma attached to it. Teachers aren’t paid well and there is certainly no reward for the extra work required. And worse still, there is a strong feeling among many people that children with disabilities aren’t worth educating.
Sightsavers is currently campaigning for a policy to be agreed in Parliament to increase the pay of special needs teachers to attract more teachers and reduce teacher-pupil ratios.
We left the meeting feeling really excited about what was to come and then enjoyed our first meal in Uganda – an African chicken dish which was delicious!
Day 2: Advocacy work in Uganda
Today we met with advocacy organisations to hear more about the barriers preventing some children with disabilities from going to school. First we met with James, from the Uganda National Association of Teachers Union. He told us many more teachers were needed – to the tune of 50,000 or 60,000.
We also visited Fred, a kind representative of the Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda, a coalition of civil society organisations and a member of the Global Campaign for Education. Fred told us how promises are made regarding improvements to the education system for children with special needs but often fail to materialise.
We were surprised to learn from Fred just how small the budget for education is in Uganda. Previously, 17 per cent of the government’s money was allocated to education, but this figure has now fallen to 14 per cent. Worse still, only a tiny proportion of the education budget goes to special needs and in reality, only a small amount reaches the children that need it.
Fred believes there are a few fundamental factors in securing a brighter future for the new generations of Uganda: more inclusive and participatory teacher training and more government supervision and inspection of schools to guarantee that policy is put into practice in the education system.
We also got to meet three visually impaired young campaigners. We were very inspired by the great work they are doing to change negative attitudes towards people with disabilities and to give young people a voice so that they have a say in their own education. They run radio programmes, leadership training and educate students on their rights.
Again and again throughout the day we heard about the same obstacles for disabled children – lack of special schools, long distances to existing schools, school fees, lack of equipment, materials and facilities, and a lack of trained special needs teachers.
Day 3: Out of school in rural Iganga
Today we went into rural Iganga district to visit visually impaired children who do not go to school. We met a bubbly 16-year-old, Eva, who showed us round her family’s home. She told us that she had to drop-out of school when she was 13, after the pain in her eyes affected her vision, and the school was unable to help her.
She wanted to be a doctor, but has had to give up this ambition, due to her incomplete education and failing eye-sight. Eva’s future appears bleaker than it should be – she knows there are few options for a poorly educated, visually impaired child.
The last person we met was 16-year-old Martha. Martha experienced prejudice and recalls being branded “the blind person” and left alone on a chair. She eventually left school although is desperate to learn and is constantly thinking of the colossal improvement it would make to her future.
She told us: “If given hope I can become a teacher or a lawyer. I need to go back to school to do this.” So Martha was delighted when we gave her a Braille slate so that she could learn at home and not be too far behind if she does get to go to an inclusive school.
Meeting these children today has been upsetting, but has filled us with more motivation to help.
Day 4: Inclusive schools
Today we visited two schools in Iganga. First, we visited the friendly Bishop Willis Primary School where there are 56 visually impaired students who all participate in classes with sighted children – integrating with society. There is also a special unit to support individual needs. The teachers in the visual impairment unit were fantastic, and the pupils had a great trusting relationship with them. The materials were basic, with only two braille machines, but we were heart-warmed to see how they made the best of the few things they did have.
We met a young boy called Peter who despite not being able to see who, or what, is around him in class is happy, singing little melodies under his breath as he works. Peter’s teachers look beyond his disability and are investing in educating him.
The Iganga Secondary School was better equipped than the primary school; the buildings were cleaner, the edges of the paths were painted and there was a more advanced Visual Impairment Unit. This particular school was a private school, which took girls, but also accepted boys if they have a visual impairment.
We entered a geography class, where we stayed for a while, impressed by the enthusiastic teacher; the class was big and crowded, but very disciplined. We visited the Visual Impairment Unit and had a conversation with a 17-year-old boy, named Joseph, whose ambition is to be a lawyer or a journalist. Joseph has limited vision, and can only see shapes beyond a certain point. However, he made it clear to us that he would not let that stop him from trying his best to achieve the highest.
At both schools, there were visually impaired teachers who taught all the children, and it was clear that they were great role models, offering counselling, sharing their own experiences and giving them life-skills. Justin, a visually impaired teacher at Iganga Secondary School said: “I wish all blind people would be given the chance to go to school. With education you can fit in society.”
This experience made us see what Ugandan schools can achieve if given sufficient financial backing.
Day 5: Meeting policy-makers
On our last day we met Eseza Mirembe and Jane Kantono, ministers of the special needs department within the Ministry of Education and Sports. We were impressed with their openness and honesty about the current situation regarding special needs education in Uganda.
One of the huge problems in special needs education is the lack of funding. Braille machines are very expensive, so cheaper things like Braille slates are used – but which take ages to use. There is currently no funding system to help children who can’t afford fees.
The ministry’s money for education is small, and the money for special needs is even smaller. But there is some hope, as a new inclusive and special needs policy is awaiting approval from the government.
The attitude of everyone towards children with disabilities is perhaps the biggest challenge. We heard how the ministry has to even encourage parents to send their disabled children to school. But inclusive schools bring children with and without disabilities together and help improve attitudes and remove stigma.
Back in the UK and time to think
Maisie: “It is children like Peter at Bishop Willis School that made me want to become an Ambassador for the Send My Friend to School campaign. This trip confirms to me that the biggest global waste of all is the loss of potential. With help from Peter’s teachers he now has a great future, but what about the other children whose potential is not being realised? We must act.”
Rebecca: “I was overcome by the positive attitude of many with disabilities, and came back inspired. I fully support the system of inclusive education, as with my own visual impairment I personally could not bear to have any other type of education. I feel strongly that people should be more aware of how important it is for all children across the world to have the right to an education – we can all play a part in campaigning for that right.” Further informationMaisie and Rebecca won this year’s Steve Sinnott Award (funded by the NUT and the Global Campaign for Education UK) to be the Young Ambassadors for the Send My Friend campaign. They will now work to spread word in the UK and encourage pupils to remind world leaders of their millennium promise to ensure every child worldwide realises their right to an education. There are still 57 million children that do not go to school. This year’s theme, Send ALL My Friends to School, is focused on the right of all children to a quality education, regardless of disability. There are free key stage 3 school packs available at www.sendmyfriend.org
CAPTIONS: Barriers to education: (images from top) Rebecca, left, and Maisie, right, in Iganga Secondary School; Peter who the girls met in Iganga; and the girls talk to three school girls during their trip. Credit for all photos: Graeme Robertson/GCE UK