Pay more attention to rural schools

Monday June 07 2021
educpix

John Ssentamu interacts with learners in one of the classes at Good Shepherd Primary School in Katwadde, in Masaka. PHOTO | EDGAR R. BATTE

By Edgar R. Batte

John Ssentamu is determined to create an awareness about the need for changing Uganda’s education system. The primary school teacher was forced to start his own school to prove that every child can pass as long as they are given the right tools.  

“We need to get rid of the colonial education system and come up with a practical and suitable education system. What is the essence of teaching Napoleon Bonaparte to students that would rather benefit from learning about their own history? We have land. Instead of teaching the children how to use this area, we are busy pumping them with stories of the prairies in Canada. Our children should know about Lake Mburo National Park,” argues Ssentamu. 

Drawing from his 23-year experience of teaching in rural and disadvantaged schools, Ssentamu is irked by the pointlessness of teaching pupils about America instead of equipping them with the skills they need in case they never make it to secondary school.  

“In addition to teaching pupils the basics such as how to read and write, they should also be equipped with practical and life skills such as carpentry and tailoring right from the formative years of their study. They should be taught about integrity and their self-confidence boosted. These are the things everyone needs in their life,” he says.

Ssentamu, who started teaching in 1998, also observes the unfairness of examining a pupil’s seven-year knowledge in just two hours. 

“Pupils do not really learn anything but just cram because that is what the system rewards.  So what is the use of going to school if your brain will be fed things that you are required to regurgitate later instead of teaching you how to think critically on your own?” He wonders. 

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Root of the problem

He notes this is a deep seated problem resulting from the teachers themselves. According to Ssentamu, every teacher is expected to teach any subject.

“This is unrealistic and unfair to both learners and teachers because a teacher cannot teach all subjects. Nature has equipped each one of us with unique competences and skills and trying to force ourselves to do it all, results in mediocrity. There is nothing like an all-round teacher, they must have something they are great at and something else in which they struggle and they will transfer these struggles to their learners,” he argues. 

In addition to competent teachers, Ssentamu urges government and able school owners to equip schools with libraries, laboratories and computers for early exposure for learners.

Fighting for learners

Ssentamu completed tertiary education at Misanvu Primary Teachers College (PTC) and started his career as a teacher of English, Social Sciences and Science at Kyebondotoko Church of Uganda Primary School in 1998. 

He taught at the government school until 2000 when he joined Kabwami Church of Uganda Primary School until 2003. He joined Kalungu Church of Uganda Primary School in 2004 and was a teacher there until 2012 when he established Good Shepherd Primary School in Katwadde, about 10 kilometres from Masaka City. 

Ssentamu was inspired to start his own school following a disagreement with the board chairman at Kabwami Primary School. 

“For years I noticed that the school was doing nothing more than teaching pupils to read and write. I approached the board and voiced the unfairness of this practice and pointed out that if we tried harder, we would give some pupils and opportunity to pass. He told me I was in the wrong school if I expected any of the pupils to ever get a first grade. I challenged the board chairman to enrol his children into the school to also learn to read and write to understand how unfair it was to the pupils and their parents,” he relates. 

The argument lit a fire under Ssentamu, who took on the challenge of helping to equip pupils better.  After 40 years of existence, the school was able to get a first grade.

He notes that the dangerous perception that some schools fail and others pass has given birth and to focus on commercialisation of education where schools give more attention to attaining first grades as opposed to academic, moral and holistic shaping of learners.

“If you have money, you have high chances of passing academically. There are very few organic first grades. Many of the ones we have, are just doctored,” he argues.

If he were to meet the minister of education, he would tell them to ensure that education is accessible by all at all levels. “So much attention needs to be on rural areas,” he adds. 

Giving pupils opportunities

As a proprietor of a rural school Ssentamu’s aim is to provide education to pupils from homes whose parents cannot afford to take them to the expensive schools.  

“In an average urban school, a parent pays Shs1m for a child in baby class and here (Good Shepherd), a parent cannot afford Shs50, 000 for a Primary Seven (P7) candidate, so many of our children are denied chances of joining good secondary schools because they cannot afford them,” he says. 

He adds, “We are teaching pupils who have lost hope. They know that if their mother is struggling with getting Shs10, 000 for their education in primary school, they may never afford secondary school so they are demoralised. We cannot afford to turn away pupils who cannot afford uniforms. We do not teach uniforms, we teach pupils. My aim is to get them that hope and opportunity and it always happens. I tell people that if I died today, I would die a happy man because I have seen poor children getting opportunities they never thought were possible,” he shares. 

Ssentamu was raised in a humble family where he did menial jobs such as digging in people’s gardens in Masaka in order to raise school fees, he therefore understands the difficulties these parents are facing. This is why he has allowed some parents who cannot raise school fees to support their children in school, to take food to the school which can be quantified into the dues.

The school which started with semi-permanent structures has recently received a helping hand from local and international Samaritans to provide better and permanent structures.

However, due to the pandemic, the school population has dropped. Before Covid-19, it had 460 pupils, of these, about 100 have returned. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the school’s proprietor turned part of his land into a fish farm. 

He encouraged and employed some his 11 teachers at the farm so until President Yoweri Museveni partially opened schools, Ssentamu kept his teaching staff gainfully employed.

“Our performance has not been the best or the worst. But we get better every year. In 2017, we had three first grades,” he adds.

Ssentamu joined the profession not because he loved it but because it was what his parents could afford to pay for. His childhood aspiration was to become a lawyer. Along the way, he fell in love with teaching and has been in service for 23 years, in both government and private schools.

“Covid-19 has taught us to appreciate and embrace technology. We need to have an economic plan. That is why I am concentrating on fish farming too,” he says.

Career

Ssentamu completed tertiary education at Misanvu Primary Teachers College (PTC) and started his career as a teacher of English, Social Sciences and Science at Kyebondotoko Church of Uganda Primary School in 1998. 

He taught at the government school until 2000 when he joined Kabwami Church of Uganda Primary School until 2003. He joined Kalungu Church of Uganda Primary School in 2004 and was a teacher there until 2012 when he established Good Shepherd Primary School in Katwadde, about 10 kilometres from Masaka City. 

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