How new speed schools saved 30,000 pupils during lockdown

A teacher conducts a lesson at Lacor Primary School, one of the schools implementing speed learning module in Gulu District. PHOTO / TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • With funding from Geneva Global, an NGO operating in the sub-region, the district authorities of Gulu, Kitgum, Amuru, Omoro and Pader have been running speed schools to provide education access to disadvantaged, over-age, and out-of-school children.

In a dusty neighbourhood in Layibi Go-Down, Gulu West Division, Gulu City, Sylvia Akello’s 11-year-old son (Joseph) is preparing to play football with his friends under a mango tree.

He has just finished washing the dishes and getting water from the nearby stream, while his mother prepares lunch.

Ms Akello prides in her son’s current ability to read and write, interact with friends, as well as perform several home chores.

“Three years after joining the speed-learning class at Lacor Primary School as an out-of-school learner, he is very passionate about what he is learning, unlike in 2017 when he was staying at home,” Ms Akello said.

Joseph is one of an increasing number of learners across Acholi Sub-region, who have since 2016, been able to benefit from a speed learning programme in the area.

Whereas other learners were forced out once schools were closed in March 2020, as one of the measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Joseph’s classes were not affected but kept progressing when his instructors embarked on homeschooling.

This initiative to promote learning among rural communities under the Northern Uganda Education Programme (NUEP) has since impacted the lives of nearly 30,000 children of school-going age, according to the authorities.

Initiated with funding from Geneva Global, an NGO operating in the sub-region, the district authorities of Gulu, Kitgum, Amuru, Omoro and Pader have been running speed schools to provide education access to disadvantaged, over-age, and out-of-school children.

The programme also particularly targets learners who had their education interrupted by poverty, marginalisation and other related crises.

Between 2016 and 2017, Uganda was affected by three parallel emergencies (refugee influx due to war) from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Burundi.

The Accelerated Education Programme (AEP), limited to refugees and displacement contexts, was introduced in Uganda in 2016 in an attempt to re-engage thousands of refugee children back in school following the influx.

But the intervention in Acholi sub-region, implemented with financial and technical support from Geneva Global, an international NGO, is the only speed learning drive in the country being conducted in environments outside refugee settlements.

At Lacor Primary School in Gulu City, it is the fifth year since a speed learning centre was established under the programme in 2016. 

Grace Anenocan, the school head teacher, says besides an increase in school enrolment, performance has significantly improved.

“It increased our enrolment because all of them [learners] are absorbed into the school after their promotion. The learning materials in the speed school are shared by the other classes in the regular section at the school,” Anenocan says.

Anenocan says 95 percent of the learners qualify to join Primary Four, while only a few remain behind to repeat upon sitting the assessment and promotional examinations by their instructors.

As of 2020, NUEP has benefited directly more than 28,000 children and their families in the districts of Gulu, Omoro, Nwoya, and Amuru and Gulu Municipality.

This evolution has included an expansion to two new areas of the north, working with Loro and Kitgum Core Primary Teachers’ Colleges and the district education officers of Alebtong, Agago, Otuke, and Kitgum, as well as Kitgum Municipality.

How it works

Whereas Gulu District has more than 40 schools enroled as learning centres under the programme, almost a similar number is spread in each of the other districts (Nwoya, Omoro, Amuru, and Kitgum), totalling to 230 schools across the region.

But speed school learning condenses the curriculum into three years, allowing over-age learners to catch up quickly and either re-enter the formal school system when they are ready, or complete all three levels and sit the Primary Leaving Examinations. 

The programme recruits qualified teachers who run the learning centres as instructors, who scheme lessons based on a compacted AEP curriculum endorsed by the Ministry of Education and Sports, as well as the National Curriculum Development Centre.

There are more than 50,000 school-age children scattered across the region with similar stories of violence, conflict and poverty, and had been forced out of school due to the high cost of education.

Rebecca Ecwou, the Geneva Global country director, says: “By 2019, more than 26,000 children had benefited and today, the number has grown to nearly 30,000. This is either through the speed classes or through community schools that we supported mainly in Amuru, Gulu, Omoro and Nwoya.”

“We have had this programme since 2016 in settled communities where children between the ages of nine and 14, who had missed school, successfully returned to school. Last year, we extended the programme to Alebtong, Otuke, Agago and Kitgum districts.”

Whereas the learners are in-charge of their own, learning with instructors to facilitate and mentor the learners, each class comprises 30 learners of an equal number of boys and girls.

“We have blended it since last year to make learning more activity-based, meaning the children are engaged in more self-driven activities and project works that encourage a lot of creativity, critical thinking, inquiry, among others,” Ecwou add.

Fearing that the already mobilised learners could lose out once again during the lockdown, Ecwou says they introduced home learning programme in communities where the speed schools had been running in order to keep the learners engaged.

Under the initiative, the parents and guardians are also empowered economically and socially to invest in financial savings and enterprise development to enable them support the learners once they are promoted to Primary Four.

The parents and guardians are mobilised into self-help groups to save, borrow and lend money, as well as gain business skills. Once they save money, they invest it into meaningful ventures so that they build financial ability to support their children on their own in the next stage of learning.

Non-formal education

The government is yet to formalise the non-formal education policy, a deliberate policy intended to capture the interest of the disadvantaged learners that have not had the chance to get formal education.

Richard Irwenyo, the principal education officer, Gulu City Council, says the speed learning model has been borrowed and integrated into the curriculum of the regular school settings, but the delayed policy is slowing the integration process.

“If only this non-formal education policy could come out, that would give a wide opportunity to adopt this model so that the learners who are disadvantaged can benefit from within their localities,” he says.

The Covid-19-induced lockdown has frustrated learning since March 2020. But Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the State minister for Primary Education, says the speed learning approach has been absorbed by the Education ministry to help learners recover the lost time.

“We have reviewed the curriculum and we now have an abridged version of it for the lower primary (P1, 2, 3,) and Senior One and Senior Five. With these lower classes, we are looking at a competency-based curriculum that builds the learners’ skills and competence at a tender age,” the minister says.

“The compressed curriculum will bridge the gap since those in P1 are supposed to be in P2 or P3, but how do they get promoted in an accelerated manner? That is how the abridged curriculum version is going to fill the gap,” Kaducu adds.

What local leaders say

Richard Kibwota Okidi, the Kitgum Municipal Council education officer, says since 2017, the speed school programme has resulted in a significant growth in education standards and an increase in enrolment across the implementing schools.

“Besides improved quality of learning, thanks to the instruction materials provided, enrolment in the implementing schools shot up by nearly 20 percent as the learners are absorbed into the mainstream classes in schools where the learning centres are situated,” Kibwota says.

“Considering our background in the north here, many children have been left with no capacity to get back to school, especially those aged between nine and 13. Many are under the care of the elderly guardians, who cannot raise money to support them in school,” Kibwota adds.

Kibwota says the initiative combines activity-based learning with continuous formative assessment and other proven methods to lift education quality and relevance.

“And we are moving forward now to directly train primary school teachers and head teachers to run it,” he says.

“The focus now is on the model’s sustainability where we have embarked on training and supporting district education officers and teachers to employ the overall model so as to be able to operate speed school classes in primary schools with many out-of-school primary-aged children,” Kibwota says.

Richard Irwenyo, the principal education officer, Gulu City Council, says the accelerated (speed) learning programme gave opportunities to thousands of disadvantaged learners who had dropped out of school within Gulu City and the entire district.

“Bringing together more than 10,000 learners to resume their studies in already established public schools is a great achievement. The first lot of these learners of 2016 will sit PLE this year, and we are confident that these learners will give us very good results,” Irwenyo adds.

He says through the intervention, many teachers who have been redundant in villages have got jobs.