Making the Connections

Derek Nkata and Bill Dalton report on the ground-breaking partnership between schools in the Masindi district of Uganda and schools in the UK.

Earlier this year, International Development Secretary Hilary Benn and Chancellor Gordon Brown launched The World Classroom, a publication encouraging UK schools to build links with their counterparts in the developing world. And the British government has an ambitious programme to link every school and college in the UK to an overseas counterpart by 2010.

The hope is that this will usher in an explosion of North-South links. In which case, it will be built on the foundation of the lessons learned from a number of existing partnerships. Partnerships such as those in the Masindi district of Uganda.

The evolution of school partnerships has been somewhat ad hoc. Surprisingly little is known about the current number or form of school linking arrangements – or the benefits to both northern and southern partners. The guess is that about 3,000 out of 34,000 schools in the UK have international links and that about 1,000 of these are linked with a school in a developing country – principally South Africa, Ghana, Uganda and Pakistan.

Four hundred of the developing country schools are part of wider, capacity building programmes promoted by Link Community Development (LCD) and supported, in varying degrees, by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

The school partnership programme in Masindi, Uganda was first set up in 2000 as part of a unique partnership between Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), Link Community Development (LCD) and Masindi district Education Department. Masindi was one of the poorest districts in Uganda, hosting many internally displaced families from war torn Northern Uganda, as well as refugees from the DRC, Sudan and Kenya. Before the link was developed, the district’s educational performance was among the lowest in Uganda.

School partnerships between Ugandan and UK primary schools were part of a larger district-led programme designed to improve the quality of education following the implementation of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in Uganda in 1997.

During the early implementation of UPE the explosive demand for six years of free basic education had to be matched by a rapid school building programme, alongside an equally speedy expansion in teacher recruitment and training. Issues of quality soon began to emerge. Perceptive local officials in Masindi saw the prospect of the gains universal education brought being threatened as parents saw their expectations disappointed – schools and districts struggled to cope with a rapidly expanding roll along with new district responsibilities.

Consequently, a partnership with the district, LCD and VSO was formed and set out a programme for school improvement that had head teacher training, district staff capacity building and school linking at its core. This was to be a long-term programme. And one of the principal objectives was to be a sustained improvement in the performance of pupils.

Significantly, the first partnerships were with key stakeholders in the district. This collaboration between the district Education Department and NGOs underpinned the whole programme and has contributed greatly to its success.

Link schools and their community representatives took part in training in various aspects of school management and strategic planning. At the same time the district’s capacity to improve education was enhanced with emphasis on school monitoring, evaluation and support functions.

In this way, linked schools received sustained and regular support by district and NGO staff for their linking programmes. The integration of the school linking programme within a wider district and school’s capacity building strategy was a key factor in ensuring southern schools gained maximum benefit from the north-south link. The district partnership also ensured that the school’s own development plan corresponded to that of the district, and was the focus for the allocation of all resources generated from both Uganda and the UK.

The UK linked schools complemented this support by corresponding with the school, exchanging information and making available a modest grant to support the Ugandan School’s Development Plan. Exchange visits were fostered and were a key element in the partnership. Northern partners sent a member of their staff, often the head teacher or another senior manager to its partner school for a number of weeks. They lived locally in the school’s community, joined the school’s staff and further supported the Masindi School in implementing the improvement objectives set out in its School Development Plan. Where possible, a reciprocal visit was arranged for a southern teacher or head teacher to visit its partner school in the UK.

An important and vital feature of this linking arrangement has been the consistent support extended to both UK and Masindi schools throughout the linking experience. Schools in the UK benefit from an experienced UK-based staff that provides wide-ranging support. Similar support is offered to southern schools with largely southern staff. Both teams work closely together and are familiar with both contexts.

Nearly 100 schools – over 50% of Masindi district schools – are currently linked to UK counterparts, representing nearly 23,000 children. From being one of the poorest performing districts in the annual national Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) Masindi is now one of the top five. This is the fastest improving district in Uganda against a wide range of quality and performance indicators.

While these striking improvements cannot be attributed solely to school partnerships, the school partnerships play a vital role in the Masindi school improvement programme. The Masindi experience points clearly to the value of northsouth school partnership arrangements particularly in the context of a wider structured programme of school improvement.

There are also clear benefits for northern schools. These include a broadening and enrichment of the curriculum together with a greater support of its global dimension and a heightened cultural awareness.

It goes without saying that central to the success of these initiatives is the importance of exchange visits. No amount of reading or research can compensate for that jawdropping introduction to your partner’s educational ‘world’!

There is a real prospect that 20,000 schools in England alone are likely to be involved in a linking programme in the next few years. These target-driven northern schools need clear evidence of the benefits to both the northern and southern counterparts of this undertaking. School linking has evolved on the basis of a number of untested assertions, many of which may indeed be valid. Fortunately, there is a promise of research in this area. In the meantime we depend largely on the evidence of success stories like Masindi

Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of Education, speaks for all of us in Masindi. “North-south partnerships like ours,” he said, “promote positive values of learning from each other, of sharing experience, expertise and sources in a non-domineering, non-superior manner.” He continued “Partnerships should not be an end in itself. They should be a means to an end. And that end should be overall school improvement.”