Mackay College

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Connecting classrooms: the Year 1 Exchange meeting in Uganda

From July 7th till July 12th 2007 there was the Year 1 Exchange meeting in Nateete, Uganda. Here is a report of that meeting. This report was originally published on the website of Fortismere secondary school. It is adapted to situations with little bandwidth, for instance the pictures are separated.

Day 1: St Paul's Cathedral, Sanyu Babies' Home

Day 2: life at the schools

Day 3: the country's national heritage

Day 4: the official 'launch' of the partnership

Day 5: the most important seminar to draw together all the threads of the week

Fortismere cluster's African adventure!

Aydin Ínaš, Headteacher, Fortismere Secondary, Haringey

Some months ago, when I first submitted an application for the British Council 'Connecting Classrooms' scheme, I had little idea what lay in store and how it would help me and, hopefully, my students, to review my values and outlook on life. Within days, it seemed, I found myself in Addis Ababa at the partnership-forming conference. Alongside 15 other UK delegates and 32 from different sub-Saharan African countries, I represented our London cluster, led by my school Fortismere together with Coldfall Primary and Blanche Nevile special school. Guided by our student host, Kidist, this was where I first met Ousmane Balde and Gertrude Ssekabira (see picture small or large: 35K), to form our new partnership between schools from London, Senegal and Uganda. I have to confess to not having much of a clue where these countries were but my geography has improved rapidly over the last few weeks, as well as my appreciation of the vast distances between Senegal, over on the West coast, and Uganda in East Africa.

The Uganda cluster comprises Nateete Junior, Mackay College and Mackay Primary (both founded by missionary/engineer Alexander Mackay who is said to have started the first classroom in Uganda in a cave, as well as laying 100s of miles of roads!). The Senegal cluster is: Djignabo HS, Tete Diadhiou Junior and Biram Beye primary, with a bilingual education system that should enrich opportunities for our French speaking students. The differences between our systems start to become obvious when you look at some of the statistics for, say, Djignabo school (see picture small or large: 56K) which has 4900 students, 70 classes and 3 computers! (Yes, that's a teacher/pupil ratio of 1:70 and approximately 1630 students per computer!) During the initial conference we created an outline for the 3-year plan:


Our partners being anxious to get started quickly, the Year 1 exchange was arranged for, and took place in, Uganda last week. It was an amazing experience. Because the focus was very much on planning, our group comprised mainly staff from the 3 London schools plus two Year 10 representatives from the Fortismere Student Council. On arrival at Entebbe airport we were immediately made to feel very welcome by the large reception party of staff, immaculately dressed students with bouquets of flowers, and boy-scouts, who had waited for several hours to greet us. The Mackay schools complex is situated in a semi-rural suburb of Kampala called Nateete. The local community and students live in a wide variety of dwellings from substantial, gated properties to the vast majority of small, shanty-type houses/huts. Access is along bumpy, dirt tracks which, because of climate change and unusual levels of rainfall, have become cratered and furrowed with deep grooves. We had all agreed that, in order to enrich the experience and to cut costs, the exchange would be 'home-stay' based. Our host families were unstintingly generous and caring, feeding us (well, 'feasting' us!) at every opportunity on a variety of dishes including 'Matoke' - a local speciality 'mash' made from green bananas. It quickly became clear that there would be no chance of losing weight during this week! Minor adjustments like a 'bath in a bowl' or shaving without a mirror soon seemed unimportant as one's relative values changed.

Day 1 began with an early visit to the huge local St Paul's Cathedral, Namirembe, (see picture small or large: 24K) populated by a congregation of about 2000 people, with us located conspicuously on the front row! The whole community, and the schools, have a very strong Christian ethos, with a fairly didactic style and a missionary zeal! The church literature is permeated with moralistic stories and 'thoughts' such as 'If you have never had a hard time with the devil, watch out - you might be on his side!' For me, the highlight was the Gospel Choir, to whom I could have listened all day! Just after the service we were taken to see the Sanyu Babies' Home, run by missionary sisters to care for some of Uganda's 2 million known orphans, (see the picture of a child small or large: 16K and the picture of a group (see picture small or large: 38K)) Many of these are found abandoned in garbage heaps, pit latrines, ditches, taxi parks or just left by the side of the road. Sanyu provides them with security, medical care, education and a loving home for a fewyears. We were all very moved by the experience and would like to try to supportthem in some way.

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Day 2 gave us our first real insight into life at the schools. I quickly realised what an enterprising Headteacher Gertrude is, organising single-handedly the construction of a new boarding house, building 70 foot deep wells to conserve rainwater, encouraging students to create their own farming enterprises such as the 'piggery'. But the really big impression you return with is from the students themselves; they are just so positive! Although there are up to 60 students in some of the classrooms there is no misbehaviour at all and not a murmur when the teacher is talking. They are immaculately dressed (despite some of the home conditions) and really value their education, aspiring to the Nateete school motto: "Okusoma y'ensulo y'amagezi" - "Education is the foundation of wisdom", or the Mackay motto: "Temudda nnyuma" - "No retrogression!" Groups of students are eager to greet you and show you around the school; some of the have voluntarily created their own vegetable gardens, with their own rotas of students who stay for 3 hours after school to cultivate and tend the plots; others have created arts, textiles and crafts for display and sale. In line with their school mission, they are very focussed on developing as "responsible, morally upright and academically excellent individuals".


A water-storage tank underconstruction (small or large: 38K)

A typical classroom scene. (small or large: 76K)

The school kitchen (small or large: 33K)

Technology in the school kitchens is not of the most sophisticated type but, despite this, the staff produced some mouth-watering dishes whilst we were there. The wood-burning stoves are effective and very energy efficient, as are the staff and students doing the washing-up!

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As part of the cultural experience on day 3, our Ugandan hosts were keen to show us some of the country's national heritage. Some of traditional tribal huts are scattered around the area, including the one (see picture small or large: 33K) in which kings are still 'crowned'. A very bumpy ride took us to Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile, close to the rapids (see picture small or large: 54K).

The day also included our 'classroom experience'; all of the UK/Senegalese teachers and students were invited to sit in on some classes, and the teachers were expected to teach lessons. This was a very illuminating and enjoyable experience. I think all of us were shocked by the standards achieved in all subjects; in the main these are much higher than those in the UK. For example, I taught an A level Maths class and discovered that much of what they were studying is now in our Further Maths syllabus. My colleague, Marcus, led a thought-provoking session on citizenship with some interesting international problems; the Ugandan students really enjoyed this forum which gave them more opportunity for discussion than they are used to. Our Primary colleagues, Evelyn and Serena, taught some of the Primary pupils, introducing them to counting songs and creative, descriptive writingabout themselves. (Congratulations particularly to Evelyn, who, since her suitcase never arrived, achieved this without the many materials she had brought, and managed to really look quite interesting in the local outfits our hosts lent her!). Everyone was fascinated by Jane from Blanche Nevile, who taught them various phrases in sign language and shared ideas about how we care for children with special needs in the UK.

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Day 4 began at 7.30 a.m. with assembly in the assembly hall ľ a large space under a very large tree! The extraordinary feature of this was that it was organised and run entirely by prefects and senior students. It was most impressive to see the leadership they displayed in managing a whole school of students and the confidence with which they addressed them. (see picture small or large: 161K) Day 4 also marked the official 'launch' of the partnership, with the Ugandan education permanent secretary and the Mayor of Kampala as special invited guests. The day was a real cultural festival(see picture small or large: 35K) with marquees, students from all 3 schools, parents and invited guests being treated to spectacular displays of music, songs, dramas and dance by student performers. (see picture small or large: 30K) It was magical to see the vitality and enjoyment in the faces of the performers and we will have to work hard to match this when we host our African partners in London next year! (see picture small or large: 89K)

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Our final day arrived almost before we had time to blink! But there still remained the most important seminar to draw together all the threads of the week into a coherent plan for the future of the project. Separate groups met for secondary and primary considerations, whilst the student reps from each country had their own brainstorm to contribute their ideas.

The discussions identified some key themes as:

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And so we left Kampala for the airport and the long journey back to London. It had been a life-changing experience for all of us. We learned so much about Uganda, Kampala, Nateete and the Mackay schools. We saw and felt tremendous warmth and hospitality and a community that was totally involved with its school. We were treated to fantastic displays of sport, dance, music, poems, plays and art works. We saw some inspirational, enterprising and dynamic school leadership, with environmental developments well ahead of ours and academic standards well above ours. But most of all we learned from the students: their enthusiasm and positivism; their respect and impeccable behaviour; their willingness to participate; the high levels of leadership and responsibility they showed; their sense of values about education, other people, property, sharing and caring. It is clear that fabulous opportunities now exist for students, staff and communities across the 3 countries to learn from each other. This will be a true partnership of equals. Webale nyo!

(see picture small or large: 340K)