Broad Community Engagement Critical to Education Success

July 13, 2011

Supporting girl child education in Uganda.

Between 2000 and 2007, at the height of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda, children were at extremely high risk of abductions, rape and countless other atrocities. The high level of insecurity coupled with an overwhelming poverty was not conducive to children’s learning or community and parental engagement in education. However, since 2008, with the return of relative stability across northern Uganda, parents and communities have increased their participation in education. For instance, they have made schools friendlier to girls through the introduction of initiatives such as “school mothers” in schools where there were no female teachers to serve as role models. This increased engagement which translates into, among many other outcomes, a heightened sensitivity to girls’ learning environment, is also illustrated by the enactment of the marriage ban for girls under 18. As a result of these remarkable changes, a higher number of girls than boys are enrolled in school in some regions in northern Uganda, particularly in urban centers.

The involvement of the communities and parents is part of a larger process of community and parental participation in education through which, according to the World Bank, “the stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them.” Parent and community participation is also one of the five key elements common to school effectiveness models (the others being learning, teaching, management, and responsiveness to children’s needs).

Evidence of community participation in school activities may be in the form of visiting a class to review children’s performance, attending meetings, participating in open day functions and other events. However, if the participation of parents and the engagement of the community are required to make school accountability possible and improve performance, such engagement does not grow organically.

In the case of Uganda, studies1 have shown that, in pre/post-war northern Uganda as well as in other areas of the country not affected by the civil war, parents and communities have never been strongly involved in the education of their children. This trend was further amplified with the popularization of the Universal Primary Education policy in 1997 and the misconception attached to the notion of free education. As a consequence, parents completely relinquished their responsibility to the school. In the case of northern Uganda, a fragile region affected by war, the situation was further exacerbated. As a result of this lack of community involvement, school accountability was non-existent, leading to rampant absenteeism within the ranks of teachers, head teachers and pupils.

With the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports, the USAID-funded UNITY project which started in 2006 and is scheduled to end in November 2011 has set itself the goals of changing this mindset and increasing effective parental and community participation in education. This article describes how UNITY, which stands for Ugandan Initiative for TDMS and PIASCY, has been able to engage parents and communities in education by enhancing partnerships and networks between communities and schools. The ultimate objectives of these efforts are to help ensure the accountability of school officials and improve school achievement. Managed by Creative Associates International, UNITY implements its activities in 22 districts located in the east and north of the country. Among its interventions, the project also supports a national HIV/AIDS mitigation program which targets primary and secondary schools.

UNITY uses various approaches to increase community/parental engagement in education. These approaches include community participation in school activities, empowerment of School Management Committees and Parent Teacher Associations, and community outreach.

Community dialogues/public engagement in Northern Uganda

Through the Revitalization of Education Participation and Learning in Conflict Areas (REPLICA) Program, UNITY, through a sub-contract with indigenous local partner, the Pincer Group International, engages communities at the grassroots level in the 22 target districts that constitute the conflict-affected areas in the North and Northeast. REPLICA is a program customized for the primary schools in the region or like Milton Mutto, the Team Leader of the Pincer Group International defines it, an “intervention designed to be responsive to the emerging issues surrounding education delivery in the specific context of Northern Uganda.”

REPLICA is changing school stakeholders’ attitudes and the results of the Primary Leaving Examination have significantly improved across the region which is emerging out of conflict said Victor Avasi, Program Manager with Pincer. “Thanks to our interventions targeting teachers, head teachers and parents through School Management Committees (SMCs) and training them in the Program’s integrated components, participation is up” he continued. Community engagements under the Program have also resulted in the drafting of Education Ordinances in the districts. The goals of these Education Ordinances or formal commitments by the communities, district and political leaders, are to improve pupil retention, address teacher absenteeism, promote girls’ education and advocate for an enhanced quality of education. These Ordinances are spontaneous responses to the community’s needs that attempt to address education problems at the grassroots level said Tom Duku, Community Engagement Specialist with Pincer. There were some gaps and a lack of legal framework to regulate issues such as teachers’ absenteeism and the goals of the Ordinances is to close these gaps.

Mobilizing and engaging parents and the community to support girls’ education

With the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE Uganda), a grantee, and subsequently with Pincer, UNITY focused on girls’ retention in school and increased collaboration with community members to support girls’ education. FAWE helped map out barriers to girls’ education, held public engagements at the district and community levels, and increased collaboration and networking with communities and key education stakeholders through continuous dialogue on the importance of girls’ education.

As indicated at the beginning of this article, when the community found out that there were no female teachers who could act as role models, they started putting in place “school mothers” who were able to focus on girls’ issues. FAWE Uganda also sensitized pupils, teachers and local leaders on issues around sexual maturation, targeting negative beliefs and practices, and provided innovative and affordable solutions to accessing sanitary ware. Additionally, girls who left school because of pregnancy and early marriage were motivated to return to school and the project created an environment which encouraged parents to listen to leading community elders who supported girls’ education. This continuous dialogue on the importance of girls’ education has boosted enrolment and retention of girls in primary school.


A School Management Committee and PTA members at a meeting.

Empowerment of School Management Committees (SMCs) and PTAs

Through the Madrasa Resource Center, another grantee, UNITY also conducts training for SMCs, PTAs, and members of the local community such as civic, cultural and religious leaders to support early childhood development. The goal of this intervention is to increase community members’ participation and involvement in school resource mobilization and planning and monitoring of school activities. In 2010, more than 23,462 SMC members were trained in school management as well as SMC’s roles and responsibilities. UNITY translated the SMC handbook from English to local languages. During the same period, UNITY supported the training of all SMC members and Head Teachers in all the 2,140 primary schools in the project focus districts. UNITY also designed and printed advocacy materials such as posters to enhance SMC participation in education. Additionally, parents received training on their role in improving learning environments, and they contributed to the design, production, and instruction of learning materials.

Outreach campaign to increase community awareness about the importance of education

Finally, through its grantee Straight Talk Foundation (STF), UNITY uses a variety of media channels to reach out to parents and other community members to engage them in the support of their children’s schools. For instance, STF produces Parent Talk radio programs, which are broadcast in local language on several radio stations and cover a wide range of topics pertaining to health and hygiene, parents talking about sex, life skills, and parent-teacher communication. The broadcasts are followed on by group discussions on health, education, HIV/AIDS and other relevant topics in the community.

All these interventions have increased community engagement in school: parents are building houses for teachers for schools in Kitgum district which are returning to their original sites after the war. Parents and community members have provided support in cleaning school compounds, creating access to roads, and setting up school gardens. More parents are attending school meetings and events to follow up on their children’s progress. They also actively monitor school activities and school performance regularly in terms of teachers’ time-on-task, pupils’ attendance and oversight of proper utilization of school resources.

For northern Ugandans, the increasing engagement of parents with local schools as a result of UNITY’s interventions is leading to quality education and making schools a stronghold of civic culture. UNITY’s emphasis on education and participation has given parents a stake in the delivery of education and a source of hope for the future of their children, essential ingredients to developing a vital community.

-Roseline Fodouop Tekeu

1 The Independent (Kampala) – Uganda: UPE At Turning Point But Fails to Turn (Morrison Rwakakamba) 7 April 2011

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