A group of Lead Teachers outside the Centre

Seeing Red

20th April 2018

Lisa Botwright meets the founders of an imaginative
and far-reaching education initiative in Uganda…

There are three colours in Uganda, wrote one first time visitor: blue for the sky and Lake Victoria, green for the trees and the hills, and red for the earth. ‘The earth turns everything red and everything comes back to the red earth.’

Fifteen years ago, teachers Lynne Pritchard and Ronnie Katzler went to this beautiful east African country in their school summer holiday, funded by a grant by the Millennium Commission, with the intention of teaching in a small Ugandan village. “It was eye-opening,” says Lynne. Even Ronnie, who was born in Kenya and had grown up playing with African children, found the event challenging. “I’d no idea it was like that. What was normal for [the villagers] was entirely outside our experience.”

But while most of us would chalk something like that up to experience – do what we could to help at the time, return home to our comfortable lives, worry about it but, eventually, shrug and move on – their stay set in motion a series of return annual visits that culminated in their founding, along with another teacher colleague, Di Cosgrove, an education charity that they called ‘Redearth’… ultimately empowering over a thousand teachers to develop their careers and directly impacting the learning of 60,000 children. And in 2012, Lynne and Ronnie made the decision to move to Uganda full-time to focus on their work there.

As committed education professionals, one of the issues that the pair had found so upsetting during their early visits, was the lack of support in place for their Ugandan counterparts. They found dispirited teachers struggling with the demands of huge classes, under-funding, challenging physical environments and few resources, all in the context of intense and widespread social deprivation. There was no continuing professional development (CPD) and no formal networking system for teachers to be able to share good practice. As Ronnie says, “it was all about survival… there was little planning, and training was rooted in the 1950s.”

There are certain factors that make teaching in Uganda particularly challenging. It’s a landlocked country in the centre of East Africa and has an extremely high number of refugees. Masindi, where the Redearth centre is based, is a sugar cane area suited to migrant labour, and so there may be five or more languages spoken in one single school.

In 1997 President Museveni introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE) program to provide free schooling for all primary aged children, but the rapid increase in enrolment without matching funding means the education system is still playing catch-up. The population has seen exponential growth over the last twenty years and now has the one of the highest birthrates and highest proportion of children of all the developing countries. A shake-up of the education system was urgently needed, but isolated teachers were simply firefighting with no means of moving forward.

Redearth was established with the aim of delivering high quality teacher training directly to primary schools. Lynne and Ronnie had observed that many charitable initiatives come and go, making little impact in the long term. Their reasoning was that by empowering Ugandan teachers with the skills they needed to train and support other teachers, they would be equipping local teaching communities with an autonomous and cost-effective model of achieving far-reaching change.

The focus is on boosting pupils’ interest with interactive lessons and sharing ideas for making fun and engaging resources with limited funds. Lynne explains how many teachers were only familiar with the old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching, standing up at the front of the class and talking ‘at’, rather than working ‘with’ the children – especially unhelpful when they might not even share a common language.

“It’s so important to foster aspiration and entrepreneurial spirit,” declares Lynne, who believes that these come from more innovative teaching practice. “The children need more than just the three Rs: they need the three Cs too, of communication, collaboration and critical thinking”.

One of Redearth’s key projects, the Lead Teacher Programme, is becoming a huge success. It identified over 30 Ugandan teacher-volunteers, each of whom stood out as having great skills as a trainer, engaging especially well with other teachers, and has enabled them to travel to remote rural schools to pass on the most up-to-date methodology. With the support of the Local District Education Office, they are given time off to go out into the community to pass on their knowledge. Emma Seery, the charity’s UK-based marketing officer, calls them ‘unsung heroes’. “Ultimately, we hope to withdraw and handover to Ugandan field officers and lead teachers completely,” she explains.

There’s also the motivation of the Redearth ‘Achievement Award’ for schools. “We set criteria at different levels so we can assess schools and teachers know what they need to do to move to the next level. I find teachers are very motivated by certificates,” smiles Lynne. “It’s created a huge amount of competition,” explains Ronnie, clearly delighted.

“Competition amongst children, competition between teachers.” He tells me about the good natured rivalry between married Headteachers of two different schools: the husband has a gold award… while the wife only has a silver as yet. Another positive is the increase in collaboration between teachers. “If one teacher can draw well, they’re asked to help their colleagues; if they plan well they’re asked to help with that. Our gold standard is extremely high, and only achieved with a balanced curriculum, lots of resources, and evidence of the children talking together, with a good balance of pupil and teacher interaction.”

There’s still a lot to do, but now that Redearth have caught the eye of the Ministry of Education, and have the full support of the District Education Office, they’re optimistic. Seeing red, as Lynne and Ronnie did all those years ago, has really made a difference – and Lead Teacher Jenepher encapsulates the spirit of the charity: “the best part of the programme is exposure. Being exposed to so many different learning environments, all at different levels, when you go to meet teachers in their schools. You’re always learning new things and improving your practice…”

to find out more: redeartheducation.co.uk

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