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Advancing Early Childhood Development in Okere

In September and October 2015, Uwezo Uganda at Twaweza conducted their sixth household-based assessment of learning outcomes in 112 districts across the country. During the assessment, Otuke District was number 80th. Since then, not much progress has been made. In fact, the closure of schools in Uganda for 88 weeks to enforce the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for preventing the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. The terrible learning outcomes in Otuke District underpins why promoting educational advancement should be the core business of all mindful stakeholders. In essence, that is why we founded Okere Community School in 2019.

Started as a joke, Okere Community School has emerged as a game-changing educational initiative in Otuke District. The school was started out of an actual community need. Here goes the story! One day around June 2019, our founder Ojok Okello visited Okere to supervise the construction of his hut house. But he noticed many children playing around the construction site and wondered why they weren’t attending school even though it was a school day. Curious, he asked the children why they weren’t going to school. The children hinted that there was no school they could attend. This prompted him to organize a community meeting to discuss and find practical solutions to the challenge. Together, the parents discussed and came up with actionable steps for mobilizing resources to get Okere Community School started. Ojok Okello donated his hut house and the parents agreed to collect money and bring other essential items such as foodstuff to enable their children to receive an education. This is how the idea of Okere Community School was birthed! The Childhood Development Centre opened its doors in Aug 2019 with 11 children.

Since then, Okere Community School is on a mission to become a leading center for academic and vocational training excellence in Northern Uganda. The mission is being achieved by directing relevant investments in the entire education value-chain starting from early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling, to vocational and professional training.

At the moment, the community school’s early childhood education programme provides foundational opportunities to 60 rural children between the ages of 3–6years to become trained in basic literacy and numeracy and fundamental life skills. The significance of enabling early childhood training opportunities cannot be overstated. Indeed, evidence from around the world indicates that pre-primary or early childhood education can provide a solid foundation for children entering primary school and support them to achieve expected learning outcomes. Particularly for Otuke District which has some of the worst learning outcomes in Uganda, our early childhood development project is extremely necessary.

To illustrate how dire the situation is, let’s look at the data on learning outcomes in Otuke District sourced during the Twaweza survey mentioned earlier. According to the survey, Otuke District had the highest number of children below the ages of 3–5years NOT attending nursery school. Yes, only 11% of children between 3–5years in Otuke were attending pre-primary schooling. Put differently, 89% of children in Otuke District between 3–5years were NOT going to any formal school. This is even less than half of the national average of 29% of children who are currently attending pre-primary education in Uganda.

Yet, the data on learning outcomes in Otuke District is even better. Cascaded to the lower local government level, data on learning outcomes in Okere Parish is saddening. In 2020, we carried out a baseline survey to provide critical benchmark indicators for our work. Data on early childhood education baffled us. For instance, a staggering 99% of the children between the ages of 3–6years were not attending pre-primary school. Worst still, 75% of the parents didn’t think that pre-primary education was very important for their children. “We never went to nursery school but still enrolled and past the PLE assessment,” one of the parents said during a focused group discussion session.

How do work to ensure that we reverse the situation of 99% of children NOT attending pre-primary education in Okere in 2020 to 99% pre-primary education enrolment in 2030? This question keeps us awakes and gets us going. And the answer is simple: investing in early childhood education infrastructure and working with early childhood development experts to give our children the head start they need to thrive in the global village.

To create a favorable physical learning environment for our children, we are using eco-friendly materials such as bamboo and elephant grass — locally available in Okere to build classroom blocks and playgrounds.

We have also recruited passionate experts like Harriet Adul who relentlessly give her best to teach the youngsters of Okere. And the impact is almost instantaneous. “I see progress in each child who attends our early childhood development programme day-by-day”, quipped Tr. Harriet.

It is this daily progress that gives us the hope and determination that we are truly building a strong foundation for our village through advancing the best early childhood education opportunities for our children.

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