Building School Capability

Are we asking Fiji-level schools to implement a Uruguay-level program?


Not too long ago, I created a map of the 50 schools where Elevate has been running our Village TEACH program since 2016. Village TEACH is a school-based, participatory scorecard program which aims to increase accountability in education service delivery by giving parents and community members a platform to engage with school leaders and advocate for change. The 50 schools are situated in Mukono District, just to the east of Kampala. On the surface, they are all very similar. They are situated in rural agricultural communities, their pupils come from poor families, and they universally lack access to financial and material resources.

A map of Mukono District, Uganda with Village TEACH schools plotted.

Even with these similarities, the functionality of these schools is quite varied when it comes to the implementation of the Village TEACH program. In some schools, the program has thrived and become self-sustaining. Independent program activities occur regularly, school leaders, parents and community members collaborate and support each other in their attempts to improve school challenges, and schools report back to Elevate on a regular basis. However, in a handful of other schools, the program has failed to stick.

Part of this failure is, admittedly, due to faults in the program design itself. One of our main findings has been that Elevate didn’t sufficiently engage local and political leaders at the onset of program implementation. This meant that some leaders were either unaware of the program or saw it as an affront to their authority. With this concern in mind, we’ve been revamping the program and piloting new workshops to bring local leaders into the fold much earlier in the process.

Two local leader meetings were planned for mid-July. Each school received a letter signed by district education and sub-county political leaders instructing four school leaders to attend the meeting. Our program staff received guarantees that the schools would send representatives to the meetings. The morning before each meeting, each school received one last check-in to make sure they still planned on coming.

The Wednesday meeting went as planned. At least two representatives from each school attended. The sub-county leaders made appearances to express their support for the program. Everyone went home ready to re-introduce Village TEACH to their schools.

Diana Winter – all smiles at Wednesday meetings!

On Thursday, four of us left Kampala at 10:30am ready for another productive day. We arrived at the school early to make sure the classroom was clean and the materials were set up. However, at 2:00 when the meeting was expected to start, no one was there. One of my Ugandan colleagues made a joke about “Africa time”. We all chuckled. We only started to worry at 2:30pm when we still had no arrivals. It was 4pm when we finally decided that no one was coming.

Not one single person showed up for the meeting. No school representatives, no sub-county representatives. No one. These two meetings were planned in the same region, same county, same district, and in neighboring sub-counties. We had gone through the same process of getting approval, signed letters of support, sending invitations, and following-up with schools in advance of both days.

Why did things turn out so differently?

The Thursday meeting.

In their book Building State Capability, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews argue that “many states have poor outcomes not because they lack ‘good policies’ but because they lack implementation capability.” To illustrate this, the authors point to an experimental study where researchers sent misaddressed letters to 159 countries and then counted how many days each letter took to return, if it came back at all. Variation in the number of days it took each country to return a letter was not due to policy differences, but due to the capability of each country’s postal service to implement the policy. Somalia, Liberia, and Fiji never returned the letters while Uruguay, Finland, and Norway returned the letters within 90 days.

It is likely that many of our Village TEACH schools where the program did not stick had little or no capability to take it on to begin with. In other words, we were asking Fiji-level schools to implement a Uruguay-level program. Simply attending an afternoon meeting too much for school leaders on that Thursday. This is not to say that those leaders are lazy, inept, or not interested in improving education at their schools. That is the furthest thing from what I know about Ugandan education communities. Parents, students, teachers, and leaders are all passionate about improving the quality of education in their schools.

Recently, nearly 100 community members showed up for our Village TEACH Induction Workshop at a primary school near the shores of Lake Victoria. For six hours they discussed challenges facing their school, goals for their children’s learning, and plans to improve. These people are not lazy, inept, or disinterested. Unfortunately, some schools just don’t have the capability to have these discussions yet.

Perhaps this is because some school leaders hold multiple jobs to provide for their families or they have other demands on their time that they prioritize. We cannot know. Thus, instead of getting upset with school leaders for not showing up to our meeting on Thursday, we decided to recognize their absence as a sign that those leaders were already overburdened with the task of overseeing primary schools and it would be irresponsible for us to add to that burden by insisting that our program be implemented. We know this program can achieve great success, but only when schools are ready to take it on.

Author: Diana Winter, Georgetown University