As charities face more calls to measure the effects they are having on communities, David Rosenberg shares his experiences of a successful project in Uganda.
"I like staying in school because I want to be an important person in the future," says 13-year-old Lydia from Uganda. In sub-Saharan Africa, children aged 15 and under make up more than half the population, but millions of them plant crops, herd cattle, collect water and firewood or sell goods by the roadside rather than attend school. Uganda is different.
Since introducing free universal primary education in 1997, the country's school population has doubled. But Uganda's schools struggle to meet their new learners' needs. Armed with chalk and ageing blackboards, teachers work with classes that often exceed 100 pupils. Although many new classrooms have been built, the number of schools has barely increased - they are just more crowded.
Masindi's education managers are optimistic, though. The region is one of several education districts trialling decentralisation, and in August this year officials held their first district-wide educational conference.
Head teachers, governors and other stakeholders pored over data to assess progress, shared good practice and discussed common challenges.
Achievement is traditionally crudely measured by Primary Leaving Examination results. In the past, Masindi has fared badly compared with Uganda's 55 other districts, but for two years running it has reached the top ten.
This year, the guest speaker from the education ministry, Byamugisha Albert, had better news still: by ministry indicators, Masindi ranked third. It is now a model district.
Derek Nkata, district education officer, acknowledges that Masindi's rapid progress owes much to its partnership, since 2000, with two UK-born NGOs: Link Community Development and VSO.
LCD was already operating in South Africa when Nkata invited it to work within Masindi's education department. LCD brought experienced VSO practitioners on board. This shared enterprise was named the Masindi District Education Development Project and was funded by the UK Big Lottery Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation.
The first targets were to help head teachers to do their jobs better and to develop the inspectorate. The project ran a training package focusing initially on finance and development planning. "Now it encompasses personnel management, timetabling and use of space," says Barbara Harvey, project manager for LCD Uganda.
Meanwhile, LCD sent teams of teachers from the UK on placements to help with school development planning, and VSO provided mentors. Sue Galer mentors an inspector responsible for 70 schools. "My main role is capacity building of the inspectorate as a whole," she says. "We instigate monthly meetings and encourage good teamwork."
Having strengthened schools' basic functionality, the project is focusing on quality issues and accountability. This summer's conference analysed data collected at 39 schools since 2003 against 22 quality indicators - five covering teaching and learning, six on school governance and 11 on school management. Each indicator carried a four-point judgement, ranging from "poor" to "very good".
The 22 indicators were developed by LCD but adapted in consultation with Masindi's education inspectors. Schools were informed by radio that data would be collected - but, to maximise transparency, were not told when they would be visited.
The project gathered clear evidence of strengths and weaknesses across Masindi: 97 per cent of schools have a functioning school management committee, although only 32 per cent of their members are women. The number of schools with a documented development plan rose to 87 per cent from 78 per cent in 2003.
Schools have increasingly adopted policies that address specific issues: there was a 16 per cent increase in schools with documented gender policies and the proportion of those with HIV/Aids policies rose significantly - from 5 per cent to 64 per cent. School attendance in the past two years has risen to 85 per cent, but class sizes have grown to an average of 111 and documented lesson plans for children with special needs were very low, at 6 per cent.
The data gathered enabled 39 schools to measure their progress individually.
This year, the project intends to collect similar data for each of Masindi's 200 schools. For Steve Harvey, Ugandan programme director for LCD, the conference signalled a shift "to a model that is more about community involvement and accountability".
As schools present their performance reviews, each stakeholder can advance its priority. Teachers emphasise children's attendance and learning. Parents want to know if their children are gaining skills. Head teachers can focus on development targets and school management committees will want to analyse head teacher performance.
For me, the effect of the project is visible. I worked in Masindi's schools in 2001. The determination to succeed was palpable; so were the difficulties.
Children's attendance dipped during peak harvesting months, as did the teachers'. Teachers' morale and training levels were poor. Although school enrolment was high, completion was low. Girls dropped out disproportionately.
Communities were ambivalent about school and children's aspirations were limited. Returning to Masindi in 2005, I saw more textbooks, confident teachers, livelier pupils, and head teachers' offices plastered with achievement charts. Children's ambitions have grown.
These results have not gone unnoticed. The Ugandan government is keen to replicate Masindi's successes and has invited LCD to work in two more districts. Other African governments and education NGOs will want to know what LCD has done and how it has measured its impact. The report presents Masindi's story in black and white. It is a story of hope for Africa as a whole.
David Rosenberg was a global teacher in Masindi in 2001. He returned in 2005.