Ask many Ugandans about their experience of school and - along with tales of forging lifelong friendships, favourite and less popular teachers - sooner or later you will probably hear a story about being beaten.
Those from elsewhere in the world may assume the culprit was a fellow student; perhaps the school bully. But in Uganda and other countries in East Africa like Kenya and Tanzania, young adolescents are more likely to be beaten by their teachers than by their own parents or their peers.
In 1997 Uganda’s Ministry of Education banned corporal punishment. But a study we conducted 15 years later revealed that more than 90% of primary school students in one district had been beaten by a school staff member at some point in their life.
Although we don’t know exactly why, conversations with people in Uganda reveal that many accept beating by teachers as part of “normal” school discipline.
But statistics and research from around the world tell us that it is far from normal. Children who are physically abused are more likely than their counterparts to perform poorly at school. Adults who were physically abused as children are far more at risk of mental and physical health problems.
A Ugandan NGO called Raising Voices developed the Good School Toolkit in a bid to change school culture. The toolkit is designed to make students, staff and administrators accountable to each other, to introduce ideas about children’s rights and responsibilities and to give teachers alternative discipline techniques.
But does it actually work? Can something like physical violence by school staff - which is so common in Uganda - really be reduced by a programme over a few years? Or must we wait decades for attitudes and behaviours to change?
Putting the toolkit to the test
We gave the toolkit to 21 of the schools and compared levels of violence in these schools to 21 control schools which did not receive the toolkit. After 18 months, students in the schools reported that physical violence by staff had reduced by nearly half. Staff also reported that they used less violence against their students.
We spoke to head teachers, teachers, students and parents to find out how the toolkit actively lowered violence. They reported that it reduced social distance between teachers and students, in part by offering support and skills to teachers to equip them to try out alternative, positive forms of discipline.
It encouraged staff to model desirable behaviour for students through the use of praise and rewards and increased students’ participation in managing their own discipline, which lessened the need for teachers to intervene. School administrators, who are responsible for developing an enabling environment for change, supported these changes.
These results show that the toolkit is highly effective in reducing violence in primary schools over an 18-month period. The next step will be to examine how long this effect lasts - will levels of violence continue to decline? What do staff, students and administrators need if they are to remain motivated? And what are the most effective models for widespread implementation of the toolkit?
Violence is a problem in schools in many nations, not just in Uganda and not only in Africa. The Good School Toolkit is a proven method that can be used to support the whole community of a school through a process of cultural change to reduce the levels of violence.
Ministries of Education, non-governmental organisations and others can look to this African innovation for potential solutions for their own contexts. Children in every country deserve a violence-free childhood, and the toolkit is one way to help make this a reality.