Meet the deputy principal of a Ugandan school with 5000 eager students – and 38 teachers.

At the crack of dawn, Patrick Abale emerges from his tent on the edge of Yangani Primary School in Bidibidi refugee settlement, northern Uganda, to begin another busy day. He strides across the vast compound and turns to watch the first trickle of arriving students.

Yangani opened in February 2017 to cater to the rapidly growing numbers of South Sudanese refugees. A few months after the school opened, there were already 5,000 students which, as Patrick notes drily, is “a very big number”.

Children occupy every available space, with as many as five sharing a desk. Some sit on the floor, with others standing at the back and in the aisles, clutching their books to their chests. 

Patrick is a deputy principal in charge of academic studies and administration at Yangani. Although the children are mostly refugees there are some locals here, too. Despite the massive student numbers, the school has a staff of only 38.

Ugandan deputy principal, Patrick Abale, teaches a packed class at Yangani Primary School. © UNHCR/ I. Kasamani

With 5000 students, many of them South Sudanese refugees, Yangani Primary School in northern Uganda is literally bursting at the seams. © UNHCR/ I. Kasamani

 

“Things are really tough here because there just isn’t enough space for all the students,” says Patrick. We look in on a crowded scene: children occupy every available space, with as many as five sharing a desk. Some sit on the floor, with others standing at the back and in the aisles, clutching their books to their chests.

I am introduced to Bashir, a 17-year-old who fled his home in South Sudan last November. He lives in Bidibidi as an unaccompanied minor. His parents stayed behind but he has no idea what has happened to them. He tells me he is doing his best to keep studying diligently but admits it can be hard. 

"We don’t have enough books. If you get a little money, you can buy some, but most students can’t afford them,” he says. “Some of us who don’t have parents here struggle.”

“We have 279 textbooks for all students, so you can imagine how tough it is to share,” says Patrick. That’s one textbook to every 18 children.

Seeing the full-to-the-brim classrooms first hand, you are left in little doubt that there is plenty of demand for education. UNHCR, the Ugandan education ministry and partner organisations are setting up more schools and identifying existing schools that can expand. Setting up new schools not only gets refugee children into the education system, it also raises capacity and standards for local communities.

“Schools like Yangani are filling a crucial gap,” says Julius Okello, a UNHCR field officer in Bidibidi. But he adds that it is hard for the children to learn under these constrained circumstances. “The government is already doing its level best so we are calling for more donor support to fill the gaps.”

“Imagine only 38 teachers for all these students,” Patrick remarks as he heads off to teach another class. “You can get overwhelmed.”

Catherine Wachiaya is a UNHCR writer based in Kenya.

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Bashir fled South Sudan without his parents. He’s determined to continue his schooling in Uganda but finds the lack of resources challenging. © UNHCR/ I. Kasamani

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