I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that could afford to send me to secondary school. Because of this, I went to university, travelled, pursued a fulfilling career and became the Managing Director of PEAS, one of the UK’s fastest growing charities, which is creating a network of sustainable, high- quality secondary schools across Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa.
It may seem quite strange for people living in the UK, where secondary school education is universal, to fully appreciate the transformative power it has. But just think how many of your life’s achievements could have happened without your secondary school education.
As someone from Northern Uganda, a region well-known for its twenty-year troubles at the hands of Joseph Kony, I am all too aware that a secondary education, and all the opportunities that come with it, is an unimaginable privilege for many children born into today’s world. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa female enrolment at secondary school can be low as 7 per cent, so to be a Ugandan woman with an education, a profession and a position of leadership is all too rare a thing.
In Uganda, if a child can go to secondary school, even if they complete no further education, those four to six years will have changed their life forever. And yet this opportunity is denied to the yet 3 in 4 children in Africa that do not go to secondary school, meaning that over 20 million children are missing out on secondary education. Without a secondary school education, an individual’s opportunity to lift him or herself out of poverty is severely limited and the cost to society is huge.
For women in particular the severe lack of affordable secondary school places is crippling. For most girls in Uganda, after the age of 11, education is replaced with working in the fields and childhood is quickly replaced with early motherhood. An un-educated girl is seven times more likely to catch HIV and her children are twice as likely to die before the age of five. But, for every year she is in school, an educated girl in Uganda can add 25 per cent more to her future earnings. A huge focus for the PEAS team is to ensure more girls enrol in, and complete, secondary school. Currently, over 48 per cent of PEAS students are female and we hope to see this figure rising as we continue to make more secondary school places available.
Most people in the UK would probably agree that education should be the responsibility of national governments. And at PEAS we also think this. Education is one of the most powerful ways to reduce aid dependence and empower populations to take charge of their own futures. If international aid organisations are to accelerate this process then we believe they must work with governments to develop sustainable education models that do not rely on continued foreign investment.
This is why PEAS developed our "SmartAid" approach. PEAS uses UK-fundraised money to cover the initial set-up costs so each school can open debt free. After that a combination of local government subsidies, boarding school fees and income generating projects (such as school farms), mean that PEAS schools can cover their own running costs indefinitely and in the long term build up a reserve to cover future investments in building repairs and new equipment. This means that our schools are truly sustainable and not dependent on UK fundraising to continue providing education year on year.
A really significant part of the PEAS model is that, in each country it operates in, a central team of locally employed education and development experts are responsible for quality control, financial auditing and providing support to the schools as they develop. Too often organisations rely on international experts rather than developing the talent from within each country but education cannot simply be outsourced if it is to lead to real and lasting change. But PEAS’s approach means that, by 2021, when we plan to have a network of 100 schools in Uganda running completely self-sufficient from aid, we will also have the expertise and infrastructure to run independently from PEAS UK.
Every child in Africa should have the opportunity to reach their potential and make something of themselves, and that is what PEAS is all about. It is inspiring to know that the work my team and I do every day will have a permanent impact on the lives of children in our schools and, through these children’s ambitions to be doctors, businesspeople, sustainable farmers, teachers, lawyers, and even political leaders, will also have a permanent impact on the future of our country.
Susan Opok is Managing Director of PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools). PEAS is a charity / social enterprise hybrid that is working with African governments to develop a network of secondary schools to provide affordable, high quality and sustainable education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Founded in 2008, PEAS has already launched 13 public/private schools in Uganda and one in Zambia, with eight more due to open in February 2012. It aims to have launched 100 schools in Uganda by 2017 and is working with other African governments to develop similar funding models to extend secondary school access further.
The UK Government is match funding all donations made to PEAS until 13 December. To donate to PEAS Back to School Appeal and have your donation doubled by the UK government, visit http://www.peas.org.uk/donate  or text PEAS01£10 to 70070.