Brooks Newmark "From Umubano Primary School to Umubano Academy: Reflections on the past 10 Years"

CFID is delighted to host a guest blog by Brooks Newmark, updating us on the success of Umubano Academy in Rwanda. One of the legacy projects that sprang out of his experience on Project Umubano, the Conservative International Social Action Project led by former SoS, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP. Conservatives continue to roll up their sleeves and volunteer for projects year after year from Umubano in Rwanda, Burundi and Sierra Leone to Urafiki in Tanzania and Shapla in Bangladesh.

From Umubano Primary School to Umubano Academy: Reflections on the past 10 Years

I travelled to Rwanda in 2007 on the first Project Umubano, led by The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, who at that time was Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. I was one of eight MPs and 40 Conservative activists on this trip. We each worked on a specific social action project. I worked at a small primary school in Remera, a poor part of the capital Kigali. At the time the school had 83 children. We fixed up the classrooms, brought in running water and electricity to the site. After two weeks I left Rwanda feeling a huge sense of accomplishment and a better understanding of the challenges Rwanda faced as a post-conflict society. I never really expected to go back again. Little did I know what lay ahead for me.

Six weeks after I left Rwanda I received a phone call from a friend who worked for one of the local papers in Kigali. “Brooks, there is a problem with ‘your’ school.” Ah, so now it’s my school is it. “After you fixed up ‘your’ school lots of children decided to go there. There are now not 83 children but 343 children and Rwanda Health & Safety want to shut the school down as the classes are too crowded.” I could only quip “Rwanda Health & Safety? I didn’t even know that existed. That’s crazy!” I went on “ok can you stop them shutting the school down even temporarily. I will fly out and see what I can do.”

I arrived back in Kigali and through our High Commissioner arranged a meeting at the Ministry of Education. I found out that there were up to 60 children per classroom and even on a two shift day we couldn’t accommodate all the children at the school. So without hesitating I made an impulsive gesture: “if you don’t close the school down I will build a new school to accommodate the children.” Thus began a new chapter in my life and a journey that less than six months before I never imagined I’d travel.

Ten years ago in 2009, after several false starts and getting the necessary permits, I found a new site for the school, started a new charity A Partner in Education (APIE) and provided the capital to begin building a nursery and primary for 300 children. President Kagame came and laid the foundation stone for this new project. We opened in 2011 and began our first academic year in January 2012. Umubano Primary School was born.

My charity, APIE, provided support for the school and training for the teachers. However, we were careful to stick with the Rwandan core curriculum and only sought to bring best teaching practices from the UK. Our school was very child centred, with each child having their own Individual Education Plans and the use of corporal punishment (popular in most Rwandan schools) was forbidden. We were also the first disability compliant school in Rwanda and deliberately reached out to be an inclusive school for children with special educational needs.

Almost immediately the parents and teachers asked me when I was going to build a secondary school. So I set the Head an ambitious target. I said if the school was ranked in the Top-5 primary schools within five years I would build a secondary school. “Top-5 within Five” was our goal and our mantra.

Five years later in 2017 Umubano Primary was ranked in a combination of Peer Review and Ministry of Education Inspection to be in the top three in Kigali and indeed Rwanda. This success was very much down to the school leadership, led by the head teacher Jean De Dieu Dusingize, Pastor John who led an active Parent Teachers Association, APIE’s Country Director Amy Barnecutt and the head of A Partner in Education, Angie Kotler. Year after year, with the support of Amy and Angie, the quality of teaching improved and children achieved better and better results.

As promised I bought a plot adjacent to my primary school and built a new secondary school and additionally a new Teacher Training Centre. I was determined that we should share what we learned with other teachers in Rwanda. In 2018 we opened the new teacher training centre and in January 2019 opened the new secondary school to a new intake. The school was renamed Umubano Academy and now takes in students from pre nursery (3 year olds) through to Year 9 (16 year olds).

The school is unique in the way it delivers education, is very focussed on supporting both teachers and pupils in their personal development. Further the school has taken in a wide range of students with varying abilities, including children with physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities (including autism) and refugees from neighbouring Burundi. Uniquely we have integrated Peace Education into our curriculum (which we have worked with Aegis Trust on) and are starting an Early Years Learning training program for teachers (with support from DfiD).

My charity A Partner in Education remains a non-profit organisation as does my school Umubano Academy. We are determined to share what we have learned over the past 10 years with other schools and teachers in Rwanda.

Umubano means togetherness in Kinyawarda. The past ten years have been an incredible journey working together with an amazing team, including teachers, parents, children, the trustees and leadership at APIE, the Ministry of Education, the FCO and our partners at Aegis and DfiD. Together we have achieved so much in the past 10 years and I look forward to the next 10 years working together.

Umubano Academy is a tremendous legacy of Project Umubano and I am eternally grateful to have played a role in what has been a life changing journey over the past decade.

By Brooks Newmark.

Brooks was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Braintree (2005-15). He served in the Coalition Government as Minister for Civil Society, with responsibility for charities, the voluntary sector and youth. He is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Oxford University.