This month has seen the introduction of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to alleviate inequality across the world. Education is an absolutely vital ingredient.

Catherine Brien, Chair of trustees for PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools) which has opened 26 schools in Uganda and Zambia in the last 8 years, tells us about her first visit to the schools....

At a school, high in the mountains of Uganda, several hours drive in a 4x4 from the nearest road, I met a group of parents.  They’d walked 5km from their farms to meet us.  They told me how their children were the first generation in the family to go to secondary school and how proud they were of them and of the opportunities that school had opened.  They also told me how exciting the school had been for the community as a whole, how committed they were to it and of their many ideas for improving it yet further for future generations.

Inequality is unavoidable. We all have different talents and make different choices in life.  

What really upsets me is inequality of opportunity. Why should some people be destined for a life of poverty simply through the misfortune of where they were born?

Last year, I visited Uganda and five of the secondary schools the charity PEAS opened there. By UK standards the facilities are basic: one school had 500 students (300 of whom boarded) and only one standpipe as a source of water. Few had 24 hour electricity; none had a dining room (meals are eaten in the classrooms). Yet no one seemed too bothered by this – after all they were better than the living conditions in many village homes  where they grew up.

The students clearly loved their school - the energy was palpable and infectious. It was humbling to compare to the nonchalance with which my friends and I treated school back home. Time and time again, I asked ‘why’, and I kept hearing the same responses: ‘the teachers here actually care about teaching us’; ‘in most schools the teachers don’t even turn up’; ‘the fees are far lower than any other schools – my family can afford to send me here’.

Every child I met was excited about their future – they have tremendous ambition. Rather than follow their parents, and grandparents, into running the farm, they wanted to be engineers, lawyers, nurses, entrepreneurs. Stories of alumni made it clear that they had every chance of succeeding.

I was equally blown away by the teachers. They work harder, and are paid less, than they would if they taught in a government school.  When I asked them why they stayed, I heard: ‘the training we get is better than anywhere else’; ‘the school management and standards are higher’; ‘Here, teachers have a voice and management listens to our ideas.’

One teacher I met really impressed me. John-Mary had previously been a student at the school, and had gone on to be one of the top students at the university in Kampala. He’d then come back to teach in the same PEAS school he had attended - he was so grateful for the opportunities that had been opened to him, he wanted other children in the community to experience the same.

Scattered around the school grounds were little posts carrying slogans such as 'we are all equal'; 'be creative', and 'the sky is our limit'.  I admit that I chuckled when I first saw them – it reminded me of a kind of patriotism that I associate more with the US.

It soon became clear that these sentiments couldn’t be taken for granted in the community, so the school was playing a broader role of instilling a set of values that students and teachers were passionate about. 

Take girls, for example. Opportunities are normally far from equal for girls and boys in Uganda – but PEAS schools were going out of their way to redress the balance. Every school had a ‘girls club’ focused on building self-confidence and giving girls the life skills that would open up yet more opportunities. Several girls I met had returned to school having had children – a concept that was clearly revolutionary in a society where usually becoming a mother would be the start of a life of domesticity.

Despite the cost of boarding, each school was massively over-subscribed. The school is secure, so the children, particularly girls, are safe - protected from danger on the walk to and from school.

The UN's Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals is tantamount to the objectives PEAS has as an organisation: to ‘reduce inequality within and among countries’. Everything the charity is doing aims to offer access to a level of education that communities have never seen before. No matter what the family income or circumstance, PEAS aims to create schools, all of which are self-funding and sustainable, that will exist in remote locations long into the future.

I first got involved with PEAS five years ago. The first thing that had grabbed me was the ethos. The focus was on outcomes and results, rather than actions, and a sustainable ethic that explicitly seeks to avoid reliance on aid and make schools independent and self-sufficient of UK funding after two years. 

I left Uganda with a jumble of emotions.  Excited for the children and teachers I’d met; proud of what PEAS is achieving; daunted by the responsibility not to let the kids down;  helplessness at the number of communities where that don’t yet have schools; embarrassed by the degree of gratitude the students and teachers had shown for something that seemed so basic – a decent secondary education. 


Catherine Brien is Chair of Trustees for PEAS; and a Partner in the Retail and Consumer team at Oliver Wyman, where she is also Executive Sponsor of the women’s network.