Mar 16, 2020

From Kigali March 2020

P1 pupils enjoy testing the names of items learned
P1 pupils enjoy testing the names of items learned

From Kigali March 2020  

January saw the beginning of another school year. The pupils who started using our NOEC materials at the beginning of their Primary 1 class, are now in Primary 4.

There was sudden change last month when the President appointed new members of his cabinet, and the outcome is a new Minister for Education and the first female in the role, as well as a new Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education.

Before I turn to this year’s news, I should report on the end-of-year examinations which were set by the Rwanda Education Board, which I explained in my last report. The examinations for Primary 1 to Primary 3 were marked by the schools, and the results were collated and sent to the District office, which then collated the results of all its schools and sent them to the Rwanda Education Board. So, a set of marks serves little purpose for analysis or real assessment which is unfortunate, and another opportunity has been missed. In our schools, from the results which were available, the majority of pupils in all three year groups passed their English examinations. Some had very good results with many pupils gaining over 60% and even over 75%. However, there was no proper marking scheme, and the examination papers, as analysed in my report, were not adequate for any proper assessment, and so these results do not have much meaning. However, the teachers thought that the papers were quite difficult, and I think they were surprised how well their pupils did.

In Rwanda, Primary 4 is the stage at which English medium starts. All lessons are to be taught through the medium of English from Primary 4 onwards. In government primary schools, and especially rural ones, this is not feasible in practice; the teachers’ English is not developed enough to teach in English and the pupils’ English after three years of following the government curriculum and books is woefully inadequate.

With our first cohort of pupils in Primary 4, the challenge is on.

Teachers are afflicted by the absenteeism of their pupils. This is a big problem in schools, and many pupils have a very sporadic attendance, some missing whole weeks of school at a time. Teachers have large classes, and the task of supporting serial absentees is beyond them. Changing attitudes of parents (many of whom are in poverty and are themselves illiterate or poorly educated) is a slow process. A teacher can have only 75% of the class who attend regularly. This affects the monitoring and evaluation of our work, but nevertheless we continue with our assessments.

Our Primary 4 pupils are not fluent in English after only studying for three years for just over 5 hours a week for about 34 weeks each year. But they do now have a grasp of many different sentence structures and patterns, and are learning many more of them. This is the basis of the NOEC course. It introduces sentence patterns and structures which form the backbone of the English language. For instance, the structure, ‘the ….. of the ….’. The pupils start by learning, ‘That is the door of the classroom.’ Once they know the structure, then they are prepared for sentences in other contexts such as, ‘…the purpose of the experiment’, or ‘..the perimeter of the rectangle’, etc. With the many structures that the pupils in Primary 4 know, they are coping well in their other subjects. 

Teachers who teach Primary 4 and above are used to teaching in Kinyarwanda, or using a lot of Kinyarwanda in order for their pupils to understand and learn anything. We are getting feedback that the teachers notice a great difference with our Primary 4 classes. Their ability to write in English is far greater than the teachers normally see, and the pupils’ understanding and readiness to speak in English is also better than previous Primary 4 classes.

We have several new teachers this term, and a brand new school! Muhazi primary school has been built as part of the government’s plan to reduce class sizes. Muhazi is relieving pressure of pupil numbers from Kayanga and Gikomero primary schools. As those two schools are part of our programme it made sense to work with Muhazi school, on top of which the head teacher from Kayanga is now the head teacher of Muhazi and she has long supported our work. 

What has been most encouraging is how the new teachers are being trained in the use of the NOEC materials by the other teachers. This cooperation and support is how the programme is eventually planned to expand. New teachers in Primary 1 are not so difficult to train, as they just start using NOEC Book One and soon get to grips with the in-built methodology. We have two new teachers in Primary 4, and they have to learn what the pupils should already know, and what has been covered in the last three years. Their reactions to the use of the NOEC have been interesting. One of the teachers has taught English to Primary 4 for several years and so is new to the NOEC materials but not to teaching. He has struggled to leave behind his old ways of relentless choral drilling, and far too much teaching-talking-time, and no provision for challenging his pupils to think and to learn by participation. The other teacher is new to teaching, and, of course, new to the NOEC materials too. He has adopted the NOEC methods, and the use of the Teacher’s Book, with ease, and is seeing the benefit of following the book and thereby implementing much pupil participation. 

The material in the NOEC book for Primary 4 is not easy. It is far more detailed, and expects that the pupils’ cognitive ability will have increased with their age. The teachers are taking the lessons slowly so that the content is understood and learned. The stage of learning in other subjects and lack of the development of thinking skills in other subjects is becoming a hindrance in their English studies. A small example is the telling of time in English, which demands an understanding of the concept of ‘quarter’ and ‘half’ for ‘quarter past/half past’ etc. If that has not been fully grasped by pupils in their mathematics through their own mother-tongue, then that English lesson becomes all the more difficult. We accept that progress will be slow. However, the book for Primary 4 pupils has some of the lovely NOEC stories which are funny, memorable and wholly set in the African context. This is motivating the pupils in their learning, and they flip ahead in the book avidly to look at the pictures in future stories to see what lies ahead!

We were surprised by the appointment of a new Minister for Education and a new Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education. The new Minister for Education is someone who Damian knows, and we hope to meet her as soon as her schedule will allow. 

The new Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education is the man who was organizing my presentation to the ruling party’s Education Commission, which did not proceed. So, we know him well, and he is already familiar with my reports and analyses of the primary school curriculum and the textbooks. We look forward to seeing him again as soon as he is available to see us.

The Director of Cabinet has been made Minister in charge of Cabinet Affairs, and so I have written to her expressing my hope that the information she had from me about the primary education system will be relevant in her new role.

This will be a very interesting year, and with the new Ministers in place it is an opportunity for our advocacy to reach a new audience, and, we hope, for some much needed change. We are hopeful of getting the new Ministers to the field to see our work in action, to be able to compare what we are achieving in the teaching and learning of English with other classes that do not have the NOEC materials, and to get the new Ministers to engage with the teachers to hear their views.

We still need your support, and we are most grateful for all your generous donations. Thank you to every one of you who so kindly gives towards our work, and who knows how these young Rwandan children will benefit from learning English.


With huge thanks and all good wishes,


Katy Allen


Education is the Passport to a Self-Sustaining Life   



One of our new P4 teachers enjoying using the NOEC
One of our new P4 teachers enjoying using the NOEC
Dec 17, 2019

December update from Kigali

Katy’s Writes from Rwanda: December 2019  

The school year has ended, and the teachers are enjoying a well-earned rest. The new school year starts on 6th January 2020. 


The good, long rest for the teachers is not so good for the pupils. Their last lessons were in the week of 14th October, and from then the last weeks of term were taken up with examinations and cleaning their schools. In the holidays the pupils have very little or no exposure to English. In the three months before they start lessons again in January they will have forgotten much of what they learned. It will take the teachers time to assess what has been retained and where to start again. Not only that, but with a new school year there will be new English teachers for many pupils. Those teachers will have to be guided in what was taught before, and how to bring the pupils back to the required level.


The end-of-year examinations were set by the Rwanda Education Board. Those examinations in lower primary (primary 1 to primary 3) were marked by the teachers. The primary 1 pupils did not do very well as they are used to oral examinations, and the Rwanda Education Board set written examinations. Our primary 2 and 3 pupils did well, as they had had practice in writing in English, and reading and understanding various sentence patterns and structures.


However, the examination papers were not the basis for any proper assessment. This is such an important issue, as the results of the examinations can be used by the government to influence policy and strategy. I wrote an analysis of the English papers for Primary 1, 2 and 3. I attach it to this report as it might be of interest. I sent my report to the director general of the Rwanda Education Board with an offer to provide any help or training.


The presentation to be made to the ruling party’s Education Commission has not happened, and seems unlikely to happen as the President’s Office is seeking feedback from the Ministry of Education, the Rwanda Education Board and education officials on my comments and my various reports. In view of the lapse of time since the meeting in the Strategy and Planning Unit of the President’s Office, I wrote a long letter to the Director of Cabinet. She is the one who suggested and approved my meeting with the Strategy and Planning Unit. Although she is incredibly busy, I hope that she will have read my letter. This was a bold step, setting out all my concerns for the primary education system, and setting out my views on the reasons for shortcomings with suggestions for their rectification. In my time working in Rwanda I have not come across anyone with my experience of being in government primary school classrooms for twenty-five years in East Africa. I have observed teachers and pupils, I have studied their textbooks, and I have experienced the conditions in which they work. I have worked with hundreds of teachers and together we have improved how they teach, and I have seen pupils start to enjoy their learning and be pleased with themselves for their progress. Change does not require tons of money, but rather it needs to be based on solid expertise, taking account of the local context and set in a sensible timeframe.


With that in mind, it is somewhat disheartening that the Minister for Education announced at the beginning of December that all of primary education will become English medium in a ‘determined period to be announced’. That means that all lessons will be taught in English from day one of primary school. At the moment, the first three years are taught through the mother-tongue, Kinyarwanda, with English as a subject, and in year four all lessons are to be taught using English. There is a large volume of research which shows that children learn best, and certainly develop their thinking skills, in their mother-tongue. Rwanda is blessed to have only one mother-tongue across the country. The current system is not working well for various reasons, but one of the reasons is the lack of competence in English of many primary school teachers. This is not surprising as English was only introduced in 2009 after decades of French as the second language. In practice much teaching continues to take place in Kinyarwanda in upper primary (and, indeed, in many secondary school classrooms) as there is not sufficient understanding of English. The solution to this is not, in my opinion, to make English the language of instruction from the very first year of primary school.


The link here,

will take you, if you are interested and have time, to our website, and to some video footage. Ignore the first video of me on Rwandan television (or watch it if you will!) and have a look at the next video which is 7.49 minutes long, which shows how our work is transforming the teaching of English in the lower primary classrooms. Then watch the video below that which is just over 4 minutes long, which shows how English is being taught in a typical government rural primary school with no use of our materials or teaching methods. On that evidence alone, it does seem more than odd that anyone is considering making English the medium of instruction from a pupil’s first day at school.


Our programme in Rwanda will continue to fight for the education of these young pupils, and to support and encourage their teachers to continue to work in these difficult conditions.


As Christmas and the new year celebrations are upon us, I wish all of you a happy time, and thank you all so much for your extremely kind donations to help our work.


I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing all the Rwandan primary school pupils a good start to 2020, and hope that our advocacy on their behalf will be listened to.


With very best wishes,

Katy Allen


Education is the Passport to a Self-Sustaining Life  



Sep 25, 2019

Katy's Writes from Rwanda: Autumn 2019

How times flies! The third and final school term of the year is over half-way through. The term ends on the 8th November, but with end-of-year examinations the teaching will probably cease before the end of October. 

The end-of-year examinations will be set by the Rwanda Education Board for all primary school classes this year, under a new regulation from the government. 

At the end of the second term, in July, we were able to set examinations for the pupils in our project schools. Primary 1 and Primary 2 had oral examinations, and Primary 3 had both an oral and written examination. The results were good with a majority in each school gaining more than 50% of the available marks. The most encouraging result was the written examination for Primary 3. The work the teachers had done to improve the handwriting of the pupils, and their ability to write in English, really paid off. 

Some of our pupils also sat the English examination which was set by the District. I have, so far, not been able to get the results of those examinations. However, I have been given copies of the examination papers. They were so lacking in proper assessment, that I have written a paper analysing them in order to show that those papers would not yield meaningful results. For instance, on both the Primary 1 and Primary 2 paper, the pupils were asked to, ‘Write these words in capital letters: ball, chair ……’. This can be done without knowing or understanding any English! Another question asked pupils to put words in alphabetical order, which, again, is something that can be done without any understanding of the meaning of the words. 

Each part of each question was awarded one mark, and so that allowed no scope for marking spelling, nearly correct answers etc., and gave no scope for giving more marks for more challenging questions. Not only this but there were many mistakes on each paper; there were glaring errors with punctuation and typing, and also the use of incorrect English. 

I have written and submitted my official report about this because the government often blames the teachers for the poor quality of education, and yet there must be good examples set from those responsible for the testing in the first place. 

Our work has recently been lauded, but not actually intentionally! The situation is a little complex: there is a nationwide programme in all government primary schools being run by the British Council in Rwanda, and funded by the UK Department for International Development. Their programme (funded to the tune of £25 million) started in the schools in January 2018. This programme runs under the name of ‘Building Learning Foundations’ (BLF). Their aim is to improve the English of the pupils in Primary 1 to Primary 3 so that when pupils have all their lessons through the medium of English in Primary 4, they can perform well. This is, of course, what our programme is doing. 

We had discussions with all the key people at the beginning of the BLF programme, and were assured that our programme would not be affected. The English teachers with which we work have been on some training courses run by BLF, but BLF staff are rarely seen in the five primary schools in which we work. However, BLF have ‘discovered’ that English lessons are taking place in which the pupils have an impressive understanding and command of English, and that happens to be in one of our project schools! 

In the middle of September, top officials from BLF went to Kibara Primary School to watch our teacher, Josephine, teach her Primary 2 English class, and were incredibly impressed by what they saw. My colleagues Damian and Ivan were also there, as the head-teacher had informed us of the BLF visit. He felt very concerned that BLF might take credit for our work. 

It was made clear to BLF, and indeed our teacher, Josephine, herself made it clear, that the success in the pupils’ English is because of our programme and our teaching materials. I will be meeting BLF officials to discuss this further.

Next week, government officials are also visiting Kibara Primary School as part of the Ministry of Education’s ‘Quality Education Enhancement Awareness Campaign’. The head teacher will invite them to observe one of Josephine’s English classes, and so I expect that we will receive some positive feedback. 

All of this should help our advocacy for change to the primary school curriculum, and particularly as it affects the learning of English as a foreign language.

As far as our advocacy is concerned, we are yet to have any formal feedback from the Strategy and Planning Unit of the President’s Office, following our meeting there in June. We have heard, though, that they have been making some serious enquiries in the Ministry of Education.

The plans for me to give a presentation to the ruling party’s Education Commission are progressing, and I hope that this will take place this autumn. Things move more slowly than I would like, but after twenty-five years’ working on this continent I’m surprised that I have not adapted better to this!

It is only when people unconnected with our charity, see our work and praise it that I fully appreciate what a difference we are making. 

It is easy to be in the middle of work and the detail of assessment and monitoring, and to forget to appreciate it in the big picture. I see our pupils every day in the classrooms responding to English instructions, and speaking English with full meaning and understanding, and I start to take it for granted. This is not the practice in most of the primary schools here. Many pupils from Primary 1 all the way to Primary 6 know very few sentence structures and struggle to communicate in English. 

Our work is giving our young pupils an excellent start, with confidence in many structures and patterns of English sentences, which is a foundation on which they can easily build. I am more and more aware of what a valuable asset this is for them and how they already stand head and shoulders above the young pupils in other schools.

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that our work would not happen without your generosity and enthusiasm. On behalf of our teachers and pupils, thank you again and again. Together, we are changing lives in Rwanda. 

With all good wishes,

Katy Allen


Education is the Passport to a Self-Sustaining Life   

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