They say, most people will miss opportunity once it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. But a visit to New Horizon Secondary Vocational School, reveals that opportunity has been dressed in orange overalls. At the start of third term, at school located in Mukono off Kayunga Road, not only were the candidate classes readying themselves for their ‘final’ exams but Senior Three students were busy preparing for the upcoming competence level one certificate examinations. They were working on projects in automotive mechanical engineering, metal works, electrical installation, plumbing and carpentry.
This is one of those rare schools where you will find students build houses as early as Senior Two, do plumbing work, plan and install electricity, make school furniture, troubleshoot metal works problems for the school requirements, repair cars, play and compose music, make hair designs from the school salon, plan meals and look after fish, cattle and pigs.
A portion of the school’s land has been earmarked for growing vegetables and other foodstuffs which students feed on.
A not-so fancy class
As I enter into the metal works workshop, I begin to see how different this is from a traditional school.
With tractor tyres already fixed on heavy steel bars making the frame, instructors; Enock Mugabi and Isaac Sekiziyivu are helping seven members of the class make a tractor trailer, which will be finished in three weeks. The fish pellet machine, which is also a project of industrial training assignment, is ready to start work.
Another workshop, which is two blocks away, has 12 enthusiastic students putting final touches on the motor starter control circuit.
“We have to design the circuit for the pellet machine. The students have been practicing,” Charles Yiga, the electrical installation instructor, who obtained his certificate from the same school in 2014, states.
Preparing for the future
For three hours every week, which is a combined 30 contact days, students drape in orange overalls then head to the various workshops at school to work on class projects which are at the end of the day examinable.
Senior One and Two students are given general technical knowledge and attend all classes before they specialise in Senior Three.
New Horizon is among the 572 accredited examination centres by the Directorate of Industrial Training (DIT for the Business, Technical, Vocational Education and Training (BTVET).
And the students say the benefits are obvious. Sharifah Nakiyingi completed Senior Six from Crested Secondary School, Makindye, in 2016 and sat for Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Information Technology. Instead of joining university, she joined New Horizon and is in the metal works class.
“Even if I had joined university, classes are usually about memorising a lot of things,” said Nakiyingi. “My future is here. Here I get to do a lot in the workshop, gaining experience and skills that prepare me for practical things. I now make windows, doors and roofing structures unsupervised.”
Steven Kato, 16, is among the seven Senior Three students in the carpentry class. He practices from a friend’s workshop at Nsambwe, a nearby trading centre during holidays. “The work in the workshop really puts things in perspective and makes them easier to understand when I am working on my own.”
The school’s vocational studies are a unique attempt at providing both the academic foundation and real world skills needed to thrive in a rapidly evolving career landscape.
At Senior Six, students get to earn a Level Two certificate which can set them on a course to university placement. “Learning by doing is a more effective way to mastery,” Elias Namukali, the head of the vocational department, said.
A foundation of charity
The school had humble beginnings. Peter Buitendijk and his wife Pita have lived in Uganda for 23 years and started a charity, Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry Uganda in March 2001 to look after orphaned or abandoned children who are increasing by day because of poverty, civil war and especially HIV/Aids.
Buitendijk, a multifaceted person who is a pastor, construction engineer, architect, driver, paramedic, started Noah’s Ark with spiritual development forming an important focus of the children’s home.
There was no better place than Mukono, a place rife with poverty and crime. Buitendijk built the school with donors and sponsors to offer ‘his many children’ a decent education as well as the community.
Student fees are subsidised with those in boarding school, paying Shs450,000. Buitendijk’s motivation to start the school was to prepare employable people with craftsmanship.
“You see, with the oil discovery, the major activities that require technical know-how will be done by foreigners while most Ugandans will be involved in cleaning and security jobs. I hate that but it is the reality because most graduates do not have employable skills,” he says.
He says in Uganda, a university degree remains fashionable even when most graduates do not have a zeal or clue on work.
“Most people go to university to study what their parents have imposed on them, that is why we expose them to many trades early in life,” he adds. The school enrolment is estimated at 270 students and he says maintaining a manageable number is key to maintaining quality.
“The biggest challenge is still perception,” says Buitendijk. Even the teachers, he says, have a lot of book knowledge but he says through consistence, attitude will change.
Buitendijk adds: “Giving any child real-world experience during school where they are tackling actual industry challenges gives them access to career pathways, not dead-end jobs.”
But getting the balance right pays huge dividends, students say. “By being here,” said Nakiyingi, “I have developed better social skills. And the things we learn at school do not have to be applied only to metal works. In the workshop, if there is a problem, I have to use my ingenuity and take whatever information I have to solve that problem. In my life I can do that with any other problem I face.”
What students say
“In the workshop, if there is a problem, I have to use my ingenuity and take whatever information I have to solve that problem. In my life I can do the same with any other problem I face.” Sharifah Nakiyingi
“I practice from a friend’s workshop during holidays. The work in the workshop really puts things in perspective and makes them easier to understand when I am working on my own.” Steven Katto, Senior Three
“The biggest challenge is still perception. Even now people still think vocational studies are for children from less affluent families. But how do you eat a giraffe? Bite by bite I am impressed that President Museveni has now made it an agenda on most of his addresses.”
Peter Buitendijk, founder New Horizon Secondary Vocational School