Newcastle headteacher Hilary French is passionate about empowering young women, with her commitment extending far beyond her own backyard, as Education Reporter Ruth Lognonne discovered.The last few years have been a busy time for Hilary French, headteacher of the newly formed Newcastle High School for Girls.
The school opened last September after the merger of Central High and Church High schools, a not considerable task of bringing together long-rival institutions to form one new school.
But the 59-year-old has not restricted herself to the educational life of the North East and has recently returned from a trip to East Africa where she visited a girls’ education project in one of the most deprived areas of Uganda.
After working with girls in Newcastle, many from more privileged backgrounds, Mrs French was invited to a school in Kamuli and a project in the capital Kampala, which supports hundreds of girls and young women who have been sexually exploited.
“I am a woman, I have a daughter, I am head of a girls’ school and I have had the privilege of working with thousands of girls over the years, so these issues are important to me,” said Mrs French, who lives in Durham.
“As a teacher, I’m also interested in education; the numbers of children in classes, the sorts of things girls are taught and the feel of the classrooms.
“My visit brought home to me what a stark contrast there is between the lives and opportunities of children, particularly girls, I met in Uganda and those back here in the UK. It is like two separate worlds, except we know it isn’t, we are one world.
“It was very moving to see what an amazing impact a relatively small amount of money, in European terms, can make. In Uganda £35 will buy education for one child for a year. If each of the girls in our senior school raised £35, that would be enough for around 700 pupils to go to school for a year. On top of that they have to buy the uniform - about £4 for a school dress and £5 for a jumper. This is a huge amount, and they don’t have enough money to pay for it.
“We visited Kamuli Girls College, 100 km of Kampala, the capital city. I taught a class and, just to give you an idea, there were at least 75 to 80 children in one class, no text books, stapled together bits of paper instead of exercise books, ramshackle desks under a tree outside, and no glass in the window. However, the children had intense concentration and were very eager to learn, and their handwriting was superb.
“I went to visit some parents of the girls at the school, their homes are mud huts and the children have to walk a long way to school in the morning and afternoon.”
The girls have an additional set of barriers to overcome in order to attend school regularly. Often, it is not safe for the girls to walk unaccompanied to and from school because they would be harassed.
In addition, most girls don’t have enough money to pay for sanitary pads and therefore are unable to go to school on the five or six days a month when they are menstruating. They have no way of dealing with it except to sit on the sand and would be mocked or laughed at if they went to school.
Furthermore, it is the girls’ responsibility to get water from the bore hole, this typically involves a lengthy journey carrying three or four heavy cans full of water back to the houses.
Mrs French said she has wanted to visit Africa ever since her daughter Rebecca’s visit to Lesotho a few years ago.
“The trip really changed her, and made her realise how materialistic our society is. There were children there who had virtually nothing, but who really appreciated what they did have,” she said.
Mrs French, former president of the Girls School Association (GSA), has been a supporter of the global children’s charity Plan UK for several years.
“There are 62 million girls who don’t have access to an education, something we just can’t imagine here,” she said.
“I want to help in whatever way I can and hopefully by maintaining those links between the girls here and those across the world, we can make a difference.”
Girls from GSA schools have raised more than £250,000 for the Plan’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign over the past three years. The school Mrs French visited is one that has benefitted from the funds.
The campaign aims to help millions of girls in the world’s poorest communities stay at school, live free from violence and have their voices heard.
This year, thousands of pupils at GSA schools, including Newcastle High, will be taking part in the second World Wide Walk on March 26 to raise money.
The aim is to collectively walk the circumference of the world – more than 40,000 kilometres - with each individual walking 10 kilometres each. Last year the event raised £84,000.
Tanya Barron, chief executive of Plan UK, said: “Millions of girls are out of school, subjected to violence, including child marriage, and denied a voice. Access to a quality education is vital to ensure girls reach their full potential.
“The World Wide Walk helps highlight the importance of girls’ education. The support of schoolchildren here in the UK really can help girls across the world transform their own lives and those of their communities.”
Around 18,000 girls and young women are forced into commercial sex work in Kampala’s slums. They are trafficked or forced to join the trade because they cannot earn a living.
This has many terrible consequences, including high rates of HIV/AIDS, as well as other physical and mental health implications.
A study recently commissioned by the Ministry of Education has indicated that about 78% of girls in primary schools in Uganda have been sexually abused within the school environment.
The Because I am a Girl project supports hundreds of girls to gain the technical skills to find work or start a business, supported by training and confidence-building. It also supports those who are mothers take care of their children.
Attitudes and practices that discriminate against girls, and the inability of parents to pay for books, uniforms and meals, all act as barriers to girls’ education. Girls also often have domestic responsibilities and are further limited by practices such as early marriage.
The project is aiming to help thousands of girls in the Kamuli district to enrol and complete a quality secondary education in a safe and supportive learning environment.
It places a special emphasis on reaching the most marginalised children - those from the poorest families and girls who may be at risk of dropping out or being removed from school.