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Atima’s 20-year journey at helm of school inspections

Mary Frances Atima

Mary Frances Atima

MARY FRANCES ATIMA is a professional teacher who catapulted herself into an exemplary long-serving inspector of education institutions.

She began her career as a secondary school teacher and gradually got promoted to various positions in the Education ministry, gaining experience in evaluating schools at different levels.

She has served as an entry-level inspector, senior inspector [secondary], principal inspector [secondary], assistant commissioner, commissioner of Teacher Education Standards, and now the acting director of the Directorate of Education Standards (DES). She shared her 20-year inspection journey with Yudaya Nangonzi.

Gone are the days when the anticipation of an inspection created stress and pressure for head teachers, school owners and teachers. The anxiety to ensure that everything is in order, worried proprietors.

Some would be more inclined to deny inspectors access or abandon learners in schools for fear of not meeting the expectations set by the education ministry. These high stakes in schools took place around the early 2000s when Mary Frances Atima had just embarked on her journey as an inspector of schools.

She has watched all the drama unfold during the unexpected visits with teachers jumping over school fences to escape from inspectors – even for those who meet a certain level of operating standards.

According to Atima, while the fear of school inspectors has persisted to a lesser extent, inspections are designed to provide constructive feedback, support improvement and ensure that education institutions are delivering quality education.

“The old notion that inspectors are tough has changed over time. Inspectors are not fault finders but are here to support all schools. I remember teachers and head teachers would go into hiding. Surprisingly, the so-called big schools were also skeptical about these visits,” Atima recalled.

Today, she is proud of her invaluable contribution towards the growth and innovations in inspection as schools greatly appreciate the role of the “uncomfortable” visits.


Atima has been habitually associated with people from the West. She also agreed that her face and body structure have led many to draw wrong conclusions about her roots.

“I am purely a woman from the East. My parents were both born and bred in Katakwi district. My late husband was also from the East,” she said.

In her circles, she’s also highly regarded as a rigid person. However, she dispelled the connotation: “I am very flexible as long as someone is truthful. After all, I am good at reading people’s minds and can predict certain events.”

As soon as she graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1994, Atima started teaching Religious Education and History at a private school before joining the government-owned Nkoma SS in Mbale. She taught for three years and returned to Makerere for a master’s in Education, graduating in 1997.

Her ambition of being a teacher had shifted to becoming an inspector of schools. Meanwhile, a major strike at the private school also got her thinking twice about the teaching job. Whereas she had built a strong rapport with the students, Atima felt betrayed when they organized a strike without notice to her.

Yet, she enjoyed playing netball and basketball with them. The master’s degree enabled her to develop a deep passion for educational improvements and see the potential impact of quality teaching through inspections. Atima believed that by working at the inspection level, she could influence educational policy and practice on a broader scale.


After completing her studies, Atima didn’t return to Mbale. She picked herself up with utmost confidence to the ministry’s inspectorate unit to meet the then commissioner in charge, one Karuhigye. In 1997, she was deployed to the department of Teacher Education Inspectorate to work on an in-service training project.

Atima received the normal salary of a secondary teacher until a 2000 major restructuring of the ministry that kicked her out. Teachers on the same project who were not absorbed in the ministry had to return to their former stations. The inspectorate unit that Atima looked forward to joining was also undergoing a restructuring process.

When various ministry positions were advertised, she didn’t tender in an application. Little did she know that this was to her detriment.

“I started wondering how I go back to chalk after two years working at the ministry. I gained a good status and exposure to various people. I had done immense work there and my understanding had now gone beyond teaching. But, I had no job and left the ministry,” she said.

Meanwhile, one of her colleagues who was affected by the restructuring was employed as a Municipal Education Officer for Entebbe municipality. She invited her to work as a part-time municipal inspector of schools since there was a vacancy.


After two years with the Entebbe Municipal Council, the ministry finally released internal adverts for people to join the inspectorate unit. With her expertise and dedication, Atima eventually joined the inspectorate after beating nine others to the job.

Her enthusiasm and natural leadership abilities propelled her to the position of senior inspector of secondary education standards. The Inspectorate Unit had also rebranded as the Education Standards Agency (ESA). Atima, with six others, was inaugurated as pioneer staff of ESA headed by Dr Rose Nassali Lukwago, the current permanent secretary of the Judicial Service Commission.

ESA got a startup package from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to run her activities. The same funds were meant to build the capacity of three staff abroad. This is how Atima got her first trip abroad for a one-month intense training on inspection and supervision in the UK.

Mary France Atima

Upon return, they came up with several project proposals to revive inspection that was at its lowest in the country. The team managed to come up with a handbook for school inspection and a framework. In all this, she was a senior inspector but ended up heading a department.

“I was the youngest on the seven-member team but I was assigned many roles because of my zeal for inspection,” she said.

However, the autonomy of the agency was short-lived.

“The DFID project closed and the ESA team had to run back to the ministry for funding. Each quarter, the ministry would send us about Shs 33m yet we had to run our headquarters and regional offices as well as do inspections. It was a bit tough,” she added.

She explained that when ESA started, it was received with mixed feelings by some ministry officials. The agency had to report directly to then minister Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire – a move that created discomfort among some ministry staff.

Atima recalled that the ESA team found an uphill task to operate to the extent that in several meetings, “you would hear painful words from some mainstream ministry officials. They said we were bound to fail, but people stood firm to their work.”

After seven years, the initial plan for ESA to operate independently failed. The lack of an enabling law made it hard for them to report directly to Bitamazire hence working under the permanent secretary, Francis Xavier Lubanga. At the peak of reviewing the Education Act in 2008, Lubanga guided that the ESA team be embedded in the Education Act as a directorate. This meant a U-turn to the ministry.


The return to the Education ministry saw a further slash of inspection funds. At the districts, inspectors would largely depend on their revenue to carry out inspections while some schools would go for years without being inspected.

In the financial year 2006/7, the directorate successfully lobbied the finance ministry and got Shs 2bn for district inspectors. This is how inspection funds started going directly to the local governments.

As the directorate struggled to settle in, its pioneer director Nassali was interdicted. According to Atima, this was a major setback in a turbulent time. For long, most people in the directorate were in acting positions after Nassali’s exit. Despite the storm, she said, the staff reviewed the basic requirements and minimum standards for schools, self- evaluation and assessment standards.

A new director, Dr Kedrace Turygyenda, was eventually unveiled. By the time Turyagyenda’s contract was ending, all the pioneer staff of the directorate and other heads of departments had also retired. Atima was the most senior among the active staff. With a substantive position of commissioner in charge of Teacher Education Standards, the ministry appointed her the current acting director of the directorate.


According to the handbook for inspection, a secondary school must be inspected at least once a year but the directorate has not achieved this due to funding gaps. Atima explained that the directorate has turned to electronic inspection systems to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of inspectors.

“The system also helps us to analyze reports and rate areas that need specific attention. We are also sure that the inspectors reach the schools unlike in the past. When one arrives at a school, you must record your location and submit your school report within seven days or the system erases your report,” she said.


Atima’s passion for inspection is contagious. She is, however, baffled by school heads who decline to act upon recommendations by inspectors. She shared some of her field experiences.

“In some schools, they would deny inspection visits. There are cases where I found the visitor’s book, which I signed, torn so that there is no evidence that any inspection ever took place especially when you find more of their weaknesses than strengths. Head teachers would also hide the inspection reports and that would demoralize me,” she said.

While inspecting a Kampala-based private health training institution, she was denied entry – contrary to the Education Act. Any person who willfully obstructs an inspector from lawfully executing their duties commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding five currency points (Shs 100,000).

The proprietor insisted that she ought to have made an appointment, got furious, and threatened to call the police and the Education minister to arrest her. She stood her ground to conduct the inspection and wrote a good inspection report because they had performed well.

Atima disclosed that she has never been offered any bribes while on duty.

“I am good at investigative inspections. I have tried to keep my professionalism over the years and I am not sure if there is anyone who says that I have ever requested money to do any public work,” Atima said.

Frances Atima's private life

Growing up, Atima wanted to be a nurse. The white dresses, apron, and nursing cap often gave her goosebumps. The nursing dream vanished to law during her advanced level of education. Unfortunately, she missed law by just one point and Makerere University admitted her for a Bachelor’s degree in Education.

She later returned to Makerere to pursue a Master’s degree in Education and a post-graduate Diploma in Management from UMI. She has been exposed to several pieces of training notably the National Institute of Education, Singapore where she did a leadership course. Thanks to her father Mathias Akabwai, a retired civil servant and strong disciplinarian, she heeded his advice to pursue a career in Education.

Atima was raised in an affluent environment – her father was a prison officer while her late mother Frances Akwi was a teacher. The numerous transfers of his father saw her attend several primary schools starting with Holly Rosary Nursery School in Gulu and a makeshift school inside Rwimi prisons in Bunyangabo district.

The family’s soft life took a twist in 1971 when former president Idi Amin took over power. Her father was among those on the new government’s “wanted list” hence going into hiding with his family back in Akurao village, Toroma sub-county in Katakwi district.

“I couldn’t believe walking barefoot to and from school. I was being driven in a car to school and now walking about six kilometers daily to Kokorio PS!”

When her mother’s teaching job stabilized, she joined her at Toroma PS. Over time, her father was reinstated and appointed regional Prisons commander (Buganda) hence their grand return to Kampala. She proceeded to City PS to complete primary seven in 1981.

She joined Gayaza HS for her O-level and A-level at Namasagali College. She completed S6 from Ngora HS after her father had been appointed Resident District Commissioner for Kumi district. A proud single mother of three, Atima sadly got widowed in her early 30s when her husband Sam Acou, former staff of the Gender ministry, succumbed to cancer in 2005.

She has single-handedly raised their children. In five years, Atima will be a retired officer. A passionate agriculturalist, she plans to dedicate her retirement to farming, serve her Catholic Church, and start a community reading club for young children in her village of Akurao in Katakwi district.


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