20th April, 2006
UPE goal could go offside

In part II of our assessment of Uganda's performance on the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), RICHARD M. KAVUMA looks at Goal Two which aims at primary education for all.

Noelina Nabakooza, 11, is among the brightest pupils at Bulamu Church of Uganda Primary School in Mpigi district. In the second term of the last academic year, she came third out of 68 pupils in Primary Four (P4). Her 12-year-old brother and classmate, Charles Sekate, was 20th.

Yet, as class teacher Erias Tushabe says, the two children would perhaps not have been in school if it was not for Universal Primary Education (UPE), where children do not pay tuition fees.

Their father, Emmanuel Kakooza, and mother, Ruth Nalubega, died in 2000, before either child started school. Since 2003, the children have been living all by themselves in their home at Busaanyi village, three kilometres from the school.

“We do not fear to be alone at home,” Nabakooza said. “We are in school most of the time and return home tired.” Nabakooza wants to be a nurse so she can “inject and cure sick people.” Sekate wants to be a doctor, also to treat the sick.

The two children are among some 7.4 million children in Uganda’s primary schools. Since government introduced free primary education in 1997, the figures have been impressive.

In 2004, nearly 7.4 million children were in primary schools, up from about 3 million in 1996. Nearly 90 percent of children of primary school going age (6-12 years) are in school, up from about 60 percent in 1996. The figures, however, have to be treated with a pinch of salt, as some head teachers have inflated the supposed number of pupils in their schools to steal the money sent to cater for non-existent pupils. According to the 2002 population census, there could be up to a million ‘ghost’ pupils.

Teachers on the government payroll have increased from 82,000 in 1996 to 123,000 by June 2003. Ministry of Education figures also show that permanent classrooms have increased from 45,000 in 1997 to 75,000 today. The 2002 census shows that 83 percent of males and 71 percent of females aged 15-29 are literate (able to read and write).

On average, 61 percent of children who start P1 complete P4, although just 22 percent of entrants complete P7. Millennium Development Goal number two aims to see all children able to complete primary school by 2015.

With disadvantaged children like Nabakooza and Sekate able to go to school, Uganda has laid a strong foundation for achieving Goal Two. Yet major problems threaten the programme, particularly the dramatic rise in the number of pupils without a corresponding increase in the learning space and facilities. The number of pupils is expected to rise to 8.4 million by mid 2006, according to May 2004 projections by the Ministry of Education. The result has been congestion in the UPE schools, seriously compromising the quality of education.

A 2005 report, the National Assessment of Progress in Education, showed that by 2003 only 20.5 percent of pupils in P6 had numeracy competence, compared to 41 percent in 1999.

While the report noted that competency in literacy at the same level improved from 13.2% to 20% over the same period, it showed that pupils’ command of the English language was very poor. Some 80 percent of P6 pupils were “not competent enough” in English reading or writing, yet mastering the language of instruction is critical to academic progress.

By July 2004, Uganda lacked 60,000 classrooms, with many classes having more than 100 pupils. Nearly 60 percent had no adequate sitting space, less than 50 percent had access to safe drinking water and only 20 percent had enough latrine and washing facilities.

Too many dropouts

Of the pupils who joined P1 at the start of UPE in 1997, only 22 percent stayed in school to sit for Primary Leaving Examinations in 2003. Education officials blame the high dropout rate on lack of interest, sickness, as well as lack of school meals.

In 2003, President Museveni told the UPE Stakeholders Conference that as a child, his parents used to pack for him entaanda (cooked food). He barred schools from charging lunch fees, fearing they would then lock out pupils who failed to pay. Parents, he said, just had to pack lunch for their children.
It has not worked. Children neither carry food, nor has government provided food to schools. A survey by the National Examinations Board (UNEB) found that only 55 percent of urban schools and 13 percent of rural schools provided lunch.

At Bulamu Church of Uganda Primary School, parents agreed at their general meeting to pay Shs 2,000 per pupil per term to cater for lunch porridge, but only a few pay the money. The rest go hungry. Erias Tushabe, a teacher, says feeding is a critical problem because a hungry child cannot learn.
“When I insist that parents pack food for the children, some ask me: ‘We don’t even have food to eat at home and you want us to get that for children?’” says Bulamu headmaster, Christopher Lukenge.

The food crisis was perhaps best captured by a pupil in Kumi district, quoted by the Uganda NGO Forum in an MDG magazine: “I take no breakfast at home. I get nothing at school. When it is lunch time, teachers go home to eat and tell us to play. Can you imagine spending a whole day without eating anything?”

Realising the gravity of the situation, government started a school feeding programme for some 230,000 pupils in “hunger hotspots”. But NGOs argue that expanding the programme to the whole country would drastically reduce dropout rates and absenteeism. Government attempts to expand the programme have, however, been scuttled by political interference, forcing the UN World Food Programme, which was supposed to implement the programme, to pull out.

Not only do parents send children to school hungry, they also fail to provide basic scholastic materials and to motivate their children to stay in school. It is estimated that 43 percent of school dropouts are due to lack of interest.

“Can you imagine there are parents who send children here without books?” says Lukenge. “This morning, I found 20 of them in P1 without books. Some parents think books are supposed to be provided by the government.”

Another major problem facing UPE is HIV/AIDS. Not only are teachers missing school because of poor health, but there are also some pupils with HIV who are unable to attend school regularly because of illness. Some pupils are forced to stay at home to look after sick relatives.

Government funding

UPE has certainly increased the amount of money committed to the education sector, but this is still not enough to resolve the problems facing UPE.
According to Albert Byamugisha, an Assistant Commissioner in the Ministry of Education and Sports, in 2002/03, Education took up 24 percent of the national budget, compared to about 7 percent in 1990. Of the Shs 505 billion education vote, Shs 336 billion (67 percent) went to primary education.

But head teachers say that the government has not revised its capitation grants to schools despite sharp increases in costs. And yet, even this little money does not come in time.

In Mpigi for instance, each school gets a fixed Shs 100,000 and then Shs 350 per child per month. Hence for August, Bulamu, with 630 pupils and 15 teachers, got Shs 315, 515; Shs 240,000 for June and Shs 303, 141 for July. This money is supposed to be used for:
Instruction materials … 45%
Co-curricular activities ...25 %
Management ...20%
Administration ...10%

By November, they had not yet got money for October. This leaves headmasters having to improvise. Lukenge cites the headmaster of a neighbouring school who often “borrows” a box of chalk.

Again by November, neither had Kitovu Model Primary School in Mityana, which has 287 pupils, received money for October!
“Often the money comes late, yet government expects the schools to be running,” said one teacher at Kitovu. The motto of the school says, ‘Quality is better than quantity’, yet that seems to be the government’s greatest headache: how to increase quantity without compromising quality.

Teachers’ woes

The quality of teaching is further compromised by teachers’ poor working conditions. Teachers in UPE schools complain of poor and late pay. Only recently, the teachers went on strike, demanding a minimum pay of Shs 200,000. Government argues that it has raised the salaries from Shs 70,000 in 1997 to Shs 150,000 today (President Museveni pledged in his manifesto to raise it to Shs 200,000), but teachers want more.

“If a teacher is paid Shs 150,000, it means his son or daughter will not get a good education,” says Erias Tushabe, a teacher at Bulamu. “What is even worse, even when you upgrade to a diploma, the pay does not change.”
With disgruntled teachers, the quality of teaching is likely to deteriorate further, reducing the chances of even bright children like Nabakooza realising their dreams.

Hence, Uganda may have taken a clear shot at Goal 2 by getting millions of children into school, but if it goes in, the goal might be ruled off-side because of quality concerns.

Education minister happy with progress

Education minister Namirembe Bitamazire says the government is very satisfied with the turn up in schools and the way UPE has been received.

“The infrastructure and capacity we are building will push education of this country far ahead,” the minister said. “We are building reasonably good facilities [with] very well-trained teachers and reasonably good instructional materials.”

She says the fact that parents are asking what plans government has for their children who complete UPE shows that Ugandans are valuing education more than before.

On congestion

Bitamazire says that although congestion was a major problem in the first five years of the programme, government has brought the teacher to pupil ratio down from 1:150 to an average of 1:68.
“Of course the ideal is 1:40 and that is what we are working towards. But you hardly find classes with more than 80 pupils.”

On dropouts

Bitamazire acknowledges that dropping out has been a big problem, but says it is largely because parents and guardians have not yet appreciated the value of UPE. Hence, some would rather have the children work in the fields or look after sick relatives than go to school. But some children can’t go to school because their parents cannot meet some very basic costs like buying exercise books. The minister revealed that the government would soon launch a major campaign to sensitise parents on UPE.

On meals

Bitamazire says that where children cannot carry packed food to school, the government does not object to parents agreeing to collect money for lunch, provided those who do not pay are not locked out of school.
Although head teachers find this problematic in that some underprivileged children are left to go hungry, which can make them lose interest in school. It is a softening of government’s position. In 2003, President Museveni threatened to arrest any headmaster who charged lunch money.

After UPE

The minister said the government is planning a massive post-primary education and training programme for children who can’t afford secondary education.

Already, she said, 16 community polytechnics have been established and 14 more are to be built to train UPE graduates in tailoring, carpentry, farming and other vocational skills.
“There have been some delays but I think now we are going to roll out to more districts and sub-counties.”