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
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
“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
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
“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.
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 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 %
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
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
“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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”