3 steps to improving Uganda’s education system

This is an edited cross-post from Anya Whiteside’s blog.  

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Education in Uganda is in crisis. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact. Out of all the children who start school in Uganda, only 33% complete primary education. This is compared to 84% in Kenya, 78% in Tanzania and 81% in Rwanda. In addition, many of the children who do remain in school are not learning. In fact, less than half of children in P6 reach the defined proficiency levels in numeracy and literacy.

I could continue with the facts – 1 in 20 children of school going age have never enrolled in school at all, 84% of teachers want to leave their jobs and on average teachers are absent from the classroom an equivalent of 2 days a week – I could go on but you get the picture.

Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with 49% if the population under the age of 15. This crisis in education is their crisis, and it is a crisis for Uganda. Given all of this, I have inevitably spent a lot of my time here trying to work out why education in Uganda is in such a crisis and what could be done to improve the situation.

There are many, many answers to this question. I could talk about the drop in education funding – the dilapidated classrooms and shortage of textbooks. I could talk about the plight of Uganda’s teachers – badly paid, de-motivated, poorly supported and badly trained. I could talk about the failure of Universal Primary Education – free education in name only as children have to pay for textbooks and uniforms and parents have disengaged from a process they have been told is now the state’s responsibility. I could talk about corruption, inefficiency and the politicization of education funding. I could talk about all these things and more and they would be true. They all contribute to the problem.

Yet the thing that is continually baffling the Ministry of Education, NGOs and big donors in Uganda is what to do about it. Because time after time after time ‘interventions’ , ‘solutions’ and ‘projects’ have been designed to improve education here, but things do not seem to be getting significantly better – in fact if anything they are getting worse. Books have been provided, teachers have been trained, all manner of stakeholders have been ‘sensitised’ over and over again. Vast amounts of money have been thrown at improving education in Uganda, yet the system keeps spiralling out of control with a will of its own.

Despite all this, I cannot feel completely hopeless about it. You can never feel completely hopeless in Uganda – the vivacity, friendliness and strength of the Ugandan people forbids it. But I do feel that Ugandan children – from my grinning, squirming neighbours’ kids to the children exploding with excitement at the Mzungu passing by their village – deserve better. This is why I continue to battle to try and understand what ways forward there can be in this bubbling bureaucratic melting pot that is education in Uganda.

One necessary step is to look beyond the dilapidated classrooms, lack of books and fed up teachers to try to unpick some of the systematic and underlying causes of Uganda’s broken system. There needs to be a public debate in Uganda as to what these are and some hard choices may need to be made on prioritisation of funding – both how much should be allocated to education, and which parts of the education sector the money should go to.

One underlying issue that hits me in the face wherever I look is the lack of accountability and incentive from top to bottom in the education system. In the government education system here there seems to be little benefit in doing your job well and little consequence to doing it badly.

Teachers face an incredibly difficult job in Uganda and teaching has become the last option that people choose when they can’t get a job anywhere else. Add to that the fact that neither promotion or pay are linked to performance and very few teachers are held to account for what they do, and it is easier to understand why so many education interventions are failing. In this context providing new books, building beautiful spangly classrooms or telling communities they ‘really should send their children to school’ will have a limited impact. After all it is not ideal to teach children under a tree, but it is possible if you have a teacher who really wants to teach, and a system that supports that teacher to do so.

Instead I would argue that money could be best spent improving some of the broken systems at the heart of the education crisis in Uganda. There are three I suggest should be particularly prioritised:

  • Creating a functioning scheme of service that links teacher (and all education officials’) promotion to performance.
  • Overhauling the entire teacher payroll system so that teachers are paid on time and so-called ‘ghost teachers’ (those teachers who don’t exist but are on the payroll, meaning the money being paid to them is going somewhere else) are removed.
  • Investing in inspection and ensuring that the follow up is rigorous – no head teacher should be allowed to rape children because he is mates with the right people. This also means working on how to ensure the Directorate of Education Standards at central level and school inspectors at the District level can work together to ensure proper follow up and accountability.

These are not the only issues that need to be addressed in the education sector in Uganda, but from my time here I feel they are some of the central ones. Mending Uganda’s education systems will not be easy, but it is the only way that education in Uganda will be improved. Without political will and funding to do so, we will continue to see sticking plasters trying to mend a gaping wound.

More information:

(Steve adds) If you are interested in education in Uganda you might also be interested to read:

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