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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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The State of Play: Education in Uganda

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside who is the Education Advocacy Officer at the Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda (FENU).  She is also my partner and her blog can be found  here

I ask students what they think about their education in a learners workshopBack in 1997 Uganda was proud to lead the way in the provision of universal primary education. Enrollment boomed from just 2.5 to 8.8 million and this was seen by many as a major success.

Despite this seemingly rosy picture, Uganda is a clear example of how focus on access to education alone is not the be all and end all and is not the same as a good education.

It is generally recognised that in Uganda education is in crisis, a crisis that needs urgent action.

Although enrollment has remained high the drop-out rates in Uganda are also high. Uganda’s completion rates in primary education are only 25%. This is compared to 84% in Kenya, 81% in Tanzania and 74% in Rwanda.

Even for the minority of children who stay in school in Uganda the picture is not much better. A report recently released by the government confirms what teachers, politicians, parents and children already know; that even children who stay in school are not learning.

The NAPE report states that for P6 pupils who are at the end of primary school, only 45% of them have reached proficiency in numeracy and only 41% in literacy. As the report starkly puts it ‘less than a half of the P6 pupils have mastered most of the competencies in the P6 curriculum’.

Most worrying of all the results show that education results aren’t improving, and are worse than the results in 2009.

There is not doubt that Ugandan education faces many challenges. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world with 55% of the population under 18 years. When universal primary education was introduced children flooded in to access ‘free’ education with schools and teachers overwhelmed. There are no-where near enough teachers, classrooms, books or sanitation facilities to teach all these children.

It is not uncommon to have teachers attempting to teach classes of over 100 and children taking it in turns to use a pencil. Children often come to school without lunch and so are sat all afternoon hungrily waiting for the end of the day.

But political will is also an important element in this. The percentage share of the Uganda national budget dedicated to education has fallen from 17% in 2007/8 to 15% for 2013/14.

This situation is likely to only get worse after aid donors pulled out after allegations of corruption by the prime ministers office, leaving sizable holes in the education budget.

Funding to government primary schools comes in the form of a grant given per child, per year to each school. On average this is 5,000 Ush (about £1.25) per child per year, so it is unsurprising schools charge parents significant, often unaffordable extras for books and uniforms.

Unlike other countries, where even if they are not paid enough teachers are afforded at least some degree of respect in the local community, in Uganda teachers are considered socially at the bottom of the pile. In government primary schools teachers are paid an average of 260,000Ush a term (£65 a term).

To give you some context, VSO gives me a stipend of 895,000Ush (£223) a month which is meant to cover my basic living costs, excluding accommodation. So you can see that being a teacher is not exactly economically desirable.

When you add to that the appalling delays that teachers experience, waiting months for their salaries due to inefficiencies, it is unsurprising that teachers often don’t turn up or have additional jobs on the side.

Teachers are also not given good training and the style of teaching is extremely reliant on teaching by rote. A colleague of mine told me how she sat in on a teacher training course where the lecturer, with no irony, started by saying ‘in teaching the most important thing is to be interactive and not just talk at students’ and then proceeded to talk at the teachers for several hours.

Teachers are rarely, if ever, inspected and there is little support or ongoing training. On top of this they are blamed consistently for the poor state of education in Uganda – no wonder no one wants to be a teacher!

So is there any hope for education in Uganda?

I would argue that there is, based on all the people I have met who are dedicated to improving education. Everyone knows what the problems in education are and the buzz-word at the moment is ‘quality’ education.

The organisation I work for (FENU) helped to set up the new ‘Parliamentary forum on quality education’. A few weeks ago FENU coordinated the first ever ‘Quality Public Education Week’ which saw Anglican, Catholic and Islamic leaders (70% of schools are linked to religious institutions) come together with trade unionists and politicians. This focus on quality is important, especially as it moves away from only focusing on getting more children into school and also looks at the education those children are receiving.

There are so many different challenges to education here, and I haven’t even touched on child labour, gender inequalities, capital punishment, secondary schooling or vocational training.

Nonetheless there are inspiring people working for change, and no end to the children keen to learn if they are only given the opportunity to do so.

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