Monday January 25 2010

UPE finally paying dividends

Pupils of Bat Valley Primary School take a

Pupils of Bat Valley Primary School take a break from the books. The school is under the UPE programme. FILE PHOTO  

By Steven Tendo

The Universal Primary Education programme, born in 1997, has been praised and criticised at the same time. With the release of PLE on Tuesday, the results showed that UPE schools had performed better than the private ones. Steven Tendo takes us down the journey of the programme.

Primary Leaving Examination results released last week showed an improvement in the performance from the previous year. After a decade of sustained criticism and microscopic inspection, Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools finally posted a commendable performance. Parents and students are finally warming up to UPE.

Timothy Agaba has just been promoted to P5, and is finally reaping the dividends of attending a good school. He spent two years in a private school in Mbarara but changed to Mbarara Municipal, a UPE school.

“I realised he was getting a raw deal,” his father, Mr William Sande, says.
“The teachers were unserious and he was not getting a good education.” Mr Sande says his son was very poor at simple arithmetic and English until his switch. He had enrolled him in a private school after getting so many negative reports about UPE but was disappointed that his son was not making much progress. “He is getting a far better education now,” Mr Sande says.
“He gets enough homework and his grades are improving.”

Jean Alinda is a pupil at Chadwick Namate Primary School in Entebbe. Her previous school, a private outfit, did not hold Parent Teacher Association meetings and she frequently cut her classes to eat roadside mangoes. Today, that is unheard of because of the tight supervision by the teachers at Chadwick.

These are snapshots of a system that has often been described as a sinking ship by some but also as the salvation of a nation. With the deluge of enrolment numbers, UPE faces challenges, which the Ministry of Education says it is on top of.

Of the 513,219 candidates who sat for PLE last year, more than 400,000 were from UPE schools. Education Minister Namirembe Bitamazire says the strict monitoring of schools under the Education Standards Agency was the cause of improved performance over the years.

The programme was introduced in Uganda in January 1997 as part of a government policy to provide free education to children.

Critics have pointed out what they have called weaknesses in a programme that should otherwise provide the best opportunity for large sections of the population to become sufficiently productive. Every year, the comparisons between the pre and post UPE periods run thick.

At the time UPE was introduced, only about one third of school-going age children were in school. Enrolment figures are up from 2.5 million in 1997 to 7.5 million pupils. According to government records, there are 258 UPE-aided primary schools with 152, 974 pupils. 26,318 of them are boys.

Increased classrooms
The programme has also seen the increase of classrooms in an effort to banish ‘tree shade classes.’ Classrooms have increased to more than 60,000.
Some social commentators believe in the system. “UPE is an excellent policy that could transform this society,” Capt. Mike Mukula, a former State Minister for Health, told Daily Monitor.
“As long as the tools of production are in place, development can take shape.”

Mukula refers to success stories like Japan’s, which he says relied on a UPE programme. According to him, UPE was first tried in the country after the Second World War and it helped the war-devastated country to develop into one of the world’s biggest economies.

“This is a county without minerals but they have the right manpower and all this happened because they educated their population,” Capt. Mukula said.
But UPE still has a long way to go before it can shake off the image of being a dragnet for low standard pupils.

Tattered image
“UPE is about more than just academics,” Mr Fagil Mandy, a former commissioner in the Education Ministry, says.

“Parents need to understand that when children go to school, there are other parts of learning, like athletics, drama, debating and the like. That is what UPE should be about.”

The civil society has been compelled to get involved. The novelty of children getting a free education has long worn off and companies have started their own pushes to lift education standards.

Programmes like Monitor Publications’ Newspapers in Education (NiE) are commended by educationists like Mr Mandy, who says rural schools do not perform well because of lack of access to resources like the internet and newspapers. In the past, Ms Bitamazire has lauded MPL for the programme that takes a newspaper to each child on Mondays during the school term.
According to the 2009 Global Monitoring Report, children from poor rural families are not benefiting from Universal Primary Education.
But Mandy disagrees.

“Of course rural children have benefited from the progamme. The so-called rural-urban divide that used to be very wide has been bridged now. Even the recruitment of teachers to these schools has been improved,” he argues.
But the teething problems of the system persisted even with the excitement. That parents did not have to pay school fees anymore meant that government’s biggest source of funding for schools was severely cut. Instead, the government had to find ways of educating the children on its bill.
Rural Vs urban disparity
“The divide has been bridged on so many levels,” Mr Mandy said, explaining that even when teachers have been reported to be complaining about poor pay, thus rendering UPE a failure, “the function of hiring and firing for primary schools is in the hands of the District Service Commissions.” In other words, the government has put in place a framework for a system that can work.

Besides that, Mr Mandy argues that many of the problems that are cited in rural UPE schools are due to poor management and not the programme in itself. “Some of these head teachers live 30 km from their schools; how can someone who knew what he was getting into in the first place blame the system for what goes wrong in such a case?” he asks rhetorically.

“It is true, teachers’ morale has been greatly affected by the great numbers,” Moses Musonge, who has taught in primary school for 18 years, says. “Before UPE, there was a certain level of commitment among teachers but now, it is hard to maintain it.”

Teacher morale
Mr Musonge attributes this loss of interest to teachers being involved in many pursuits other than their teaching jobs. “You find a teacher with different businesses and he can only be at school at 10am when he is expected at 8am. They also leave early and the children suffer,” he further explains.
According to the State Minister for Primary Education, Kamanda Bataringaya, the Ministry of Education has set aside Shs2.5 billion for inspection in UPE schools to boost quality education. He added that each district has been given three motorcycles to facilitate school inspection.

Mr Musonge says many teachers feel that UPE was haphazardly implemented because it came at a time of political campaigns. Other than that, he believes that it is what the country needed, if it had been given adequate thought. Ms Bitamazire has frequently rejected the argument that Uganda needs to slow down on the enrolment and concentrate on improving the quality of education. She believes having many pupils who have got at least some education beats having very few highly educated people by far.


Started in 1997

The programme has 8 million children. During the 2007/8 period, the estimated number was 7.5 million children.


  • Making basic education accessible to the learners and relevant to their needs as well as meeting national goals;
  • Making education equitable in order to eliminate disparities and inequalities;
  • Establishing, providing and maintaining quality education as the basis for promoting the necessary human resource development;
  • Initiating a fundamental positive transformation of society in the social, economic and political field; and
  • Ensuring that education is affordable by the majority of Ugandans
  • Enable every child to enter and remain in school until they complete the primary education cycle

    Increased access
    Enrolment figures after the launching of UPE shot up from nearly 2.5 million in 1996 to nearly 6.8 million in 2000

    More Teachers Trained
    To deal with the increasing number of pupils. The ministry between 1995 and 1999 trained 7,800 teachers. In addition 3,023 candidates in pre-service
    courses for teachers have completed their training . And 2,118 also completed their training. While the number of teachers has grown, the number is still too low compared to the massive number of children in school now.

    Providing Physical Facilities
    The massive increase in pupil numbers immediately created a problem of classroom space. Although the Ministry has embarked on a drive to build more schools, and provide instructional materials, this is still far inadequate.

    Quality of Education
    This is one area that is of concern to many in the country. There are fears that perhaps the massive numbers in schools without commensurate expansion in facilities, teachers,and teaching/learning materials may have compromised the quality of education.

    The other issue related pupil-teacher ratio is the morale of the teachers. Prior to the introduction of UPE, most schools charged additional fees through the Parents Teachers Associations. Some of this money was used to supplement teachers’ salaries. This is no longer the practice and so teachers must rely on the extremely low salaries.

    Coping with the UPE Bulge
    The Ministry of Education and Sports has done a commendable job ensuring that UPE is introduced and that the primary school system copes in every respect with growing numbers. However, the challenge is going to be coping with the bulge in secondary and higher education. This is pressure is already being felt. In 2001 for instance, 360,000 children sat the Primary Leaving examinations and of these 250,000 qualified for post primary education. However, only 150,000 children were admitted into the 734 government-aided secondary schools and 29 technical and farm rural schools.
    100,000 children were therefore not placed in any of the government schools.

    Training Teachers
    The increase in pupil numbers has raised the challenge of the need for more teachers. Government has done some work in this regard and a number of teachers have been trained and upgraded, however, the teacher-pupil ratios are still poor. In 1996 the ratio was 1:37.62 and by 1999, this had declined to 1:63.63. Also, the number of untrained teachers is still high.