Recently, I travelled to Tororo District and other parts of eastern Uganda as part of a panel of consultants working for a local NGO. The NGO is assessing the impact of Universal Primary Education (UPE) on poor households.
We were to establish whether local people had benefitted from UPE and its likely effect on their incomes. Public schools in most of the areas we visited were crowded with pupils who were doing their end of year exams.
Yet our interactions with both the administrations, teachers of these schools and local authorities revealed a litany of challenges that the government must address to salvage UPE.
The foremost challenge is high dropout rate that rises to more than 68 per cent in parts of Karamoja such as Napak District. The teachers we talked to attribute the high dropout rate to lack of food and charges for uniform and other scholastic materials such as books, which most parents cannot afford.
However, our visits to the schools also revealed challenges such as rampant teacher absenteeism, poor infrastructure, with some pupils still studying under trees.
In Busia, Napak and Moroto districts, some children have dropped out of school and resorted to working in gold mines and stone quarries as a means of survival.
Local authorities in these districts are doing little to help these children save for a few non-governmental organisations that are seemingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of this challenge.
Affordable and quality education remains a huge challenge in Uganda today yet the education sector is perennially underfunded. In the Financial Year 2016/2017, government allocated Shs2.848 trillion to the education sector. This paltry budget allocation means that the unit cost per child measured by capitation grant remains at Shs8,753, which does not even cater for the inflationary rates and change in market values.
Limited funding severely inhibits the capacity of public schools to offer quality education. Parents have been forced to mortgage their property so as to enrol their children in private schools that demand prohibitive tuition fees and other requirements.
Even the recent guidelines by the Ministry of Education to schools not to charge prohibitive fees and demand non-cash requirements does not seem to have helped.
Therefore, the government must support or even partner with any investor who is willing to offer quality education at affordable rates to the majority of Ugandans.
For example, in Tororo District, an international group, the Bridge International Academies, which first opened its schools in Uganda in 2015, has set up a number of pre-primary and primary schools for mainly rural poor households.
Unlike most private schools in the country known for charging exorbitant tuition fees, Bridge Academies offer affordable quality education even for rural households.
According to Morrison Rwakakamba, the country director of the Bridge Academies, the academies group offers affordable, high-quality education to its 12,000 pupils, who often come from poor families with an education model that emphasises well-trained and facilitated teachers, world- class lessons anchored on local curriculum with a special focus on basic literacy, numerous and critical-thinking skills in early grades.
This can greatly assist in addressing the challenges in Uganda’s education that the Minister of Finance, Matia Kasaija, alluded to in his 2017 Budget speech that include declining proficiency in literacy and numeracy; skill gap, infrastructure deficits, teachers absenteeism and cases of ‘ghost’ pupils/students that distort budgeting for and release of Capitation Grant.
The government runs its limited budget on set priorities. With limited funding in education, the most viable recourse by government is to support initiatives that help children to acquire affordable yet high quality education. Investment in human development remains the most important trigger of national growth and development.
Mr Oramire is a lawyer and a child rights