Wednesday March 18 2015

Is Universal Primary Education crumbling under its own weight?

By Stuart Oramire

In a space of just one week, a Cabinet minister left residents dumbfounded when she wept at the sight of hungry children during a school function. Perhaps reacting impulsively as a way of damage control, Education minister Jessica Alupo ordered school management committees, board of governors, parents and teachers to devise modalities of feeding children without fail.
Within the same period, the Ministry of Education directed that each primary and secondary school should provide emergency changing uniforms, wrappers, knickers, sanitary towels and pain killers for girls during menstruation. The minister’s directives may appear legitimate and even long overdue. However, most schools are confronted with a myriad of challenges that mere directives without financial support may render these directives futile.

In 1997 when the government rolled out Universal Primary Education (UPE), the citizenry generally welcomed it although some voices remained sceptical. The argument was that although the idea of free education was well intentioned, it should have only been rolled out after clear guidelines for implementation had been set. It now appears that 17 years down the road, the expected benefits of the programme are being weighed down by the policy’s inherent shortcomings. This is in part attributed to the hastiness with which the government introduced UPE after the elections without due attention to detail.
Right from inception; the government’s policy on school feeding was either non-existent or ambiguous at best. For example, President Museveni, himself a victim of hunger and poor feeding while in junior school according to his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed: Page 12, has repeatedly warned schools against charging parents extra money for basics such as uniform and food. Most schools, however, had to disregard this warning because it was untenable for the perennially underfunded schools to feed the children. The Education Act itself provides that schools can charge a reasonable and voluntary fee for feeding children. It is actually gratifying that most parents are willing to contribute money for feeding children in school.
I have always argued that one can tell the effectiveness of a programme by its results or products. In the case of Uganda, the damning report of Uwezo (2013) which showed that the academic performance of pupils in Uganda in subjects such as English and Arithmetic was comparatively worse than their counterparts in Tanzania and Kenya, was an indictment on the products of UPE. In fact, some education experts argue that the reason behind the influx of students across East Africa and beyond into Uganda is not because our education standard is superior but because Uganda offers a comparatively cheaper education than other countries in the region.
Although previously it was held that UPE had promoted mass enrolment, this argument is watered down by the low school completion rate. According to a 2014 Unesco report, of all children that enroll in Primary One, only 63 per cent reach Primary Seven with only 10 per cent making it to senior six.

Besides affecting academic performance, hunger and lack of access to sanitary towels have been cited as the leading causes of the high school drop-out rates. Such startling statistics should form the basis of the need for a deliberate action plan from government. Government must act beyond mere issuance of directives. There should be a policy with clear guidelines on the implementation. It should be compulsory for schools to charge a reasonable fee for feeding our children since the government has, beyond mere rhetoric, demonstrated incapacity to provide sufficient funds to schools to feed children.

Mr Oramire is a Child Rights Advocate working with Centre for Children’s Rights.