Once again, it is that time of the year when children have to go back to school. It is also for most, the dreaded school fees week. I always wonder how, many years ago, parents managed school fees. Uganda was in a state of turbulence due to wars and insecurity.
Mark you, our ‘old fashioned’ parents had on average five biological children per family. Since it was also the ‘pre-modern’ era -before one man, one wife became popular - polygamy was rampant and the numbers requiring school fees was quite high. Some also had to pay for the children of their relative who had fled into exile. The salaries were low. Yet the opportunities to supplement earnings through corruption were even lower.
For much of the 1970s - during the reign of Idi Amin Dada - there was an embargo on Uganda and we did not receive as much aid as we are receiving today. In a nutshell, the economy was not as vibrant as it is today, going by the figures of ‘uninterrupted sustained growth’ that are extravagantly bandied about.
Some have argued that many parents benefited from government/parastatal jobs. These came with a free house and car plus some allowances, and that government with all the financial constraints, subsidised education. Those old enough must recall the free ‘tetrapak milk’ given to students for their nutrition.
But still not every parent had a government/parastatal job.
In fact, many depended on agriculture and the economies of scale derived from the cooperative movement. Most of that died too. You didn’t have government-sponsored free Universal Primary Education or Universal Secondary Education.
In this era, school fees are a great bully to many. It is a subject that teases this generation so much so that banks are making a killing by having ‘specialised packages’ for people stranded with school goers at home. Many even have to sell part of their land for the sake of the future of the little ones. This is even with the knowledge of the risk of them ending up jobless on the streets - going by the current unemployment figures.
Mark you most schools require ‘zero-balance’ on school fees – partly because most parents are wont to default under the weight of financial constraints suffered by many.
Yet their fees include things like a dozen of toilet paper, a ream or two of a specific brand of paper, brooms, brushes, slashers, hoes, pangas, beds, plus a bag of cement on top of the building fund. You may also have to pay more for your child to engage in extracurricular activities that are a requirement for a holistic education.
For instance, most schools charge for a child to join the scouts and girl guides clubs, swimming, tennis, cookery, art, music dance and drama, etc. Things which in the past were part of the activities enjoyed once the fees were paid.
It is important to note that most private schools are crammed onto small acreage of land, with high rise buildings to accommodate classrooms for academic purposes. Very few of them have green spaces for children to exercise and engage in extracurricular activities. When they have to participate in the later, the school invests in transport to deliver students to hired green spaces.
As for government schools, most of the green spaces that were hitherto used for sports and leisure have been condemned as ‘idle land.’ Much of this was parcelled and sold off to investors to put up shopping malls, hotels, hospitals and housing estates.
We arrived here when we adopted the structural and sectorial adjustment programmes popularised by the Bretton Woods institutions in the late 80s.
To qualify for financial support, we were told a good neo-liberal government had to give the private sector room to flourish. It had to share the cost of most social amenities such as education and health with the private sector mainly to benefit from the myriad of ideas of the latter.
We soon discovered that government was not into sharing. It was pretending to be around yet in fact it was disappearing completely. Now education is for all intents and purposes in the hands of private players.
The ‘free version’ of education sponsored by government has been documented to produce children in Primary Seven, supposedly ready to sit for their final exam, who cannot read and comprehend an English comprehension text intended for children in Primary Three.
On average, some of the teachers, especially in the provinces, are known to spend or waste most of the teaching hours profitably riding boda bodas, tilling the land, sports betting, playing board/card games or imbibing alcohol.
So for the sake of the future of their children, wise parents run to private schools. The private schools know they have no viable alternative so they hold them by the jewels and squeeze every last penny out of them.
It is notable that many private schools lay emphasis on academic excellence. After a child fulfils the financial requirements, the student is treated as a client who in most cases, is right. Insisting on important matters of discipline for the child becomes secondary.
That is where today’s parent finds themselves. May you have a happy school fees week.
Nicholas Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. firstname.lastname@example.org