The school journey of Gerald Nabimanya, 14, ended in 2016. He was in Primary Five when his parents ran out of money to support his education at Namunyu Primary School in Kanungu District.
He was paying Shs18,000 every term. As his parents struggled to find a solution, an opportunity presented itself in a family friend.
The friend identified as Loyce advised that Nabimanya could be brought to Kampala to raise school fees.
He has since been vending samosas and boiled eggs on the streets of Kampala. At the end of each month, he is paid Shs40,000 much of which goes to his upkeep.
While Nabimanya should have sat Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) last year, he remains trapped in Kampala as he continues to crave for the day his employer will take him back to school.
Nabimanya is not alone, he is one of the 1.2 million children who have dropped out of school in the last seven years even as the country recorded the highest number of pupils sitting for PLE last year.
An analysis by Sunday Monitor shows that 1.2 million children either dropped out, left the country, died before they could finish primary school or are still trapped in the system.
In trying to account for the missing children, a retired government official who formerly worked in the Ministry of Education and Sports under the leadership of Ms Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire, however explained that most of the “missing children” could have been “ghosts” a perennial problem that has bedeviled the education sector for years.
In a country where about 10 million Ugandans are recorded as poor, according to official statistics, acute poverty is forcing parents to give away their children, especially girls as young as 14 into underage marriage, further complicating the government’s commitment to improve national literacy levels.
School head teachers interviewed for this analysis, however, attribute the high drop-out rate to the use of pupils by parents as a source of labour, underage marriages, failure by parents to send children to school, lack of provision of lunch by parents and lack of regular inspection of schools, among other reasons. The March 2012 report of the Auditor General provides context to the problem of school dropouts in the country.
The detailed report to Parliament noted that: “The failure to carry out regular inspection of all schools and compile quarterly reports hampered ability to assess the compliance of schools with expenditure and other guidelines and financial accountability…”
In 2012, 1,877,801 pupils were enrolled in Primary One, yet only 671,923 were able to complete their academic journey, according to the 2018 PLE results released on Thursday even as the number of candidates increased by 3.9 per cent against the 0.8 per cent increase registered last year.
Of these, 346,963 (51.6 per cent) were females and 324,963 (48.3 per cent) were males.
Despite the increased pupil enrolment and the substantial investment in the sector, there have been concerns about the high school drop-out rate, the high pupil-to-book ratio, lack of basic instructional materials, among others.
For instance, in 2017, an analysis by this newspaper, based on the Ministry of Education data, revealed that at least 1,193,634 children had been left behind in the course of the seven years from 2011 when that cohort had enrolled. But where is 1.2 million? And what needs to happen to fix the problem?
Just like Nabimanya, Shafik Mwanje, 13, vends sugarcane mainly to motorists on the streets of Kampala.
He has been doing this since he dropped out of Nakawunzi Primary School in Busembatya, Namutumba District two years ago.
Although government in 1997 introduced free primary education under the Universal Primary Education programme (UPE) to enable all children of school-going age to enter and finish the primary school cycle, Mwanje says he was let down by his father who chose to marry another wife instead of paying his son’s school fees.
His father, he says, would beat up his mother every time she talked about school fees.
“My father married another wife and he chased us from his house and his new wife stopped our mother from using the land where she used to rear pigs and do farming to raise part of our school fees. Even though I wanted to stay in school, my father was not providing school fees and other scholastic materials,” Mwanje explains.
Keeping hope alive
With the little money he is earning, Mwanje remains hopeful that he will soon return to school and, at least, finish Primary Seven.
And for Bosco Balaka, 16, it was the disappointment that pushed him out of school.
On evaluation, his teachers advised him to repeat Primary Six and not proceed to Primary Seven as he had hoped.
He explains that the English language was his biggest challenge and he could not, much of the time, understand what his teachers were saying.
With little hope of ever returning to school, he now sells sweets and eggs on the streets of Kampala to survive.
Poor or no inspection
The Auditor General has previously identified poor or absence of quarterly inspection reports as a handicap to quality education in the country, and maintained that this glitch has denied districts and schools an opportunity to solve the challenges faced in the implementation of the UPE programme such as the drop-out crisis.
The problem is serious to the extent that even those who reach Primary Seven, some do not turn up for final exams. Last year, more than 12,000 pupils registered for PLE but did not show up.
Uganda has consistently been ranked among countries with the lowest proportion of children staying in school up to Primary Seven, with less than 30 per cent completing primary school.
Previously, an analysis of the completion rate in Primary Seven as reported by the Ministry of Education had revealed a performance rate of below 50 per cent in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
In academic years 2009 and 2010, the completion rate was 52 per cent and 54 per cent, respectively.
The completion rate in Kenya is at 84 per cent, Tanzania 81 per cent and Rwanda 74 per cent.
Some of the contributing factors include early pregnancies, hidden costs even in cases where the parents do not have to pay.
Costs such as school meals, scholastic materials and uniforms can keep pupils away. Teachers’ absenteeism also plays a critical role.
According to a report by Twaweza Uganda, an education advocacy agency, “27 per cent of Ugandan children are not in school at any given moment despite free universal education. And it appears pupil drop-out is on the rise. Surprisingly, despite these figures, no routine data is available on pupil and teacher attendance.”
According to UNESCO’s 2017-18 Global Education Monitoring Report, there is a long way to go toward reaching the UN’s sustainable development goal of ensuring that all children have access to a free, quality secondary education.
Right now, only 83 per cent of the children who go to school at all complete elementary school, and just 45 per cent of students aged 15 to 17 will finish secondary school.
“Education is a shared responsibility between us all: governments, schools, teachers, parents and private actors,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement to announce the study’s findings.
He added: “Accountability for these responsibilities defines the way teachers teach, students learn and governments act. It must be designed with care and with the principles of equity, inclusion and quality in mind.”
What govt says...
Reasons: In her statement, while releasing the PLE results on Thursday, Education and Sports Minister Janet Museveni addressed the issue at length, tagging the drop-out to illegal schools, policies in respective schools that prevent children from progressing, lack of involvement by all stakeholders, lack of meals and poor supervision.
“I will reiterate that appeal that no unnecessary barriers should be placed before our learners to hamper their progress forcing those who have remained in school up to Primary Seven to repeat or drop out frustrating movement efforts of providing universal education,” Ms Museveni said, adding that there are better strategies, including effective teaching that will not eliminate those who have struggled to remain in school.
She also tasked supervisors in districts to ensure head teachers turn up in schools, arguing that this eventually trickles down to teachers and learners.