Few things are a reminder of Uganda’s growing inequality problem like the start of a new school year. This is the time where parents and children alike share the joy and anxiety of moving on to new classes, particularly those moving on from primary, or upgrading to a more advanced level of secondary school. It is also the time when the fees-slips making rounds for the preferred schools in Uganda cause many parents’ great pain.
We continue to insist as a society on the value of education, and its ability to among other things, allow people to escape poverty. Based on that, education ought to be one of the ways in which we collectively aspire to close the inequality gap in our society.
By opening up the minds of all young people, we can argue that this would introduce them to vast opportunities, allowing them to imagine far beyond even perhaps their own limitations and thus equalising society and allowing for among others, socioeconomic mobility. The reality, however, is that schools continue to deepen class divides.
The type of schools and education that is accessible to students from humbler incomes remain demonstratively insufficient to make them competitive with their more advantaged middle- and upper-income peers. The start of the new school year is always a reminder of the eventual crisis to come from this.
As national results at different levels continue to stream in, so will the updated lists of requirements and the new costs of attending schools. Schools such as Mt St Mary’s Namagunga, St Mary’s Kisubi, Greenhill, and many that remain on the coveted lists of many parents and children now charge upwards of Shs1m as school fees. In a country like ours, where the minimum wage is Shs130,000 a month, and so many people living below that, being charged nearly Shs1m in school fees, should be inconceivable.
And yet, here we are. Even with those privileged enough to earn far beyond that, most of those who consider themselves to be middle class are barely surviving on their pay cheque, a large percentage of it going into paying fees, mandatory school trips and contribution to new school buildings.
“Traditional schools” that were once considered accessible for their moderate fees-structures have now joined the competition with newer private schools charging nearly as much for admissions. High-achieving but low-income students do not have the same access to these selective schools. The true test in not on ability or merit, but rather if you were lucky enough to be born in a family that can manage to either sacrifice the large payout, or even luckier, privileged that money is not something to worry about.
Surprisingly, the cost of quality education also remains dangerously low on speaking points for all politicians, despite evidence of how higher costs of attaining good quality education disenfranchises large parts of our society breeding even further inequality. Of course, this could be because most of them are above the salary and pay grade of average Ugandans who feel the pinch at the start of every school year.
A more equitable distribution of access to selective schools is dependent on, among other things, the overhaul of the current financial models of schools. One of the difficulties with doing results from what we have prioritised as important markers of success for children. Grades are the most important thing, as evidenced by the media’s choice of coverage when national examinations are released.
Schools have capitalised on this fixation with aggregates and those who can have as many students across the socially acceptable line, will attract the most parents. The second is those with the authority to regulate the education sector, are also school owners and directors whose interest is profit making.
Schools cannot currently support their business type of models without policies and fees structures that are biased against those from lower income families. This in turn means that only a few will continue to have access to certain types of education, and by extension, access to opportunities and so forth. The systemic nature of how this works will continue to breed deeper inequality, with the allowance of very few, who will be exceptions to the rule.
The solution to this problem requires the right kind of political will, and deliberate efforts, which are bound to upset certain status quos. The risk, however, of continuing on this path that further institutionalises inequalities is one whose likely end breeds even more poverty, disenchantment and another generation of unmet potential and broken promises.
Ms Bigirwa is a feminist lawyer.