4.5m learners may never return to school - report

Teachers receive students at St Kizito Secondary School in Namugongo, Wakiso District, on January 10, 2022. Photo/ Isaac Kasamani

What you need to know:

  • NPA recommends a multi-stakeholder approach involving all leaders to ensure learners return to school.

As schools reopen for the first time in two years, there is growing concern of millions of learners, especially from humble families who may never go back to class, opening the lid on the far reaching consequences of the country’s longest closure of the learning institutions. 
A report by the National Planning Authority indicates that 30 percent (4.5 million) of an estimated 15 million learners in the country will drop out of school, stifling literacy levels.

The NPA report that was compiled in August 2021 and released this month indicates the deteriorating school dropout situation as a result of the effects of the Covid-19 induced lockdown where many girls were impregnated and became mothers while other learners took on menial jobs to earn an income. These categories, together with those with a poor economic background, are the most vulnerable to drop out. 
 “Approximately 30 percent of learners are projected not to return to school forever due to teenage pregnancies, early marriages, and child labour,” the report states.

“There are signals that many children, particularly girls and poor children, will not return to school even when schools reopen. Already, many girls are pregnant while many boys are engaged in economic activities which have increased the opportunity cost of returning to school,” the report further indicates.
President Museveni announced the closure of learning institutions in March 2020, affecting about 15 million learners. The closure would last nearly two academic years as the country battled the coronavirus pandemic which has so far claimed 3,357 lives.
President Museveni, together with First Lady and Minister for Education Janet Museveni have argued this was aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, saying all other effects of the closure can be undone.
In its latest report, the NPA recommends a multi-stakeholder approach involving parish chiefs, village churches, and local cultural leaders, be adopted to implement a parish level outreach strategy for engaging families with learners that are at high risk of dropping out of school to ensure such children are re-enrolled in school.
With the damming projections and the  reported low turn up of students since schools reopened on January 10, the  Ministry of Education has recognised the problem, and consequently launched a one-month national back to School media campaign to publicise reopening dates and rally learners, parents, caregivers, and communities to ensure those most vulnerable are helped to resume school. 

While launching the campaign in Kampala yesterday, the State Minister for Primary Education, Ms Joyce Kaducu, underscored the damage done by the lockdown and the worry of dropout rates. 
“The main message for today is that all children, children with disabilities, children currently in employment, and children in refugee camps must return to school, and they must return now... It [campaign] will target the return to school for the most vulnerable children like children with disability and those that have begun work during this Covid pandemic period when schools were closed,” she said.

Dr Kaducu said they are committed to facilitate pregnant and young mothers to return to school through the national guidelines on prevention and management of teenage pregnancy.
“We commit to provide guidelines and sensitisation on various media platforms nationwide so that girls who are pregnant can be supported to resume school after delivery,” she said.
“We will engage all possible means to speak to these parents throughout this campaign including the local leaders in the villages.  If it means door to door campaign, we will do that,” she added. 
The ministry also warned schools against “unrealistic” hiking of schools, which denies access to those who cannot afford. These were, however, advised to opt for free education in government schools. 

Educationist Fagil Mandy told Daily Monitor that there is need for specific interventions to the different categories of learners that are at the risk of dropping out of school.
“There are many reasons, some negative, others positive because some students could have acquired skills to survive on. We need to be clear about the actions we take about different cases.  We need to look at the categories that are not coming to school. Some have lost relatives that were supporting them, some have learnt new skills, and some have got fed up of school because they found nothing very useful at school. To the pregnant girls, if you do not study each case, you will not be able to handle it. Each category should be studied and the solution based on their realities,” he said.

According to Mandy, government needs to put in place community programmes to absorb those that will not resume school and further the skills during lockdown.
 “We need to create other programmes and some should have already started. There is not one programme in the rural areas to deal with teenage mothers. We need community programmes for those who will not come back, for example skilling projects. Skills and knowledge can be acquired outside of formal school,” he added.
Ms Bev Roberts, the director of programme development at Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation, said the success of the campaign is dependent on concerted efforts of all stakeholders, and not just government. She urged parents and care givers to take the responsibility of enrolling, and help in observance of Covid-19 preventive measures. 
“If you are a young person  who has had a baby, if you are a child with a disability, if you are a boy working in quarry or out fishing  with  your father, today you can return to school…Support pregnant girls and child mothers to get back to school. If your child is disabled or your neighbour’s, you can help them get back to school,” she said.
Save the Children had earlier reported one in five children in fragile countries, including Uganda, had dropped out of school because of rising poverty, child marriage and child labour, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The agency also warned that those who return, but fail to catchup due to lost learning time and automatic promotion to the next class,  could also be lost.  Efforts by government for remote learning during the lockdown did not cover majority of students, who had no access to study materials. 
Dr Kaducu said the ministry will implement remedial programmes through catch up clubs to ensure learners recover lost time. She also urged teachers and parents to offer counselling to students.
Mr Sam Kuloba, the Commissioner in Charge of Secondary Education, said the ministry is also undertaking a sampling exercise to ascertain how the reopening and return of students is going.

“Right now, I am in the field and I have so far sampled five schools. The schools I have been to indicate that all the students have returned. This is the central region, but we shall go to the rural areas,” he said.
Mr Ismael Mulindwa, the director of basic education, however, said it is still too early to determine that students will not return, as different classes are resuming on different dates
“We have come up with a campaign to make sure every child is encouraged to return back to school. We are running a back-to-school campaign with our partners Save the Children. In this campaign, the media is going to be on the frontline in sending messages to communities,” he said.

Whereas the ministry has come out to encourage girls who were impregnated and or have given birth to return to school, this could be undermined by social-cultural as well as economic factors.
Mr Mandy opines that for the case of pregnant girls, they should not be let back into school until they are delivered.