25 years of UPE: Experts weigh in on successes and challenges

State Minister for Primary Education Joyce Kaducu launches the high level dialogue on Universal Education in Uganda during the commemoration of International day on Education in Kampala yesterday. PHOTO | FRANK BAGUMA

What you need to know:

  •  The programme was introduced in 1997 with the aim of empowering children from the poorest families with basic knowledge (writing and counting) to better their lives.

As the country commemorates 25 years since the introduction of the Universal Primary Education (UPE), experts have highlighted key issues the government should address for the programme to achieve its objectives.

 The programme was introduced in 1997 with the aim of empowering children from the poorest families with basic knowledge (writing and counting) to better their lives.

 Highlighting some of its achievements, the Ministry of Education statistics indicate that enrolment of pupils has increased from 2.5 million in 1996, a year before UPE was rolled out (1997), to 8.6 million in 2023.

 Whereas experts from the government, academia, World Bank and Plan International, among others, celebrated an increase in accessibility of pupils to primary schools, they all agree that a lot needs to be done.

 Contributing during a high level dialogue on the status held in Kampala yesterday, the Senior Education Economist in the World Bank, Mr Shawn Powers, said Uganda was the pioneer country in the world to roll out free education and the programme has achieved a lot, including gender equity, inclusiveness and enrolment.

 However, Mr Powers observed that a lot needs to be done to improve the quality of education, among the pupils, some of whom cannot read and write based on previous reports.

 “There should be rapid improvement in pedagogy and teacher training. This will change the strategy of teaching from teacher-centred to participatory. The government should also make the profession rewarding,” he said.

 He proposed that the government should introduce one year of pre-primary (Nursery) in all UPE schools to ensure that before a learner joins Primary One, he or she is taken through early childhood development lessons in  Kampala organised by Plan International.

“Some countries in Africa have done this. They take pupils through early childhood education for one years before joining Primary One. In Uganda, we do not have teachers who are trained to take Primary One pupils through the pre-primary work. This affects the progress of a child because they join to Primary One without any knowledge,” he said.

For the government to achieve quality education, Mr Powers suggested it should recruit more than 57,000 teachers and buy 29 million text books as well as construct at least 760 classrooms by 2026.

Addressing journalists in Kampala, the Director Basic and Secondary Education, Mr Ismail Mulindwa, said there is evidence that UPE had contributed to increased equity in education.

According to him, the post-UPE period witnessed a narrowing gap between the number of girls and boys enrolled in primary schools.

“The number of girls attending schools has increased with the gender parity index improving from 0.88 in 1997 to 1.04 in 2023,”Mr Mulindwa said.

Mr Mulindwa said the government has deployed more teachers to UPE schools from 81,564 teachers in 1997 to 136,819 teachers in 2023.

The technical report that was presented by Dr Alfred Buluma on behalf of Prof Anthony Muwagga Mugagga, the College of Education Principal, indicated that more than 90 percent of teachers and school administrators reside outside their work stations and some come from as far as two to 10 kilometres from the school’s campus.

Dr Buluma says whereas the government employs only experienced and skilled teachers in all its schools, they are under-performing because their salaries are not attractive.

According to him, the Shs500,000 for primary teachers is peanut.

“Nurses with diplomas are earning more than Shs1.2m per month. This is way higher than the salary of a primary teacher. How do you expect this teacher to teach learners with morale,” Dr Buluma said.

Prof Mugagga in his report also highlighted massive teacher and pupil absenteeism in UPE schools, making the meaningful computation of the internal and external efficiency of these schools complicated.

“The only converging point is that all Ugandan children sit the same type of exterminations and are marked the same assessment tools and hope to get the same Uganda national examination certificates,” the report indicated.

Mr Martin Okoya, the Technical Advisor Education at Plan International, said UPE schools in hard-to-reach areas are neglected.

He added that the district education officers do not inspect these schools.

Mr Okoya also said whereas the government sends capitation grants to UPE schools, the hidden cost of education like buying scholastic materials and uniforms has not been addressed.

 “Government should find a way of addressing these hidden costs. Years ago, the government used to provide pencils, books and uniforms for UPE learners,” Mr Okoya said.

 According to the Ministry of Education report 2021, the capitation grant for the UPE programme has improved from Shs7,000 per pupil a year to Shs17,000 per pupil.

 The State Minister for Primary Education, Ms Joyce Kaducu, said whereas the capitation grants are not enough, the government pays teachers as well as constructs classrooms for learners, which is not included in the capitation grants.

She also said the government should be commended for increasing the number of enrolment of girls in UPE.

“During the just-released PLE examinations, the number of female students slightly surpassed that of male counterparts. 52 percent of girls sat for the exams and this is an achievement that should not be underlooked,” Ms Kaducu said.

The Senior Planner-in-Charge of Education at National Planning Authority, Dr Hamis Mugendawala, said the budget of a UPE school in a hard-to-reach area is equivalent to the school fees paid by one pupil in a private school. He asked the government to increase the capitation grant it gives to UPE pupil to at least Shs60,000 per year.

KCCA runs at least 79 UPE schools in the five divisions of Kampala District. However, officials from these schools have decried poor infrastructure, overcrowding in the schools and lack of houses for teachers.

Salient issues

However, during the dialogue, experts said whereas the number of teachers has increased, the teacher to pupil ratio still stands at 1:80 as opposed to the recommended 1:40.

They said some schools with seven classes have only six teachers with many pupils in a single class.

The experts also questioned teachers’ pay, which they said is not attractive to retain them in school and this has affected their morale.