What you need to know:
What happens in the education sector, eventually trickles into other sectors of the economy
This Monday, January 10, the children started trudging back to school. This was almost after a two-year break brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdowns. Uganda achieved notoriety with the lockdown by enforcing the longest school closure in the world (about 83 weeks) that kept millions of children out of school. It is, therefore, such an incredible relief for us to see the schools reopening despite the new spike in Omicron-related infections.
But what is the true state of the education sector to which we are sending our children and how well is it faring? We won’t know the true extent of the damage for some time, but here are some general pointers that we need to be concerned with if we are passionate about education.
For anybody who went to school in the 1900s (yes you heard me, in the 1900s) we know that education was the key to opening doors. Ninety-nine percent of us came from peasant families and opportunity and accessibility to education was more equitable. It was possible to start ones education in one of the most rural areas and end up in a prestigious government or religious organisation school.
Many children of peasants went on to become professionals, on the basis of bursaries and ease of access. Not anymore. Today the likelihood of success in the education system is steeply skewed in favour of the rich and urban classes. It is highly doubtful that you will find kids from Amudat Primary School in Budo. The odds are just insurmountable. In a sense then, while “access” may have increased on the pretext of there being “universal education programme”, the quality of education received by the less well-off has deteriorated significantly.
The second challenge thrown into stark relief by the closure of the schools, also related to the increasing gap between the haves and have nots is that while many children in urban areas were able to continue with some form of remote e-based learning, their counterparts in the villages did not have a chance in hell because of the digital divide. Efforts by government to provide supplementary learning materials may have provided some relief here.
However, as a result, and according to National Planning Authority estimates, as many as 30 percent of the students may not be returning to school. Many of these have either become parents themselves or joined the labour force.
A third issue which should concern us, is the apparent lack of capacity to regulate private education providers, who seem to have borne the brunt of the closure. While government was able to continue paying teachers on its payroll, those in private institutions were left to their own devices.
The school proprietors and teachers have thus suffered the harshest brunt of the lockdown. What then is the state of the physical infrastructure of these schools? Will their teachers still be available to carry on with the noble task of raising the leaders of tomorrow?
Because most private providers were left to their own devices, the reopening presents them with a chance to increase charges and pass on the burden to the parents. Some of the ‘back-to-school’ lists doing the rounds verge on the absurd and ridiculous. This may result in more families downgrading the quality of education received by their children.
Lastly, what happens in the education sector, eventually trickles into other sectors of the economy. These challenges will soon show up as employability and productivity challenges elsewhere. The fact is that the hard and soft infrastructure of the education sector has been tested to its limits and we cannot sit back and assume all is well. While the situation is not all gloom, we ought to be concerned. We ought to be, because each country’s education system ultimately defines the state of its soul and progress.
Prof Sejjaaka is country team leader at Mat Abacus Business School