Education: Are we doing a good job with our children?

By: Busiku Esther Sharon

“The future belongs to young people with an education and an imagination to create”- Barack Obama

As said by many renowned leaders, education plays a critical role in teaching the young people how they can lead in the future. Education is critical in ensuring human capital development for any country. For Uganda which majorly has a young population aged between 5-25 years, it is imperative that all learners return to school.

It’s the responsibility of both the Government and parents or caregivers to ensure that we prepare our children for their roles in building and shaping our world, the country, their communities, and neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the education sector in Uganda over the past two years has been under lock and key for fear of spreading COVID-19 sadly putting learners who make up at least 36.9% of the country’s population at risk of ignorance and a vulnerable future. 

Without a proper plan of how these youngsters can catch up for the lost time, the country yet again finds itself at crossroads on whether a quick fix can’t be found.

When COVID-19 struck, it only exacerbated the burden of poverty, disease, and ignorance that Uganda has suffered since independence some sixty years ago. Experts warn that if the challenges occasioned by the lockdown on the education sector are not meaningfully dealt with, the situation will only get ugly.

It should be noted that learners in neighboring countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda were attending school while those in Uganda were still home wondering when they would resume. 

Pleas from parents, teachers, and different legislators urging the Government to open learning institutions were eventually heeded to as the Ministry of Education and Sports finally opened all schools on January 10, 2022.

The schools, although now open, are still faced with difficulty since some of their buildings are in a deplorable state and the teachers cannot return to peanuts. It is said that for 2 years, some schools especially public schools still lack the basics to house the pupils and one wonders what planning was taking place for school reopening in the two years.

Be that as it may, the school fees and requirements paying is back; after some of the parents lost jobs and businesses due to the pandemic, the majority of schools have turned them into a milking cow.

As much as social media has been awash with pictures of children returning to school, many learners, especially those from humble backgrounds may never return to class.

Even those that may have returned to school, there remains a lot of difficulty as most schools have increased tuition fees and added a list of other development fees such as toilet fees, chapel fees, school bus maintenance, Generator fees, functional fees, security fees, abnormal bank charges, among others to the list of requirements.

According to the National Planning Authority, about 4.5m learners may not return to class. Owing to the financial challenges because of the lockdown which saw many businesses close, many learners were forced into employment to help reduce the burdens on their families while others got pregnant. Some were married off to allow their families to survive the harsh financial situation.

Given that the Government has not clearly provided a framework that is going to ensure learners enjoy this right to education in the best way possible, in this piece I focus on the Government’s part and role in ensuring the right to education.

Some of the legislative foundations governing education provision in Uganda including; Education (pre-primary, primary and post-primary) Act, 2008 and the University and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001 (tertiary education) state that “basic education shall be provided and enjoyed as a right by all persons”.

It’s unfortunate that Uganda’s current budget expenditure on education is among the lowest in the region. During the last five years, the education expenditure as a share of the national budget has declined reaching 10% in the 2019/20 national budget.

The allocation to the education sector is even projected to marginally decline by 0.9% in the financial year 2021/22 to UGX 3,647 billion from UGX 3,682 billion in 2020/21.

While we acknowledge that the economy is struggling, Government should prioritize education and solicit resources to finance this sector. With so many learners feared to not return to school, Government should be working around the clock to see to it that learners are assisted.

Recently the Parliament of Uganda passed a motion allowing Government to borrow $90m from the International Development Association World Bank Group to finance the Uganda Secondary School Education Expansion project, USSEEP.

Question is, What is the current status of this project? Has the money been borrowed? Has it been disbursed to the respective target areas to begin its implementation?

The project, if implemented should benefit close to 2.5 million learners from underserved populations across the country. These include; communities hosting refugees, refugees, girls, and people in areas with limited access to public lower secondary schools.

It will enable them to access higher-quality secondary education in safer and better-equipped learning environments that are also supportive of girls’ education as it will see the construction of 116 new lower secondary schools, construction of new classrooms in underserved districts hence increasing the learner-classroom ratio. 

The project will provide student textbooks and teacher guides, support continuous teacher professional development, and implement an accelerated education program for children who are not currently attending school.

It will in a special way ensure retention in school of young learners especially the girls as it will include special measures to reduce the prevalence of early pregnancies and also assist young mothers to re-enter lower secondary education.

It should be noted that according to a report from UNICEF, between March 2020 and June 2021, there was a 22.5% spike in pregnancies between girls aged 10 to24 years. So, this project will be very useful in providing a clear solution on how these young girls will be helped.

One of the requirements for the opening of schools is their commitment to ensuring that the SOPs are adhered to. Daniel Ssajjabi, a school owner says schools will need to double or triple the SOPs which requires money that they currently do not have.

Ssajjabi added that some schools currently lack learning material for the learners like reading and teaching books. Resources from a project like USSEEP will come in handy to support schools in accessing materials such as student textbooks and teacher guides.

It is therefore important that the resources are immediately availed to facilitate this project or other pro-education projects that will see a good number of vulnerable learners return to school and help facilitate Uganda’s development agenda which is aimed at accelerating socio-economic transformation for the prosperity of all Ugandans.