Fifteen years ago, on the eve of the millennium, the world’s leaders committed to eight goals aimed at reducing poverty by 2015. Number two of these Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Achieve universal primary education.
Uganda was already way ahead of the curve.
Universal primary education started in Uganda in 1997, when a national policy launched to provide free primary education to all school aged children. Uganda was one of the first African countries to abolish school fees. The Ugandan government believed that education was the best path towards development, and that school fees charged throughout Africa were one of the biggest impediments to education. For many families, the fees forced them to choose which children to send to school and which to keep home, with most often girls being chosen as the ones to stay home.
Without school fees enrollment soared, from 3.1 million students in 1996, to 8.4 million in 2013. At the same time, pupil-to-teacher ratios and average classroom size were substantially reduced. The government has made great progress in expanding the educational system’s reach deep into rural areas. Today, Uganda is able to proudly boast having achieved 90% of MDG2, ensuring all children, girls and boys, complete primary school.
For the Ugandan government, achieving universal primary education was just the beginning. In 2007, President Yoweri Museveni boldly announced that Uganda would become the first country in Africa to offer free universal secondary education.
At the time, the United Nations estimated that only 34% of students completing primary school went on to secondary school, and of those, girls and children from poorer families were most often the ones who dropped out. In Uganda, the Ministry of Education estimated that barely 50% continued on to secondary school, but within just one year of instituting free universal secondary education, that number soared to 69%. Supporting growth in enrollment has been a vigorous program of school construction, rehabilitation and equipping, which expanded the total number of government secondary schools to 1078 schools in 971 sub-counties.
Abolishing school fees has been extremely beneficial, but it is not the only aspect of universal education. There are also issues of gender: whether girls are able to attend school as easily as boys. No school fees allowed Uganda to reach gender parity for enrollment, as parents no longer had to choose which children to educate based on fees. The country has consistently addressed other non-cost barriers for girls’ education. For example, it was estimated that 30% of girls dropped out after going through puberty, often due to a lack of sanitary napkins. Many schools now provide sanitary napkins in order to keep girls in school.
The government has clearly embraced the goal of keeping a girl in school as it understands there are so many benefits, not just for the individual girl, but for the country. The World Bank estimates for every year a girl stays in secondary school, the wages she earns later in life will increase by 10-20%. “Education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability,” notes the World Bank website on education.
For the Ugandan government, addressing problems in education is a continual process. In 2004, the Ministry of Education was disappointed in literacy rates. At the time, students in primary school were being taught in English instead of their mother tongue. Experts at the Ministry, noting the well-documented benefits of mother tongue instruction, explained this was harming student’s ability to learn in the early years. Children were expected to be fluent in English from their first day of school, even though many came from homes where another language was spoken. In 2007, the Ministry of Education introduced a policy guaranteeing students can be taught in the mother tongue of the area. English is taught as a separate class until fourth year when it becomes the language of instruction.
One issue that has plagued many schools is quality and absenteeism of teachers. Studies from Oxford University have shown teacher absenteeism to be as high as 27%, which has a major impact on quality of education. Teachers are among the lowest paid civil servants in Uganda, but the government has pledged to increase teacher salaries to address the problem. Technology is also solving the problem. Teachers’ salaries in some schools are paid via mobile money, insuring rapid and guaranteed payments. Also, communities around some schools are encouraged to use cell phones to report teachers who don’t show up.
Uganda’s education sector has made major advances and been at the forefront of universal education. But with advancement comes challenges. The director for basic and secondary education at the education ministry, Dr. Yusuf Nsubuga, recently noted in The Guardian, “Globally, whenever there is mass education, in the first years you have to face the challenge of quality; for instance, recruitment of teachers cannot grow at the same pace with increase in numbers of students. You can only catch up later.”
The Ugandan Ministry of Education is committed to continuing to reduce drop out rates in primary school and increase secondary school enrollment. Improvement in teacher quality and greater accountability will need to be further enhanced, and the education system will need constant review to stay aligned with the job market. These are critical challenges for any country, but the achievements of the past underscore the commitment and focus of the government and show these challenges are not insurmountable.