Uganda is one of the ‘highly indebted countries’ that had its debts cancelled after the Gleneagles G8 summit of 2005. It recently stepped up school spending - introducing free secondary education – but the future is looking doubtful.
Laden with empty food containers in which he carried his packed lunch and breaktime snacks, eight-year-old Phillip Tasiku plays with his friends as they return home from Kitante Primary School in Uganda’s capital Kampala.
Even though Phillip’s tuition is now funded by the government, his mother Esther has to pay 30,000 Ugandan shillings (around $18) in extra charges each term as well as provide Phillip’s food.
Universal education in Uganda has been described by many, including President Yoweri Museveni, as a success. Uganda now boasts an extra 1.5 million pupils in primary school since the programme was introduced.
The politicians say: “We now look to a future where at least every Ugandan will be able to write down their names and read a signpost”. They tell us that free education – especially for poorer people – means that Uganda is to become a country of the enlightened. But wait a second...!
“I sit in the back row in my class,” Phillip told me. But there are 126 other children in his class, and Phillip is very far away from his teacher.
Phillip says his teacher doesn’t attend to each and every pupil; instead he teaches the entire class in one go, then gives them homework. If a child can’t follow what’s going on in class, they’ll never keep in step with the rest, unless the parent pays for some private coaching on the side.
There’s clearly a need for more resources – not least well-motivated human resources - in order to bring the teacher-pupil radio down to a manageable level. Otherwise Uganda’s education system may yield citizens good at reading signposts and writing their names, but who lack the ability to think critically. And critical thinking is a key factor in people being able to demand their rights.
Sadly, according to press reports last week, the newly launched secondary education initiative has insufficient funding. Even as I write, the Ministry of Education is planning to reduce the number of schools under the programme by 17. Indeed, the entire programme may be under threat as the Government has earmarked just 30 billion Ugandan shillings (around $180 million) of the required 150 billion.
Added to this is a cut in World Bank funding to Uganda, with poverty support reduced from $150 million to $125 million next year. Grace Yabrudy, the World Bank county manager for Uganda says the aid has been cut due to poor budget planning and corruption. That may well be true.
Nevertheless the slashing of donor funding means that Uganda’s hopes for free education risk being buried.