This year marks 25 years since the Uganda government introduced Universal Primary Education or UPE, a program that has received criticism and praise in equal measures over the years.
When the government introduced UPE in 1997, school enrollments increased by more than four times, and currently, according to the Ministry of Education, there are 8.6 million learners in the UPE system. However, very few learners complete primary seven at the end of the year.
The Uganda Bureau of Statistics reports that over 62 percent of learners who enroll in primary schools across the country do not complete the primary education cycle.
In some regions like Karamoja, the situation is even worse, with up to 98 percent of learners dropping out. Over the years, educationists have identified several factors as key drivers of the drop-out challenge, including the high cost of education, poor menstrual hygiene, lack of feeding programs in schools, and cultural issues, among others.
Unfortunately, these problems have persisted yet they are captured in different NRM manifestos, including the 2021 manifesto, with proposed solutions that are yet to be implemented to address the situation. According to Dr. Alfred Buluma, an educationist and lecturer at Makerere University, while the education program has enabled more people in the country to access education, there are challenges that need to be addressed immediately.
“The 25-year milestone of UPE in Uganda is certainly a cause for celebration, but let us not forget the work that still needs to be done. Education is not just about attracting learners, but about nurturing them to reach their full potential and giving them skills, knowledge, and attitudes they need to succeed in their future endeavors,” he noted.
Buluma added; “It’s disheartening to see so many young minds dropping out before completing primary seven, which undermines the primary objective of our program.”
The educationist made the remarks in an interview on the sidelines of a pre-national celebration event commemorating 25 years of UPE in Uganda, organized by Plan International and the World Bank. In addition to the high dropout rates, Dr. Buluma also highlighted the growing gap between rural and urban areas, with the government almost neglecting rural schools.
He pointed out that in rural areas, many schools lack basic resources such as textbooks, classroom space, and qualified teachers. Consequently, learners in these areas often receive substandard education, which puts them at a disadvantage when they proceed to secondary school or higher education.
Mark Kikomeko, a pupil from Nakivubo BLUE primary school, raised a similar concern, questioning why the government prioritizes urban schools, with many of them receiving new classroom blocks almost every year, while their counterparts in rural areas are still studying under makeshift classes and tree shades.
Hajji Ismael Mulindwa, the Director of Basic Education at the Ministry of Education and Sports, acknowledged that many learners in rural and hard-to-reach areas still face challenges despite having access to education, as many rural areas have few or no schools.
“Investing in rural areas is crucial to ensure that learners in these areas have equal opportunities to receive a quality education. The urban-rural divide is a significant factor contributing to school dropouts, and many learners in rural areas discontinue their education as a result,” Mulindwa said.
Buluma also pointed out that in the early years of UPE, and even now, the program did not prioritize the quality of education provided to ensure that learners receive a quality education. He observed that some schools lack trained teachers or adequate teaching materials.
“UPE placed a lot of emphasis on quantity – increasing the number of students – but the quality was not given sufficient attention. Multiple assessments have shown that there is a lack of quality education in these schools. Reports from Uwezo, other government, and non-government organizations, also point to the fact that there is a poor quality of education in these schools,” he added.
Before he passed on, Prof. William Senteza Kajubi, whose Education Policy Review Commission from 1987 to 1989 had recommended universal primary education had raised this matter. In one of his papers, the late Prof. Kajubi argued that it was time for Uganda to shift its focus to the quality of education, rather than merely ensuring that everyone receives basic education – such as reading, writing, and basic numeracy.
“Although necessary, there are no longer adequate tools with which to prime the pump of economic and social development so as to enable Individuals and nations to compete even minimally, let alone effectively in the global information and knowledge-based economy,” Prof Kajubi’s paper reads in part.
Shyne Powers, a World Bank Education Consultant, gave Uganda a thumbs up for great strides in improving access to education, increasing literacy rates, and promoting girls’ education. While he praised these achievements, he also cautioned that the country cannot ignore the significant impact of its ever-increasing population on the education system.
Powers shared that various studies have projected a need for 57,000 additional teachers, 72,000 more classrooms, and 29 million textbooks by 2040, solely at the primary level. He adds that these numbers serve as a reminder that sustained effort and planning are necessary to ensure that Uganda’s education system can continue to meet the needs of its growing population.
In addition, Powers emphasized that to enhance the quality of primary education, the government must prioritize teacher education and training. Furthermore, he suggested that establishing a pre-primary education system would provide a strong foundation for learners and contribute significantly to the improvement of primary education.
“By focusing on these critical areas, Uganda can build a sustainable education system that will prepare its youth for the challenges of the future,” he said.
Joyce Moriku Kaduccu, the state minister in charge of education, acknowledges the issue of poor quality education exists and attributes it to several factors. However, she also mentioned that the Ministry of Education is currently implementing several reforms aimed at achieving quality education.
As Powers pointed out, the Minister reiterated that improving the quality of teacher education and training is a key priority for the government. She shared that they have already taken steps to address this issue with the development and implementation of a teacher policy since better-trained teachers in schools could potentially improve the quality of education outputs.
Kaduccu further noted that to address many of the issues within the education system, there is a need for a policy review that increases the participation and involvement of parents. In her view, many of the challenges and failures within the system could be resolved if parents played a more active role in areas such as school inspection, development, feeding programs, and reducing dropouts, as the UPE policy already suggested, on paper.