Education in Uganda

March 21, 2016

Education in Uganda

Nelson Mandela said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ and education is at the heart of all the work we do at Opportunity Knox. Education, both formal and informal, can give you the knowledge, skills and confidence to build a better future.

In Uganda many people are competing for a limited number of good jobs, and without a decent education it is very hard to get one or have the confidence to initiate your own business instead. According to the World Bank Uganda has 83% youth employment – one of the highest rates in the world.

Access to Education

Schoolchild in UgandaGetting access to education in the first place can be a huge challenge. In 1997 the Ugandan government introduced universal primary education (the idea that all children should be able to attend primary school for free) and in 2007 universal secondary education. Unfortunately the demand for school places outstrips the availability of places at the government schools and places are not free. It is not uncommon for classes to have well over one hundred students, with very little in the way of facilities, and demotivated, over-worked teachers heading them. This means that for most of the population, especially those who want a higher quality education, the only other option is private schools. In Tiira Village, where we work there is a choice between private and public schools. However, our biggest surprise was to learn that all students there must pay to attend school. There are three terms in the school year and if you do not have the ability to pay the fees then you are sent home and told not to return until you can pay the fees.

Paying school fees is beyond many families, especially where they have a lot of children. This means that many children are left sitting at home, waiting for their relatives to try to scrape together enough money to send them back to school. However, matters are made worse by the fact that at all schools there are many extra school requirements to pay for on top of fees. From brooms to school books and uniform and smart shoes, each child must turn up at the gates with everything asked of them, or else risk being sent back home.

It is a seemingly impossible task for many children and their families to fund an education, and a lot of children only manage to pay part of their fees. This is a common occurrence, and however hard a child has worked at school, if they can’t pay their fees in full they are not given their school reports or exam certificates. Their whole year of learning is effectively made worthless. Consequently, many children end up changing schools every term, building up debts wherever they go as they simply can’t afford to pay them.

The Ugandan Education System

The Ugandan school year starts in February and finishes in December. The first term runs from February to April, the second term from May until early August, and the third term from September to December. The Ugandan Education system follows a fairly similar pattern to that in Ireland. Children are in primary school for seven years (Primary 1- Primary 7), and then continue through secondary school for the next six years (Senior 1- Senior 6). There are private nursery schools that children can attend for a fee before they enter the primary school.

The three most important school years for a child in Uganda are:

  1. Primary 7: All students must take leaving exams which will determine which secondary school they go to. If they do not pass the final examination in Primary 7, they are effectively unable to attend secondary school.
  2. Senior 4: O-Level year.
  3. Senior 6: A-Level year.

Primary Education

Children in Primary school take four main subjects, English, Maths, Science and Social Studies. They are examined at the end of every term in each of these subjects. Grade boundaries for primary school:

  • Distinction = 100 – 80 %
  • Credit = 79 – 50%
  • Pass = 49 – 30%
  • Fail = 29 – 0%

Secondary Education

Children in secondary school take a wide variety of subjects with English, Maths and Science (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) as the key subjects. For each subject, a child is given grades based on their exam performance:

  • Division 1 = 100-81 %
  • Division 2 = 81-72 %
  • Class 3 = 72-68 %
  • Class 4 = 68-61 %
  • Class 5 = 61-53 %
  • Class 6 (Fail) = 53-0 %

The Ugandan school system is very competitive. There are so many children who want an education that private schools all over the country thrive because they are able to pick and choose the best students in order to improve their grade average and national standing. Testing is relentless for students, as every term they have to take exams as well as having on-going assessments of their performance; based on their results they are given a grade and a position in their class. If the child is successful, they can move in to the next school year in February. However, if their performance is poor they may have to repeat the school year again.

Classes in Uganda are not based on age because a lot of children drop out and re-enter school based on whether or not they can afford to pay the school fees. This means that the children might be in classes with students who are a lot older or a lot younger than them. The most common age of children in a class might be 10 years, but there may be many others whose age varies between 10 years and 16 years. This is all caused by families not being able to afford the fees at the age appropriate time. Whilst this may seem strange, it is of no consequence, as the most important factor is that they all want to learn!

Schools in Uganda face huge challenges due to their lack of facilities. This makes it far harder for the children to learn and for the teachers to teach to a reasonable standard. Imagine schools that are often only half built, without textbooks or any kind of teaching aids beyond a blackboard to help stimulate the children’s minds. In many cases they do not have electricity, let alone a single computer. The Primary 1 children do not have access to simple crayons to use in their single exercise copy. Children in Primary 5 onwards need a Mathematical Set (ruler, protractor, compass etc.) but many families cannot afford them. On our recent visit we gifted a public school with 250 boxes containing 12 crayons and 250 Mathematical Sets. This cost us less than 150 euros and the benefits to the children was enormous. The teachers also described the huge difference that this will mean to them on a daily basis. You will notice from this example that a small amount in Euro in Uganda can stretch much further than in Ireland.

The Private schools have the edge in many cases over the Public school because they have smaller classes than their public counterparts. As an example there might be 60 to 80 children in a class in a Private school whereas in the Public school down the road there could be anywhere between 100 and 120 children per class. If parents have a choice and can afford the education fees they will often prefer the Private school because they are more exams focussed and can get better results. However, surprisingly, the education fees needed to attend a typical Private school in Uganda is not substantially greater than to attend a Public school. However, if you have real difficulty gathering the fees together to attend the Public School, then attending the Private school is way out of your reach.

Our observation about Private schools is that in many cases the teachers have no security of tenure, in which case they need to demonstrate through working very hard so that their students can achieve high results in their classes. Also in many cases, unlike their Public school colleagues, they may not get paid for their holidays. This combined with the fact that teachers are poorly paid in Uganda, means that many have to have second jobs, such as digging and farming before they get to school and perhaps driving motorcycle taxis after school.

Here is an example Education Fees per year in a Public school. They are typical of the rural area that we are familiar with.

Utility and Tuition Fee = 90,000 UGX (Ugandan Schillings)

Development Fund = 9,000 UGX

Tests = 18,000 UGX

Examination = 9,000 UGX

Total = 126,000 UGX

This works out at 35 euro per child per year. A private school might out at 50 euro per year. This does not seem a lot from an Irish perspective, but if you earn 5 euro per week and have 4 children in school, 35 euro is an awful large sum of money. In many cases, in rural Uganda, children may have to walk a couple of miles to school without having a breakfast; return home at lunchtime and still no meal available; return to school again in the afternoon hungry and perhaps there will be food for an evening meal. With the majority of the families we are helping, they are lucky to be able to provide one meal a day; with only some have the luxury of providing three meals a day. There are some additional expenses such as school uniform, exercise books etc. that cost another 15 euro per year.