A group of barefooted students in old uniforms wobbly stream into a dilapidated building at Kasambya S.S in western Uganda. These are some of the 579,734 students benefiting from the free secondary education. Some of them write on their laps. But have hop
A group of barefooted students in old uniforms wobbly stream into a dilapidated building at Kasambya S.S in western Uganda. Sitting hip-to-hip, the students share small, old desks, jostling for space. Some of them write on their laps.
They frantically shoot their hands up to catch the teacherâ€™s attention when a question is asked.
Another line of students snake around the unfinished mud-and-wattle classroom waiting to have their books marked. The classrooms are so congested that the smell of sweat and dust hits you as you approach the doorway.
These are some of the 579,734 students benefiting from the free secondary education. Currently, 1,235 government and private schools are under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme.
The explosion in enrolment has put enormous pressure on an already over-stretched education system, leaving the future of a generation of Ugandaâ€™s poverty-stricken children hanging in balance.
Tom Mugisa, a 17-year-old boy sits amid a multitude of other Senior One students. Last year, Mugisa failed his exams, but could not repeat class because the school authorities told him it was not allowed. Because of the ministryâ€™s automatic promotion policy, he had to continue to the next class.
It is hard for Mugisa to study on an empty stomach. His mother sells maize by the roadside, but the returns are too meagre to allow her to put enough food on the table. On the days when hunger bites hardest, Mugisa says he stares at the blackboard barely taking in anything. He tries to listen, but only hears a howling in his ears. Yet, amidst all this, he is not about to give up.
Poor funding of the USE schools, congestion and lack of teachers and lunch for students are some of the challenges facing this programme.
Aggrey Kibenge, the education ministryâ€™s publicist, says the government funding is too low to effectively cover all the USE schools.
A recent report prepared for the parliamentary committee on social services on the 2008/09 budget shows that out of the sh65.1b required for USE, the Government released only sh38.5b by the third term of the last academic year. A financial shortfall in the USE programme implies a serious turnaround of the gains made in the education sector; which has had free Universal Primary Education since 1997.
USE was rolled out in phases, with Senior One and Senior Two covered in the last two years. The programme shot up the transition rate from primary to secondary school from 46% to 69%, according to the Government figures.
Secondary school enrolment rose to almost a million students in 2007, while those enrolled under the USE almost doubled to 317,171.
According to the education ministry, 217,329 students in Senior One require about sh18.5b; 204,071 students in S.2 need sh26b; while 158,334 in S.3 will cost the Government sh20b. Under the USE programme, the Government pays about sh5,621 per student, per term.
Kibenge adds that teachers shun rural and hard-to-reach schools. â€œWe have been forced to alter our recruitment system. These days when we place adverts, we specify the schools with vacancies. Close to half of the people we deploy shun their stations. This is a wastage of resources,â€ Kibenge says.
To motivate the teachers, the Government plans to improve the quality of education for disadvantaged students in hard-to-reach schools by paying a special allowance to teachers there to encourage social mobility. Hard-to-reach districts include Moroto, Kalangala, Kotido, Nakapiripit, Abim, Kabong and Mukono (Buvuma and Kome Islands).
Evidence shows that fees for books, tuition, uniforms and building fund are a challenge for students from poor families. In a recent head-count, Education Vision moved around with inspectors and discovered that most students had dropped out of school due to the illegal fees.
â€œThe charges are illegal. School should not demand such fees,â€ education minister Namirembe Bitamazire, warns.
Despite the warning, some headteachers, especially in private schools under the USE, continue to charge the fees.
Many parents cannot afford exercise books, pens and pencils. The USE programme was rolled out in schools that were initially not exceeding sh70,000 as fees, in 2007. This implies that these schools were mainly occupied by children from poor families.
â€œThe condition is worsened by schools that require students to pay lunch and building fees.
â€œThat is not free education then,â€ says Alice Amei an education inspector in Nakapiripit.
Yet, students who study under such sordid conditions sit the same national examinations with their colleagues in good urban schools. They are also expected, in future, to favourably compete with them for government sponsorship in public universities.
With disgruntled teachers, the quality of teaching is likely to deteriorate further, reducing the chances of even bright children realising their dreams.
â€œIt is risky sending a child to USE schools. The schools are congested, have few teachers. But we have no option since we are poor,â€ says Thomas Tibamwenda, a parent.
One of the complaints from parents and headteachers in USE schools is the Government directive not to charge any fees from students.
The Government argues that some headteachers use this loophole to charge illegal fees.
All hope is not lost
Kibenge says the Government is planning to roll out a programme of funding infrastructural and human resource development in all the USE schools.
He says the World Bank promised to commit about $400m(sh802b) to the development of free education for students in the country.
The programme is expected to kick off before the beginning of this academic year. Several other â€˜seed schoolsâ€™ will be constructed under this funding.
â€œIt is a question of time (before USE gets into full gear). We are optimistic it will work.â€ Kibenge adds.
The Government is drafting another curriculum.
â€œThis is intended to ensure that education in the country is relevant to the needs of its population and that it is also compatible with the available resources,â€ Connie Kateeba, the director of the Curriculum Development Centre, explains.
The Government is also trying to implement a double-shift system in USE schools to ease congestion. Close to 32 USE schools have adopted this system.
According to the 2008 Education Service Commission report, 273 teachers were deployed to undertake the double-shift system in USE schools.
Besides, lessons have also been learnt from the Universal Primary Education and hopes are high that no mistakes will be repeated.
Is it a fair chance for the majority?