Generally, 60% of Uganda's districts have classes larger than the national average.
By Innocent Anguyo
Under the blistering sun, lessons were in progress at Arua Demonstration Primary School in West Nile, a region located 482 kilometers northwest of Uganda's capital, Kampala. Physically, this school was quite humble, merely old structures with fast-rusting corrugated iron roofs.
Just like in most Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools in Uganda, sitting tightly packed, four or five at a desk, grade four children took up afternoon lessons. All students wore uniforms, which were not exactly the same—there were different shades of blue and khaki.
One student, nine-year old Sandra, skinny—with dry lips and sunken eyes incessantly yawned and seemed restless in class. No sooner had the first lesson ended than Sandra attempted to sleep—with arms folded across their narrow desk and forehead placed on her forearms.
Large beads of sweat were dripping down Sandra's forehead—onto the desk. Her washed-out uniform was damp from sweat. After a few minutes of turning her head from side to side, Sandra tucked her worn-out handbag-cum-schoolbag under her right armpit, and hassled out of the teeming classroom—never to return to class that day. She said she couldn't concentrate in class because she "felt suffocated"—owing to the disproportionately huge number of pupils.
Sandra is one of the millions of children in Uganda who are not enjoying schooling, thanks to the big size of classes, making lessons an itchy undertaking, for both teachers and learners. Uganda has 19 million children (55% of the total population of 34.6 million), according to the 2014 nation census.
Interact with map for details. Source: Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports. (Graphic by Innocent Anguyo)
Generally, 60% of Uganda's districts have classes larger than the national average.
Latest figures from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBoS) coalesced under the 2015 Statistical Abstract show that two thirds of the country's districts have perilously large primary school classes, exceeding the national average of 58 students.
Uganda's 2014 pupil-classroom ratio, for instance, shows three districts-Maracha (171), Kaabong (140) and Butaleja (133)—as having classes twice the national average.
Kole (108), Arua (103), Bukedea (101) and Bukwo (101) equally join the list of districts that have classes with over a hundred learners. Generally, 60% of Uganda's districts have classes larger than the national average. As shown above, Maracha has the largest classes in Uganda!
With classes as small as 29 learners, Kalangala has the best student-classroom ratio in Uganda. Rukungiri (34), Kiboga (35), Mitooma (36), Nakasongola (36), Bushenyi (37), Mbarara (37), Butambala (38), Kanungu (38), Buhweju (39), Ibanda (39) Masaka (39), Mityana (39) and Wakiso (39) host classrooms with students who number no more than 40.
Regionally, the larger classes are in Northern and Eastern Uganda. These two regions are equally home to the majority of classes that are around the national average. Save for Moyo, nearly all districts in the West Nile sub region have classes way larger than the national regular.
But close scrutiny of data for these two regions will squeeze out outliers, such as Moyo, Buikwe, Jinja, Moroto and Nakapiripirit, which post pupil-classroom ratios lower than the national middling.
Most of the smaller classes are in Central and Western Uganda. Notably, none of the districts in Central and Western Uganda have classrooms that are dangerously larger than the national average, which seems to be characteristic of classes in the North and East.
Only eight districts in the West and Central are within touching distance of the national average—Masindi, Bukomansimbi, Rakai, Lwengo, Sembabule, Kyenjojo, Kabarole and Kasese.
Explaining the discrepancies
Most experts, in both private and public practice, attribute the differences in Uganda's classroom-pupil ratio by district to the country's imbalanced economic layout—regions and districts that boast higher disposable incomes attract relatively higher investments in the education sector.
Understandably, Central and Western Uganda, the country's richer regions, have seen more private investment in primary schools—slashing their classroom deficiency over the years, as privatisation of the economy gained firmer footing.
Dr. Abdallah Mutazindwa, Director of Education Standards at the Ministry of Education and Sports is one such expert who connects the dots between economic growth and classroom-pupil ratio: "There are more private schools situated in the West and Central parts of the country, for that reason therefore there are fewer learners in classes. Contrary to the above, there are very few private schools in the East and North of the country."
This sentiment is shared by Edward Ssebukyu, Assistant Commissioner of Private Schools, Ministry of Education and Sports, who adds: "As a result, in the North, the only option is to flood the government schools available. In the East, the population is too high for the available schools."
"West Nile has not attracted many private investors in education services; thus [it] largely depends on the available government schools which have to be flooded," said Ssebukyu.
Consultants plying their trade in private practice acknowledge the impact of market forces upon the classroom-pupil ratio but they equally add geopolitical dynamics to the mix of factors determining the size of classes in Uganda.
Denis Kiseka, a development specialist who has been dealing with this subject throughout his career argues that government policy shares the blame for some of the discrepancies in the classroom-pupil ratio.
"Government policy is to have a primary school in every parish; for regions with high population density, this would definitely mean larger class sizes," said Kiseka. "From the latest World Bank poverty report, the North and East [of Uganda] have disproportionately high poverty rates. So, if private schools are established in these areas, they may not be affordable."
Consultant Sunday Aliti believes the imbalance also springs from instabilities that characterised the Northern and Eastern regions in the last two decades. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels wrecked havoc in the two regions—destroying classrooms there.
"Raids by the Karimojong warriors also caused destruction there," said Aliti. Finding children studying under trees in these regions is no anomalous sight!
Why Moyo, Moroto and Nakapiripirit have smaller classes in regions with large ones
As aforementioned, Moyo, Moroto and Nakapiripirit present unique cases, by housing smaller classes in regions dominated by larger classes. What explains this oddity?
"Moyo is a border district which was affected by the insecurity in Southern Sudan. Many unaccompanied refugee children flooded Moyo which led to large classes at one moment and when Sudan stabilized, the refugee children had to return to their homeland," said Ssebukyu. "This affected the enrolment in many primary schools in Moyo district."
This would equally imply that, Moyo and other districts in West Nile currently have larger classes than shown in the 2015 Statistical Abstract.
Figures from the United Nations (UN) show that, in 2016 alone, Uganda received 700,000 refugees from South Sudan, twice the numbers that braved the Mediterranean to make it to the shores of Europe. An additional 400,000 is expected to set foot in the country this year.
Moreover, as reported by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, of the 31,118 refugees from South Sudan who entered Uganda between 27 January to 3 February this year, 1,780 unaccompanied minors and 2,208 separated children were registered in one camp, Bidibidi, Yumbe. Also registered were 603 children at risk, bringing the total number of children with specific needs in Bidibidi to 4,714.
Generally, there are about 800,000 (equal to the revised total population of Arua municipality) school-age children in Bidibidi, which doubles as the world's largest refugee camp.
All recent refugees from South Sudan have been temporarily settled in West Nile, piling more pressure on the region's already overstretched public facilities, including schools.
For instance, New Vision this week established that, all the children in Bidibidi have to make do with 20 schools—each having seven classrooms and seven teachers. Meaning, each school caters for the learning needs of about 40,000 children, equal to the entire population of Makerere University, Uganda's largest tertiary institution.
On top of having to grapple with space shortages, service providers in these camps also have to help the more than 4,000 children with specific needs.
In Karamoja, it seems, at times, the quest to satisfy appetite rather supersedes the pursuit of aptitude—as food comes to the fore—in determining class size.
"Moroto and Nakapiripirit are unique in a way that the class sizes depend on the availability of food," said Ssebukyu. "When food is supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP), the class sizes increase and when there is a shortage of supplies the numbers of learners dwindle."
Kiseka also believes that, in these districts, either the schools are far-flung from the children's homes or practices such as pastoralism and farming are preferred to schooling.
Why class size matters!
The situation in districts with higher classes should be of particular concern to Uganda and research speaks to this. A 2014 report by UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education notes that, in the African context, classes exceeding 70 pupils have a negative effect on children's learning: "when classes reach this critical size, the learning outcomes are generally negative."
"It is generally recognized that larger classes result in lower educational achievements, especially in the early years of schooling," said the report. "Large classes can be difficult for teachers to manage, may result in the adoption of less effective methods of teaching, and often limit the amount of individual attention and guidance students receive."