Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines

EDUCATION-UGANDA: Universal Primary Schooling Succeeds to a Fault

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Jan 29 2004 (IPS) - Martin Oketch, 13, sat his Primary Leaving Examinations in Uganda late last year. His first choice for secondary education was St Mary’s College Kisubi, one of the country’s best boys’ schools. "I want to become a doctor like Uncle Nathan," he says, pointing to his relative.

However, Martin’s exam results – though good – were just shy of the grades needed to gain admission to Kisubi.

He was just one casualty of an increasingly fierce competition to get a place in secondary school – this as Uganda’s system of universal primary education (UPE) yields record numbers of primary school graduates. Some claim that the system, laudable as it is, has become a victim of its own success.

Selections for secondary school took place this week. Those children who, like Martin, were unable to get a place at the schools of their choice may join vocational training institutions or private schools. But, others are almost certain to drop out altogether.

UPE was introduced in Uganda in 1997. When the programme started, there were 5,303,564 primary school pupils in the country. By 2003, that figure had risen to well over seven million. However, a matching system of universal secondary education has yet to be put in place.

Last year, 406,503 pupils registered for the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), of which 80 percent passed.

But, according to the Ministry of Education, there are only about 224,000 vacancies at government high schools. (No figures could be obtained for the number of places available at private schools.) As a result, over 100,000 candidates who successfully sat the 2003 PLE failed to get into secondary school.

Officials are now looking at encouraging high schools to increase the number of students they admit, perhaps even doubling the number of pupils in classes.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry, Aggrey Kibenge, says, "Of course, the Ministry has recognised the cry of the parents that secondary education is getting out of reach."

Even with the best will in the world, however, the government will face daunting challenges in dealing with this problem.

Over 65 percent of the education budget is already devoted to pre-primary and primary schooling – and even this doesn’t meet all the demands placed on the sector. Pupil-teacher ratios are still at an average of 55 to one. While this is a far cry from the 600 to one ratio that prevailed in certain regions during earlier years, it’s still not ideal.

"Our target is to realise 40 to 50 pupils per teacher. That can assure us of some quality," Kibenge told IPS.

"So for the moment, parents will have to continue carrying the burden of providing for their children at secondary level," he added.

While certain critics view UPE as failed venture, one of the architects of the programme – Kampala-based education consultant Fagil Mande – disagrees. Mande chaired the UPE implementation committee in 1997.

"As a third world country, we cannot afford to have everything in place before we make a jump," he told IPS.

"We must also not think that everybody has to go to secondary school. The purpose of UPE was to get a population that can read and write, and not to send all children to secondary."

Mande contends that the concept of what constitutes a good secondary education in Uganda needs to be expanded, to include a greater emphasis on vocational training.

"We have had an education system where up to now we are still producing white-collar job graduates," he notes, even though "The industrial base of Uganda now is standing on furniture, metal work, brick making, electrical wiring, building and the like."

To a certain extent, government has already recognised this discrepancy.

Last year, it opened a number of vocational education institutions known as "Community Polytechnics" in a bid to reduce the number of drop outs. Thirty such institutions were planned, of which 16 have been built.

However, public perceptions about the status of vocational schools will have to be changed.

While technical schools offer courses in tailoring, motor mechanics, carpentry, brick laying and cookery, many people still believe that a traditional secondary school education, with its promise of a white-collar job, is best. Vocational schools, they say, are for those who simply couldn’t make the grade elsewhere.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

netter's anatomy coloring book