How free is ‘free’ education?

In a bold move to make basic education available to all, the Government of Uganda introduced Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997.

The programme, that was to many a saving grace, hit a snag as the massive expansion in enrolment affected the quality of education. A big challenge was faced with the rise in demand for primary education and the great numbers that graduated from primary level.

This prompted the government to introduce Universal Secondary Education (USE) 10 years later, making Uganda the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce it. In both UPE and USE, the government pays the schools an annual grant to cater for every child’s tuition in the programme. Their parents, however, need to provide stationery, meals and uniforms.

According to Daniel Nkaada, the Commissioner of Basic Education, government pays an annual fee of Shs 7,000 and Shs 141,000 for every UPE pupil and USE student respectively.

“The tuition is completely taken care of by government. Parents only have to take care of their children’s welfare at school,” said Nkaada.

Despite the free education, many people in Uganda today still find it very expensive to send their children to school. Many schools require parents to contribute a certain amount of money to ensure children’s welfare at school and to meet miscellaneous expenses that the government grant may be unable to cover.

Many schools use the extra contribution to pay for utilities, especially water and electricity, and also enable them hold internal school tests and exams. On a general perspective, majority of the urban UPE schools have, therefore, resolved to levy an optional minimum fee of Shs 10,000 for lunch and Shs 10,400 for utilities.

The fees vary from school to school though. At Buganda Road primary school, for instance, an extra Shs 25,000 is contributed by the parents to meet other day-to-day running costs of the school. This excludes uniforms which may cost an average of up to Shs 100,000 for a full set of school uniform, which also includes sportswear sweaters and stockings.

Despite the flexibility of UPE and USE principles which allow children to attend school in their non-uniform clothes, most urban schools have stuck to uniforms, which cost a fortune for many a parent.

Many urban schools also require their children to take sanitary materials such as brooms, brushes and toilet rolls, among others, that many parents find very costly to provide. However, usually these charges must be unanimously agreed upon by the parents and the government should be aware of all of them, to ensure that they don’t adversely affect the programme and exclude some children from getting their education.

“We know that the money we send is not enough for all their programmes, especially the exams that these schools want to have, but it is more important for teachers to concentrate on teaching rather than assessing students more than they teach. We encourage continuous assessment but it should be done efficiently. Government pays for the final national exams,” says Nkaada.

Ziporah Babirye, a food vendor at the Old taxi park, still finds it very costly to send her five children to school.

“Buying uniform, shoes, books and pens is very expensive yet they also need food while at school to study well,” says the single mother of five.

She is, however, quick to acknowledge that she wouldn’t have managed to send her children to school if it wasn’t for UPE and USE. However, in as far as school requirements are concerned, Nkaada advises that much as school uniform is a necessity, it should not be given first priority in case choice has to be made.

“Our laws are flexible and children can attend UPE and USE schools in their decent home clothes if parents cannot afford the uniforms. A parent would rather buy books for a child than spend the little money on uniform,” says Nkaada.

Babirye, who herself missed out on education on financial grounds, finds it costly to educate her children, but this is a dream she is determined to make a reality. Her eldest son, Jafa Kibedi, is a senior-three student at Kampala High school in Old Kampala.

Every term, she contributes Shs 30,000 for his welfare at school in addition to a ream of paper, which costs Shs 20,000 that he takes for exams and tests every term. It is now mid-term but Babirye has only been able to pay less than half of the welfare fees.

“I paid Shs 10,000 and bought him the ream of papers with hopes of completing the fees but with the multiple strikes/demonstrations that have occurred in town [which affected my income], I could not pay in time,” says Babirye.

The school does not provide meals for students; so, she has to give him some money for lunch as well. When asked about his break time snack, Babirye says:

“That is a luxury to a poor person’s child. Lunch is what matters and even then, it is just a little money for buying chapatti that he eats with water. And when things are really bad, especially when there are strikes in town and when business is not good, he even goes without lunch,” she says.

Joachim Muhanguzi understands better what it means to send a child to school today despite the free education. His meagre salary of a security guard is barely enough to cover his family’s needs. Muhanguzi, a father of two daughters at Kitante primary school, finds it an uphill task to pay Shs 49,000 for each of his daughters’ meals every term.

“It is optional but they need to eat to study well. And in their school, uniform, sportswear, shoes and books are a must,” he says.

Samuel Opolot’s children are not as lucky as Muhanguzi’s daughters. Opolot, a casual labourer at a public institution, can hardly pay Shs 35,000 for each of his three children’s welfare, let alone buy uniforms and books for them. They all go to KCC Busega Community primary school in Lubaga division Kampala. His children go to school in non-uniform clothes and wear plastic sandals.

The school administration once proposed, in a parents’ meeting, to increase the welfare fee by Shs 20,000 in order to provide better services, but almost all the parents, including Opolot, were unable to raise that amount of money; so, it remained at the original figure.

“Everything, including my rent and all other expenses, apart from my salary, keep increasing. I am afraid it will be impossible to keep my children in school if the requirements exceed this point,” says the worried Opolot.

Opolot’s scenario might be sad but the parents in rural areas are usually the worst affected. Schools there don’t make any welfare demands in monetary terms but the other demands, especially stationery, stand between the children and their education, as many of them find meeting these demands a real dream.

“The school is absolutely free and we don’t charge a single shilling for anything but many parents are too poor to even afford a pencil costing Shs 100,” says a teacher from Kyaruhotora primary school in Rukungiri.

Ugandans should not expect any absolutely free education anytime soon. They should, however, anticipate better quality education as government is ? although not in the near future ? planning to increase the grant.

“It will be for tuition, not for upkeep,” says Nkaada.

Many parents argued that if meals and books were provided by government, it could be a little easier for them, while others blamed the bad economy for this predicament. But Nkaada maintains that stationery and meals should be the parents’ responsibility.

On post-O-level education for the USE graduates, Nkaada said Universal Post-O-level Education and Training (UPOLET), Advanced USE, government sponsorship and the student loan scheme are all in place to meet the post-O-level education demands and to give the USE graduates a chance at higher-level education.

Nkaada also calls upon the parents to take keen interest in the programmes, motivate their children to study, and participate in the school activities so as to improve teachers’ services and maximise learning outcomes to achieve the UPE and USE goals.

“If absenteeism of both teachers and children is prevented and the teachers teach effectively, then these programmes will yield results and government money will be well-spent and there will be no wastage,” advised Nkaada.

He also emphasised the role of parents in their children’s education, citing the fact that it is every parent’s responsibility to take care of their children’s welfare in schools.

“So, while government pays tuition, it falls upon the parent to ensure that his child takes the meals and has the necessary basic stationery,” observes Nkaada.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd