A ban on boarding sections for primary, and lower secondary schools in Kenya has provoked discussion over the same issue in Uganda.
Kenya's ministry of Education recently announced a significant policy shift to abolish boarding schools effective next year for students up to grade nine (aged 14-15 years).
Authorities noted that the decision was made to allow children at that age to be under the care of their parents or guardians. Children from nomadic pastoralist communities will however be exempt from the new ban. With the Kenyan policy shift set into motion, Edward Lubega, an elder from Nabweru in the Wakiso district, believes Uganda should follow suit as he questions why young children have to go to boarding schools.
“The world is changing," says Lubega. "Parents no longer have time for their children. Children attend boarding schools for the majority of their formative years and schools (teachers) at times don’t nurture them as expected. To combat this, we need a similar policy reform in Uganda.”
"Parents are weird now, how can you send a primary one child to a residential school," wonders Lubega, adding that this needs to end since schools cannot take the place of parents and their crucial role in raising children.
Rev Fr Ronald Okello, an education expert who serves as the executive secretary of the Commission for Education of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, also expressed concern over the ever-growing culture of taking young children to boarding schools.
Fr Okello says he finds it upsetting to see parents enrolling kids as young as 4 years old in boarding school, adding that while at school, a group of more than 100 children are entrusted to one or two wardens or matrons who might not be able to provide each child with the necessary nurturing.
"Personally, I don't see it as very useful for kids in nursery and lower primary to be put in boarding because... sincerely the child about 4 years is now being detached from the parents. You tell them to go and start a new life outside home and yet at that crucial age there is need for bonding, there is need for guidance from parents because at school trust me you have one matron with about 50 or 100 kids. What kind of mentorship does she do for the kids? There are too many," he said.
It should however be noted that even before Kenya banned boarding schools, there have been appeals from educationists and a section of Ugandan educationists calling for banning boarding sections, particularly for pre-primary and primary schools.
For instance, in 2015, educationists under the leadership of Prof Abdu Kasozi, the former executive director of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), recommended outlawing primary-level boarding schools because they were allegedly endangering children's and family development.
Parents and some specialists, however, hold contrasting opinions on the subject. Boaz Magezi, a parent, says that the idea of outlawing boarding schools may not be feasible considering the fact that many parents and guardians are forced to enroll their children in boarding schools due to their work or way of life.
"We all need to have our children, we need to be with them, we need to stay with them, we need to see them go to school. We need to see the kid eat, drink, and play but we cannot because the economy now demands us to work. The economy demands us to go and look for money. You cannot stay at home, you can't let the wife stay at home because you need them to go and work and get more money because there are many demands in the home. Everything is pricey," said Magezi.
Several studies have indicated that children in Ugandan boarding schools are there for many reasons. These include the tradition of colonialism, and economic pressures. Academic performance is another factor in society that drives the boarding school system, according to Dr Mikaela Dufur's 2013 study on boarding schools in Uganda.
A similar sentiment was expressed by a few of the parents and education experts who were interviewed for this report. Allen Mbabazi, another parent, remarked that in order to provide their children with quality education, parents occasionally have no choice but to send them to boarding schools.
"Do you know where the good schools are?" she asked. "They're in the Wakiso and Kampala regions. Children cannot attend daytime classes in Kampala if you are living in Nakasongola. The only thing you need to do is enrol them in boarding school,” she said.
Several students who were interviewed with their parents' permission had differing opinions. Some of them, particularly those in upper primary, supported attending boarding school, while those in lower grades opposed the idea.
Seven-year-old Travis, who has attended boarding school, told this reporter that he dislikes it because he doesn't have time to play with his friends and misses the delicious cuisine at home.
"I don't want boarding, I want day because I come back home and eat good food. I want day because I come back home and play," he said.
Dr Elizabeth Opit, an educationist and researcher with a background in sociology, notes that before considering whether to outlaw boarding sections, it is important to consider the circumstances that gave rise to their introduction in the first place.
She adds that boarding schools are becoming popular because of the changing society as parents are now all working and find that they don’t have a safe place to leave their children thus opting for boarding schools.
"From a sociological point of view what happens in society the unfolding events in society influence what happens in the schools' system. The schools respond to what society needs and when I look at the family dynamics not only in Uganda, you will realise that parents value keeping with their children at a tender stage. But they take them to boarding schools because they have no option but when you interface with parents, they will give you reasons why they have had to take those children to boarding schools even at nursery level. Everybody has reasons and really to overlook those reasons we may also be endangering those children whom school is a refugee for," said Opit.
Opit stresses, however, that research must be conducted with the participation of all parties involved, including parents and kids. Beyond that, she continues, research may be done on kids who have experienced the boarding school system since they were little to determine whether they were negatively or positively affected.
"Again, because of the way we're raising children, there are people who just do not know how to parent but they have produced. For me, the discussion really has to go on - even interviewing children themselves; would they prefer to be in boarding? Those who have been in boarding at a tender stage what are their experiences? Do they have regrets or are they appreciative? What is that they have to bring on board from their experiences in terms of informing policy? Then the parents themselves also, I think just knowing, hearing what they have to say why they take children to school at a tender stage should not be ignored before the policy is passed. Otherwise, we shall run into a crisis which the schools at the moment are helping to offset in one way or another," added Opit.
For many years, there were no boarding sections at basic education level in Uganda. Available information shows the first boarding schools were traditional secondary schools mainly opened by missionaries. When Obote's government established national secondary schools they were also boarding as learners had to be moved from regions of origin and study in schools located in other parts of the country.
It is said that, in the early 2000s, as private schools gained popularity across the nation, boarding schools also gained popularity. At first, private school schools initially introduced boarding sections for learners in candidate classes saying they required extra time to focus.
As time went on, they continued to expand classes, and now even students in pre-primary are also admitted in boarding sections. Chris Lwanga, a parent, notes that at first, in many schools, boarding sections were optional but many private school owners started forcing parents to enroll learners in boarding sections and many kowtowed in the name of keeping their learners in those quality schools.
“It began as a choice but right now in many schools, a learner is required learner who reaches primary four is required to be in boarding and some schools, even at primary level, closed their day sections," Lwanga says. "Now some schools simply cannot allow day scholars.”
Away from private schools, public and government-funded schools now have residential sections, with heads of schools insisting on having one even though they lack the necessary facilities. For instance, many headteachers wished to convert classrooms of recently built seeds schools to accommodate boarders.
Surprisingly, by policy, there is nothing like boarding schools in Uganda. The Education Act is silent on the subject as well; it only mentions boarding arrangements in Section 15 but it also mandates that the school should run a day section. But many schools currently operate as boarding only.
Even though boarding schools are widely scattered throughout the nation, according to Frances Atima, the acting permanent secretary at the Education ministry, says they only register day schools. Atima who is also the director of education standards and quality assurance, says when schools appealed to have boarding sections, the ministry developed some guidelines to cater for them.
"We don't register schools as boarding schools but what we do, is we request them to write requesting for an authorisation to have a boarding facility. So we have the guidelines because usually boarding is managed by the PTA and then of course there are other guidelines like occupational permits from the districts. No school can register as boarding, you first register as a day school then you can separately request for authority to run a boarding facility...The issue here is we don't have like a written policy which you can say is a policy from ministry of Education," says Atima.
However, she adds that while there is no particular policy for boarding schools, it has been noticed that these institutions are beneficial thus just banning them might not be the best course of action. She further argues that before Ugandans relate what happened in Kenya to Uganda, one must first understand the context under which Kenya has made its resolution other than asking for copying and pasting.
"It is not a fashion issue, I think we should not also be copycats because if you look at Kenya now, you look at their recent curriculum, so maybe they are doing that to free space for extra classrooms. I think you need to study it further. So for us, we think oh they have come up with a good policy but they could be solving another problem which is basically in their country because we also know the advantages of boarding, it is not a copycat issue," said Atima.
Fr Okello wonders how the ministry can permit boarding schools to operate when they are not mentioned in the policy. He quickly responds to his own question, however, claiming that the education system is flawed since schools in question are owned by powerful individuals and institutions, making it difficult for those in charge of enforcing the law to speak the truth.
Dr Disan Kuteesa, the head of the education department at Kyambogo university, says the idea of boarding schools might be good but it has been abused by school operators.
“Boarding schools are having advantages but in Uganda the notion has been abused. Boarding schools in Uganda are more of coaching centres who are overloading the learners with content. They teach them from 4:00 am up to 9:00 pm,” says Kuteesa.
According to Kuteesa, boarding schools in Uganda might implement a policy allowing students to visit their respective homes on weekends and public holidays in light of the fact that parents are now too busy to care for their children during working days. However, he points out that this can only be achieved if such schools, considered to be good, are located within the communities.
"I support boarding schools but we can have weekends and parents can access their children. Get a school which is within and near your home. If you live in Gulu why do you take a kid to Masaka? It is not right, it is very expensive but get a school in Gulu because am sure within the district near your home, there are good schools," he says.
With such an overwhelming number of children growing up in these schools, several educationists and policymakers say that future research is needed to identify their implications and understand their long-term implications on the growth and development of children.