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What next after 18 years of Universal Primary Education?

In line with Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number two, the last 18 years have seen a lot of emphasis placed on education, especially primary education.


And many countries give free primary schooling to all their citizens. In Uganda, Universal Primary Education(UPE) was introduced in 1997 to four children per household, vulnerable and orphaned children – although it was later scaled up to cover all.

UPE has hit its success, increasing the literacy rates of males up to 77 per cent and for females to 58 per cent, according to Unesco. The 2013 UNDP report shows that  by 2011, literacy rate of 15-24-year-olds was 76 per cent, up from 59 per cent in 2002. I would like to look at universal education in four major areas.


Enrolment: UPE scored primarily in this area. By 2000, there was a net enrolment of 86 per cent for boys and 82 per cent for girls. It had a Net Enrolment Ratio of up to 83 per cent by 2010, according to the Uganda National Household Survey. Through UPE, enrolment jumped from 2.7 million to 8.2 million pupils in 2009.

To address the problem of non-completion of school, the government in recent years adopted numerous quality initiatives, policies and curricula reforms. Government increased the number of teachers on the payroll and through the School Facilitation Grant (SFG), the number of classrooms has almost doubled. But the UNDP 2013 report still noted that the efficiency of the above resources was still wanting.

Retention: In Uganda, statistics have shown that there is a high UPE dropout rate, standing at 71 per cent (New Vision, November 10, 2012). Ministry of finance records show that only about 29 per cent of the 1,598,636 pupils who enrolled in government-aided schools in primary in 2006 sat for primary one leaving examinations in 2012.

In East Africa, Uganda has the lowest completion rate of primary education; Kenya has a completion rate of 84 per cent, Tanzania has 81 per cent and Rwanda has 74 per cent. Much as UPE seemed free, parents were expected to buy pens, books and other scholastic materials which made what they (parents) perceived as ‘free education’, not actually free.

According to Dr Crispus Kiyonga, Uganda’s defence minister, provision of sanitary facilities for girls is critical. Privacy issues relating to sanitation were forcing girls out of school.

Learning: The MDG target of UPE was to ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, would be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. However, retention does not necessarily mean learning. Several pupils sit in UPE classes because of pressure from parents, relatives, or area authorities.Therefore, we have pupils going to school against their will. This inhibits learning.

A World Bank report on UPE in April 2002 noted a remarkable increase in enrolled numbers but equally acknowledged the challenge in education quality. This was expounded by a 2010 Uwezo report  which noted that only four per cent of P3 pupils could read a P2- level story fluently.

Further, the UNHS reported that only five per cent of 13-year-olds had completed primary school. This is an indication that dropout and repetition rates increased with increase in enrolment – a sign that learning was at its minimal.

Skilling: The above factors are legitimate sources of concern, but very disconcerting is completion of study and failure to use qualifications attained productively. UPE has been about numbers other than quality and deliverables.

A substantial number of those who complete primary education are not able to start on their secondary education due to a number of challenges. Universal Secondary Education was started in Uganda in 2006 to solve this problem. However, the problem of an education that can impart formal skills remains elusive for the poorest of the poor. Only a few of those from the lower income classes are able to break through and get professional skill-imparting tertiary education.

I, therefore, agree with Ugandan education entrepreneur Beatrice Ayuru’s argument in Geneva late last year, that we should have vocational education expanded to accommodate a larger number of students from different levels of education. 

This can include prioritising courses such as basic paper design, woodwork, block and brickmaking, metal work, art and pottery, painting and drawing, basic ICT, fish farming, flower gardening, and business skills.

In a nutshell, cross-cutting vocational courses can improve the lives of children. We need a practical and thoughtful young generation that will actively apply their skills as they grow up. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need to cater for this.

Twitter: @samagona

The author is a Global Health Corps fellow based in Uganda.

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