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COMMENT: Reforms needed to fix Uganda’s education sector

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COMMENT: By Musa Mayanja Lwanga & Anita Ntale

Here are the major reforms Janet Museveni needs to fix floundering education sector

The new minister of Education, who is also the First Lady – Janet Kataha Museveni, has an arduous task ahead of her if she is to improve the education sector. Despite the government’s increased investment in Education over the years, a number of outcome indicators point towards quality deterioration in the sector especially for Universal Primary Education (UPE).

Introduced in 1997, UPE aimed at increasing access to education; especially for the poor and under privileged households. It succeeded remarkably in increasing access to primary school education. Enrolment increased from 71 percent in 1996 to about 110 percent in 2013, and the adjusted net enrolment rate increased from 57 percent to 94, while children out of school (% of primary school age) dropped from 43 percent to 6 percent over the same period.

Despite all these achievements, progress has proved hard to sustain and UPE has faced a number of challenges which are epitomised by the growing number of dropouts and faltering primary school completion rates.

Uganda attained its highest primary school completion rate of 63 percent in 2002, after which primary school completion rates have steadily fallen to about 56 percent in 2014. These falling primary school completion rates pose serious development challenges and are likely to impede Uganda from attaining structural transformation.  These trends have implications on the quality of Uganda’s current and future labour force and on Uganda’s competitiveness in the region.

A comparison with her neighbours shows that in 2001, Uganda’s primary school completion rates were above the Sub-Saharan average level and above her EAC neighbours except Kenya.  However, since then all other EAC countries have been improving in primary school completion rates while Uganda has been deteriorating (see graph).

Several factors are responsible for the observed trends in the primary completion rates. These include but are not limited to, high levels of teacher absenteeism, lack of infrastructure like classrooms, lack of scholastic materials like text books, and poor supervision and inspection.

 

Teacher absenteeism

Findings from the Service Delivery Indicators for Uganda survey of 2013 results discovered that 27 percent of teachers were absent in public schools compared to 16 percent for Kenya. The survey results further revealed that of the teachers in public schools present at school, 57 percent were not in classrooms teaching compared to 47 percent for Kenya. According to the report, the decay in service delivery is more amplified in rural areas and poorer regions of the country. Research elsewhere has also shown that teacher absenteeism although not a problem in Uganda alone but also in many other developing countries, stems from a number of factors including pay structure, management, working conditions, community conditions, and social and cultural responsibilities.

In Uganda, insufficient pay and poor working conditions have been identified as one of the leading causes of absenteeism. Primary school teacher salaries, despite recent increases, are still very low to afford teachers a decent living.

A primary school teacher earns on average between US$100 and 150 per month putting him/her just a little above the poverty line if we take the US$2 per day measure.

As such, a number of teachers find themselves engaging in other economic activities such as farming, tailoring, shop keeping, boda boda riding etc. to supplement their meagre earnings.

Low pay has implications on the morale and motivation level of existing teachers and those that aspire to join the field. Low pay, in addition to increasing teacher absenteeism, makes the teaching profession very un-attractive and thus attracts not the best and brightest, but often those that have failed to get into other “better” professions. This in turn affects the quality of knowledge provided to the pupil and the overall quality of the next generation labour force.

 

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Insufficient funding

Although UPE takes up a huge chunk of the Uganda’s recurrent expenditure, statistics show that actual expenditure on education as a percentage of total government expenditure is the lowest in the five East African Community countries excluding South Sudan.  Uganda spent 11.8 percent in 2013 compared to 16.6 percent and 17.2 percent spent by Rwanda and Burundi respectively. In 2010, Uganda spent 9.4 percent compared to 19.6, 20.6, 17.4 and 16.6 percent for Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi respectively. Across the East African Community Uganda also records the lowest figure for education expenditure as a percentage of Gross National Income.

The low expenditure on UPE has had implications on the quality of service provided. A number of schools lack basic infrastructure like adequate classrooms, toilets, and desks. The lack of infrastructure, in turn, frustrates pupils and causes a number of them to drop out.

Champions of UPE rightly argue that the scheme has opened up education access to thousands of children who would otherwise have never got the opportunity to go to school. Criticisms of declining quality have often been met with retorts that some education (whatever the quality) is better than none at all. However as we continue to struggle to get the masses to complete education, quality is fast becoming a critical issue. If the current trends continue, the Ugandan labour force will primarily be composed of poorly and partly educated persons. The effects of this are slowly starting to show within the education sector itself. At the beginning of July, it was revealed that about half the teachers who took last year’s Primary Teachers’ College exam would have to repeat the exams with English and Mathematics being the worst done subjects. Most damning for UPE is that many of these student teachers would have been products of the UPE system itself.

 

What the First Lady should do?

With so many leaks to be plugged, here are a few things the First Lady needs to address. Firstly, from a human capital perspective, quality cannot continue to come second to quantity. To improve completion rates, the government of Uganda has come up with a number of policy interventions some of which have indeed undermined the quality of education. For example, in 2005 the Ministry of Education and Sports compelled schools to promote pupils irrespective of their performance. As we struggle to maintain attendance and strive to improve completion rates, it’s even more important that quality and attainment improve. The First Lady should, therefore, reverse this policy to ensure that only pupils with a passing mark can be promoted. This will go a long way in improving quality of pupils that graduate from public schools.

Secondly, the model adopted that puts the responsibility of funding of UPE squarely on the government is not economically viable given other competing priorities like infrastructure development, defense, health, agriculture etc. In view of limited resources, government’s contribution to UPE is not enough to move the sector to the desired level.

It is, therefore, time to rethink this model and adopt a cost sharing model in which both parents and the government contribute to the funding of primary school education. With parents contributing to UPE, teachers can be paid a decent salary, and more classrooms and other infrastructure can be built.

Thirdly, the First Lady should put a lot of emphasis on increasing supervision and inspection in public schools. This will be instrumental in curbing teacher absenteeism leading to increased teacher pupil interaction and thus improving learning outcomes.

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Musa Mayanja Lwanga and Anita Ntale are research and policy analysts at the Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University, Kampala.

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editor@independent.co.ug

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