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Uganda's quest to educate all

 Street News Service 30 August 2019

Thanks to an election pledge made by President Yoweri Museveni on the campaign trail in 1996, Uganda is close to achieving the second Millennium Development Goal: primary education for all children. However, as Joseph Opio discovers, having a four year head start has certainly helped. (1088 Words) - By Joseph Opio

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SNS(EU)_Uganda's quest to educate all.

  Primary school pupils attend class in a government-aided UPE school in Kasese. Photo Joseph Opio.

Blessed with perfumed tongues, African politicians have turned prolific electoral pledging into quite the art-form. Even by universal standards, no other breed of politician's promises so much only to deliver so little. So, when Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni stormed the rostrum in 1996 and promised free education for all if elected into office, cynics frowned upon his pledge as yet another desperate ploy by a shrewd and seasoned politician to curry favour.

"All ye of little faith," his fans sighed in response, and they were right. 14 years on, Museveni has been true to his word.

President Yoweri Museveni hit the campaign trail early this year, seeking yet another term come the 2011 elections. Yet even as he meets and greets potential voters nationwide, Museveni must cast his mind back to his first election campaign and wonder if he can conjure up another masterstroke to impress voters with the same aplomb he managed 14 years ago.

Back in 1996, Uganda was preparing for its first national polls in decades when Museveni stunned voters with a most daring pledge: Elect me and four children per household will access free education.

Ugandan politicians are prone to outrageous electoral promises. But even by their standards, political pundits thought Museveni had strayed into the absurd.

Cue a mass outbreak of skepticism!

Luckily for Museveni, the electorate invested enough faith in his pledge to vote him into office and put his word to the test.

Beatrice Adengo and Jeremiah Kasibante were born two years after Museveni retained office via a landslide victory. The pair remain grateful that 74.3% of the 6,193,816 votes cast on 9th May 1996 handed Museveni the mandate to try and fulfill his electoral pledge of Universal Primary Education (UPE).

Adengo and Kasibante, primary five pupils at Kansanga Primary School, are among the over 8.5 million beneficiaries of Museveni's campaign promise.

But for the government-aided UPE policy, education would have been out of reach for this pair of orphans whose parents passed away at the turn of the century.

Originally, Museveni intended for UPE to benefit four children per household. But most citizens misinterpreted the pledge to include no numerical limits. The response was so overwhelming that schools started turning away families which defied the set quota.

Desperate parents with more than four children allocated the excess to their relatives while pleading with UPE implementers to ignore the restriction.

Overcome, the government instantly revised the policy, did away with the set quota and turned Museveni's campaign pledge into free education for all children.

Just as instantly, there was a sudden spike in enrollment.

According to Ministry of Education statistics, the launch of UPE inspired a 73% increase of gross enrolment within one year, with 5,303,564 pupils reported to have enrolled, up from 3,068,625 in 1996. That number went up consistently and by 2003, gross enrolment in primary schools was 7,633,314, an increase of 149%. A similar survey by the National Assessment of Progress in Education revealed that 90% of children of primary school attending age were in school, a 30% raise from the figure in 1996.

Excess kids, excess resources

Despite their tender years, Adengo and Kasibante appreciate the benefits of UPE. But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the policy, especially in its kick-off phase.

UPE's status as Museveni's vote-swaying instrument was seized upon by political opponents reluctant to accept it on its own merits. Chinks were highlighted; failures amplified.

And while most were legitimate, none were constructive.

Government fought running battles with rival politicians in whose interest it was to criticize and denigrate a program borne out of a political promise.

"Naturally, we faced many problems implementing UPE initially," concedes Namirembe Bitamazire, the minister of education. "We had many critics who didn't give us any time to learn on the job. Instead of pointing out ways to improve implementation, they harshly pointed out why the program was ill-advised and bound to fail and sought to convince people not to enroll their children."

This state of affairs prompted the government to feverishly plug visible loopholes in an effort to deprive critics of political ammunition.

"UPE detractors claimed that we were sacrificing quality for the sake of quantity," Bitamazire adds. "They pointed out the huge number of drop-outs and instances of children studying under trees due to lack of proper schools. But we were confident that with time, we would rectify all these shortcomings."

"Education quality as measured by standard indicators such as pupil to teacher ratio, pupil to classroom ratio and pupil to textbook ratio has improved since UPE started. UPE has also addressed gender disparity. The enrolment of boys to girls in all primary schools currently stands at 50.6% to 49.4%.The infrastructure and capacity we are building will push education of this country far ahead."

Bitamazire's optimism is borne out by figures. The Ministry of Education increased the number of primary schools from 8,531 in 1996 to 13,353 in 2003 to address congestion and access concerns. By 2003, Uganda boasted of over 15,000 primary schools; with 10,460 of them government owned.

In a similar vein, the number of primary school teachers doubled from 81,564 in 1996 to 145,587 in 2003, a 78% increase that has seen the teacher to pupil ratio dramatically cut down from 1:150 to an average of 1:68.

"Of course the ideal is 1:40 and that is what we are working towards," Bitamazire states. "But you hardly find classes with more than 80 pupils."

When the UN unveiled free education for all among the eight UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000, Uganda enjoyed a four-year head-start and the benefits have been apparent.

While other nations are struggling to achieve this particular goal, Uganda seems poised to claim the gold medal ahead of the 2015 deadline.

In pursuit of the education for all goal, the UN encouraged nations to dedicate at least 20% of their national budgets to education by 2015. It's a target Uganda had beaten already when it increased its share of the national budget to education from 7% in 1990 to 24.7% in 1998.

In the 2009/2010 budget, funds to the education sector increased from over sh800 billion ($355 million) to sh1 trillion ($444 million), with UPE enjoying half of the budget.

For Adengo and Kasibante, such complex figures make just about as much sense as rapid-fire Latin. Both are just happy they can access primary education despite their orphaned status.

After all, as Adengo gleefully boasts, the existence of UPE is the sole reason her dream of becoming a lawyer remains intact.

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