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|Uganda hits universal primary education target|
By Dan Elwana
Started three years ago, Uganda's strategy of free education for all - the Universal Primary Education (UPE) - is beginning to pay off. The enrolment rate has increased as more children go to school throughout the country.
"I am happy that I am now able to send my four children to school. I only pay for their uniform and sometimes exercise books. This system will help the people of my area", says Vincent Oyat, who earns a living from cultivating simsim and fishing on the shores of Lake Kyoga in Apac District. His children go to a nearby school, some three kilometres away from his home.
The UPE was introduced in Uganda in January 1997 as part of a government policy to provide free primary education to four children in every family, including orphaned and disabled children. With the introduction of the UPE Uganda hopes that this policy will have an enormous impact on the future of education in Uganda.
In launching the programme, Uganda was conscious of the financial implications of the scheme and the need to provide basic quality education. The overwhelming response nationwide posed some challenges concerning staffing, teaching and learning materials. Enrolment figures have risen from 2.5 million in 1997 to 6.5 million to date.
In some parts of the Central regions of Uganda, the response was so high that some classes had to be conducted under trees. In urban centres, government-aided schools have equally overwhelming enrolment figures, which have raised questions from opposition politicians on the quality of education.
Ugandan education and policy makers are convinced that with this kind of response, a framework is needed to re-direct efforts for the challenges ahead. Thus, it developed an Education Sector Investment Plan (ESIP) for the period 1997 to 2003. The plan was approved in December 1998. The government says this plan was founded upon the 1992 government White Paper on the Education Policy Review Commission Report.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who is a strong advocate of the UPE programme which he used in his campaign strategy during the 1996 presidential elections, says it will help in eradicating poverty. The argument is that the ESIP provides a framework for investment to enable this vision to be realized through the education sector.
The results of the UPE have partly been due to relentless efforts at political level to educate parents on the benefits of free primary education. Local Resident District Commissioners (RDC's) and District Education Officers (DEO's) have been the focus of the implementation of the programme and ensuring its success at village level. Other local leaders agree that the programme has to be closely monitored for full benefits to all.
Uganda now faces three main challenges: Access, equity and efficiency. The target is, therefore, to expand the education sector to accommodate more learners and eliminate disparities in terms of access and performance with special emphasis on removing gender and regional imbalances. Uganda has also taken due considered in the expansion of secondary education and other sub-sectors to absorb primary school dropouts.
Although grants have been sent from the central government to districts primarily for the UPE, the amount of interest it has generated has involved parents in school constructions, brick-making and provision of land for expansion. Besides expanding the classrooms from 52,000 and another 12,000 to be completed before the end of the year, Uganda also aims to have a textbook to pupil ratio of 1:1.
Emphasis has also been laid on in-service training for teachers to equip them with skills to provide quality education. As for secondary education, the aim is to have one secondary school in every sub-county.
Against the background of an expanded UPE programme and increased enrolment, Uganda plans to construct 850 community polytechnics to provide basic technical skills to primary school dropouts. Vocational and higher education sub-sectors are also included under the ESIP. Although no specific budget has been set aside, the government says it has earmarked some funds for refurbishing existing polytechnics and higher institutions to complement the programme.
As a sign of commitment to its education for all policy, government expenditure increased by 30 per cent from USh44 billion in 1996 to USh136 billion in 1998. As of March 1999, USh6.22 billion had been disbursed for primary school construction in eight districts of Kabarole, Bugiri, Pallisa, Kiboga, Arua, Moyo, Nebbi and Adjumani.
Support funds for Uganda's UPE programme have come from the World Bank, the Netherlands government, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Denmark and Britain.
The East African Newspaper, Kampala, Uganda