By Denis Jjuuko

Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports has been on a rollercoaster opening new school buildings across the country. The Ministry is constructing 138 schools after it received funding of USD33 million from the Global Partnership for Education through the World Bank. This is part of the USD100 million grant meant for the implementation of the Uganda Teacher and School Effectiveness Project (UTSEP).

This is the first time in over 30 years that the government has done something massive regarding the infrastructure in some of these schools. Reports in the media indicate that where these schools have been built, private schools are registering decreasing enrollment as kids opt for government schools. Schools that had 200 pupils now have as many as 1,200.

This is good because some private schools will now offer a service that is worth the money they have been charging. However, the project focused on infrastructure and left out the most important elements — teacher salaries, and curriculum development among others.

Increased numbers in these now refurbished schools calls for teacher recruitment so that a teacher to pupil ratio that enables a child to learn is maintained. The teachers must be paid well too if they are to do their job well. I don’t think the government will be able to do this so it is time to abandon the Universal Primary Education (UPE) in its current form. I know how important it is for kids to be enrolled into schools but let us face it, UPE has failed so it is time we tweaked it.

Shining school structures alone won’t create an educated workforce capable of addressing the challenges of our time. And the government doesn’t seem to have the money or will to fully go the full cycle. So a model where parents pay some of the fees is the ideal one. The government can continue funding these schools by paying teachers and all the stuff they pay for today. This would ensure that the contribution from parents would supplement the salary of teachers and non-teaching staff, buy some of the materials needed for teaching, maintain the new buildings, and feed the kids with at least lunch.

This means that where a school would have charged Shs100,000 a term, a parent would pay 50% and the UPE funds pay for the other 50%. I think most parents who are now removing their kids from private schools and enrolling them into these newly rebuilt schools can afford that. A school with a student population of 1,000 will now be correcting Shs50m a term, which is very good money to cater for its needs.

This will also check our exploding population. Previously, parents paid graduated taxes and paid some fees for their kids. Today, they pay nothing (of course there are many indirect taxes) so they don’t think twice before having children. When they start paying some money, they will have fewer kids but they will also be able to demand for better services from schools. When you don’t pay anything, you can’t demand much. This will see the reintroduction of effective Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) boards as it used to be before UPE. A head teacher who abandons their duties would be seriously dealt with.

These boards could as well introduce education schemes where a parent pays the fees on a weekly basis. If we assume that a school term is on average 12 weeks, it means that a parent would pay Shs4,167 every week into the scheme to raise the Shs50,000 needed for fees. It can even be made an annual fund where instead parents pay Shs2,885 every week. If every parent of the 1000 students pays, it means the fund would have Shs2,885,000 every week. Because the money isn’t needed every day to run the schools, it could be invested with a bank so that it earns interest on a quarterly basis. The interest earned could help subsidize other school activities such as study tours to national parks and help parents pay cheaper school uniforms and scholastic materials among other items.

However, for this is to take place, the politicians must understand that if this is communicated well, it won’t cost them votes (actually since we are talking seven year terms, it means by the time elections are due, kids would be out of primary schools). Parents must also appreciate that these are their kids first before they are government kids. So instead of drinking gin in the trading centres every night and going back home to compete with rabbits in producing offspring, they will put their money and energies to better use. Abolishing or tweaking UPE might not be the wisest thing for politicians to do but it is the right thing for our country.

The writer is a Communications and Visibility consultant.

*A montage of photos of one of the schools before being rebuilt and afterwards