Ugandan schools reopened on 10 January after nearly two years since they were closed in an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19. But the closure has taken a heavy toll, not only on students but also on the education infrastructure. Can lost time be made up? Report by Epajjar Ojulu.
Most schools face a myriad of challenges, ranging from dilapidated buildings – some with roofs that have collapsed, or which have been invaded by ant hills – to broken or rusty office equipment. Leaking roofs have left behind rotting stationery and books.
Save for a few urban schools for children of the elite, the majority were in a sorry state even before they were closed. Education Ministry statistics indicate that at least 50% of schools in the country are short of the minimum required facilities. In the rural north and east, the poorest parts of the country, it is common to find teachers conducting classes under trees and learners seated on dusty ground.
During the two-year closure, some school buildings, up to 100 years old, collapsed during rainstorms. Local media reports say learners at schools in the southern Masaka district were left stranded after the roofs of their classrooms were blown away by thunderstorms. In neighbouring Lwengo district, ants have destroyed braille materials in the only school for the blind in the region, district education officials say.
Plans to rehabilitate or rebuild damaged school infrastructure in government-aided schools can only be considered for the next financial year, beginning in June, according to Chrizostom Muyingo, the Higher Education Minister. Education Ministry officials told a parliamentary committee on education in November that the Ministry had no funds to rehabilitate private schools, as requested by their owners.
The government is also facing the challenge of restoring community schools in cases where landlords turned school land into farmland, or sold it to real estate developers, after the government defaulted on rent payments. Media reports say that thousands of students in Luweero, Mukono and Wakiso districts on the outskirts of Kampala are without schools.
While the lack of, or poor school infrastructure, is a challenge, education experts say the bigger concern is over students. While the government has ordered learners to be promoted to the next pre-pandemic classes, teachers say that after two years out of school, most students have regressed beyond their pre-pandemic levels.
Educationist Prossy Kuteesa of Ndejje University, the country’s oldest private university, owned by the Anglican Church of Uganda, says: “It will take a massive injection of resources into physical infrastructure and human resources to resuscitate learners, who have totally forgotten what they learnt before schools’ closure.”
There is a crippling shortage of teachers, with most schools saying few have reported back for duty. Only seven out of the 20 at Kawempe Primary School on the outskirts of Kampala city turned up for work, says head teacher Charles Mukasa.
Evidence suggests that while some teachers have left the country for unskilled jobs in the Arab nations, others have crossed over to other occupations, including taxi driving, the roadside roasting of chicken and other meat, petty trading and carpentry, which pay more than teaching.
The challenges facing schools come at a time when the government is set to roll out a new education policy to replace the colonial system, which targeted training civil servants.
“The driving force of the new policy is the growing need for a creative, practical and entrepreneurial workforce to meet the changing needs of the country,” says Rosemary Seninde, former State Minister for Primary Education.
Critical thinking system
The new system, signed off two years ago, was nipped in the bud by the Covid-19 outbreak that led to the closure of schools. Prossy Kuteesa says the new policy is long overdue because the majority of university graduates in the country are not readily employable due to a lack of relevant skills.
Under the new curriculum, students must download workbooks designed by the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC). Similarly, teachers will download their manuals, also designed by the NCDC.
The new curriculum encourages learners to think critically through interaction with fellow students as they seek answers to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions in the workbooks. This marks a radical departure from the previous teacher-centred system, which encouraged learners to cram teachers’ notes.
The roll-out of the new system is a Herculean task. Statistics show there are 30,000 schools in the country. Worse, the planned implementation of the new curriculum is based on the wrong assumption that all learners have access to computers and the internet – in fact, Uganda has the lowest internet access in the East African region.
While schools for children of the elite have access to computers and the internet, the majority do not. Owning a computer is a distant dream for most parents. In addition, the country is grappling with the problems of intermittent or low power supply.
Student mothers present new issues
Another challenge relates to teachers. For the first time, teachers have to learn to handle classes which may contain pregnant girls and lactating mothers. This follows the radical decision by the Ministry of Education to allow pregnant and lactating learners back to school.
The decision follows the evidence that tens of thousands of school girls across the country are either pregnant or lactating.
Although the move has rattled Christian school owners, parents across the country welcome it, notwithstanding the practical and moral challenges it presents. “It is painful for our children to be thrown out of school over pregnancy. As their parents, we can take the responsibility of caring for our grandchildren as their mothers continue with education for a better future,” says Margaret Nalwoga, a market vendor in Kampala’s Nateete market.
The practical challenge is the lack of facilities for breastfeeding students. The moral and attitudinal challenges are many and intricate.
Teachers talk of the issues explaining to students the wrongs of sex outside marriage in the midst of their pregnant and lactating colleagues. “This policy is a blanket approval to learners, some of them in their early teenage years, to have sex,” says Lydia Serwanga, headmistress of Ntawo Primary School in Mukono Municipality, east of Kampala.
Serwanga says the correct approach should have been to allow back girls who have delivered and nursed their babies for at least six months. “The policy is inhuman because it ignores the right of the babies to be cared for by their mothers,” argues Serwanga. She adds, “First pregnancies are problematic. They cause nausea, vomiting and mood swings. It is impossible for pregnant girls to handle such situations in a school setting.”
Mike Kalule, a teacher in Luweero Primary School in the central region, takes a position at the other end of the scale. He says the new policy is reprehensible. “Expulsion from school has been a deterrent to school girls from engaging in premature sexual relations,” he argues.
However, evidence in Uganda and several African countries has shown that the fear of expulsion does not reduce teenage pregnancies, as many girls are taken advantage of by older men and also teachers. Expulsion also means they girls cannot return to their families and often end up as prostitutes in the cities.
The higher incidence of pregnancies has been blamed by some NGOs on the lockdowns and enforced idleness during the schools closure. It’s a tricky situation in a largely conservative country but Lydia Serwanga’s suggestion of allowing pregnant girls to deliver and nurse their offspring for six months before returning to school seems to make the most sense.