Focus on Policy Universal Primary Education in Uganda
Alex Ndeezi (MP)
Uganda’s Universal Primary Education (UPE), begun in 1996, is the brain child of President Yoweri Museveni. A former lecturer at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Museveni is one of Africa’s pragmatic leaders who believes in the transformation and modernisation of society through the elimination of illiteracy and the provision of Education For All – irrespective of one’s gender, disability or any other categorisation.
In practice, the UPE programme is not universal, but has a realistic tendency towards universality. Before implementation, the policy was extensively discussed at various fora, including educational institutions, in the cabinet and at parliamentary level. Under this programme, the government commits itself to providing primary education for a maximum of 4 children per family. In order to comply with Uganda’s constitutional requirements on affirmative action in favour of marginalised groups, 2 of the 4 must be girls, if a family has children of both sexes. In addition, if a family has a child with disability, he or she must be granted the highest priority in enrolment under this programme.
The government pays the school fees for the children. It also provides grants to be spent on instructional materials, co-curricular activities like sport, and the management and maintenance of utilities like water and electricity.
By the end of September 1999 six and a half million children aged 6-15 had enrolled for primary school education – one third of Uganda’s total population. Total enrolment rates for all children have tripled since 1996 and the enrolment of children with disabilities, almost half of whom are female, has quadrupled.
- The increase in enrollment rates, as cited above.
- The programme has helped to bring to light the enormous challenges of providing education for all and the special challenges of providing education to children with disabilities.
- Increased funding for primary schools.
- Reduced illiteracy rates – especially amongst children with disabilities.
- Increased supply of building and instructional materials to schools. And increased awareness of the educational needs of children with disabilities e.g. the need for sign language development.
- The policy emphasises the mainstreaming of all categories of children. Profoundly Deaf children are not yet benefiting much from the scheme.
- Emphasis is on day schools – children with visual and physical disabilities are finding it increasingly difficult to travel for long distances to and from school on a daily basis.
- Mobility aids like crutches, wheel chairs and white canes are not provided for in the programme. Neither is the physical environment in most schools accessible.
- Special education teachers in areas such as Deaf education, Sign Language, visual and mental impairment are inadequate and non-existent in most primary schools.
- The classrooms are always too congested. In some areas classes are conducted under mango trees.
- The programme has been criticised for being short-sighted. It does not explain what will happen to the tens of thousands of children after primary level.
- The current ratio of teacher to pupil is 1:110. This is extremely high and not conducive to proper learning and good standards. With this ratio, the children with disabilities who need special attention, simply get “swallowed” in the congested classrooms.
- The negative attitudes of most teachers towards children with disabilities are in many respects still a hindrance to the success of the programme.
- The programme has almost become too expensive to run because the government is short of funds. The result is that donors have been approached for assistance. However, these donors often come in with their own conditions, which may not be wholly in the interests of the programme.
The Way forward
- Efforts are being made to construct special units within the mainstream schools to meet the needs of children with special learning needs. However there is still a need to build more special schools e.g. for deaf children.
- There is a need for special grants for children with disabilities to enable them to acquire mobility aids and other special learning materials.
- The Ministry of Education has already issued a directive on ensuring physical accessibility for children with disabilities in the construction of new buildings. Some schools have already started implementing this directive.
Last but not least, even though UPE has its own weaknesses it has been hailed world-wide as a wonderful programme, a reflection of political commitment to education for all, and a role model of how the poorest countries of the world, such as Uganda, can eliminate widespread illiteracy and develop their human resources by provision of affordable education.
Alex Ndeezi is Uganda’s first Deaf Member of Parliament. He is also the chairperson of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf. He can be contacted at: PO Box 7339, Kampala, Uganda. Tel: +256 (0)41 27 25 63