At the end of a long dirt road, under a big tree, children dressed in their yellow and green school uniforms are singing a beautiful song of welcome and gratitude, while their parents proudly look on.
The children are students at Kabembe primary school, located on the outskirts of Kampala. Patrick Bwire, the headmaster, greets us and shows us the main school building, a basic brick structure that was constructed by the community. This is one of two schools I visited during a weeklong trip to Uganda in early December.
One of the classrooms has two blackboards, one at either end. The headmaster explains that the wall in between the two classrooms collapsed, so now the teachers teach their two classes simultaneously, the students sitting back to back. It’s likely that they probably have difficulty concentrating on the lessons.
Run-off from the heavy rains is compromising the foundation of the building and the latrines behind the school building have ragged tarps over the doorways in an attempt to give the children some privacy.
A strong appetite for education despite little means
Overlooking Lake Victoria along another dirt road, I also visited Busabala primary school. Again the children greeted us with wonderful songs. The buildings at this second school were in a similar state of disrepair.
The headmaster, Hasakya Halim Serunjogi, shared with us some of the challenges he is facing. There are not enough classrooms, latrines or furniture for the 243 students. There is no library and no fence to ensure the safety of pupils and property. The school does not have a reliable funding source.
The rate of absenteeism is high. The school doesn’t provide a school lunch for children and parents cannot afford to send them to school with food. Some teachers live too far from the school to commute every day, especially during the rainy season. Parents also cannot afford to buy basic learning materials like books, pens or uniforms.
The school has no safe source of water, so the school staff and children fetch it directly from the lake. There are repeated outbreaks of Bilharzia (an infection caused by parasites living in fresh water). Many children are self-parenting, and there is a high drop-out rate resulting from displacement of families due to the nearby road construction.
Supporting better school infrastructure and teachers
Kabembe and Busabala are just two of the 293 schools that stand to benefit from the GPE-supported program in Uganda. The $100 million grant will support the construction of more and better-equipped school buildings and housing for teachers working in remote regions of the country so that every child can have access to a quality education regardless of where they live. The grant will also support the production and distribution of textbooks for grades 1 to 7 and the training of more than 24,000 teachers.
Teachers will be trained in the fundamental teaching skills they need to succeed in the classroom, and with the knowledge to make schools more hospitable to all students, especially girls. The project is also making it possible to teach head teachers and administrators how to manage schools more effectively and efficiently.
I also had a chance to visit Shimoni Primary Teachers’ College, and that visit filled me with hope for the future of education in Uganda. The newly constructed campus in the countryside about an hour from Kampala trains 250 new primary teachers every year.
This is one of the top training colleges in the country and there is a competitive selection to get in. The quality of an education system cannot rise above the quality of its teachers. If a nation’s children are its future, its teachers are the means of getting there.
Financial resources must be secured for education
The education sector in Uganda faces many challenges, not least of which is financing. At the GPE replenishment in June 2014, the Ugandan government committed to increase its domestic financing to education. Yet, we have seen the percentage of the national budget dedicated to education drop from 16.8% in 2011 to 14.6% in 2013 and 13% in 2014.
Domestic financing of education is also falling in real terms and last year the education budget was cut by 33 billion Uganda Shillings (close to $10 million).
Our expectation is that the GPE grant and the careful support through our partners, in particular the World Bank, which supervises the grant, will provide an incentive to the country and its government to get back on track with the stated commitment to education.
In its 5-year National Development Plan, the Ugandan government has expressed ambition to become a middle-income country by 2040. It’s an ambition we fully support, and we know that education is the way to get there.
Education is the cornerstone of a society’s prosperity and stability and investments in education pay enormous and long term dividends. A strong education sector means a strong nation. We will continue to support Uganda on this path.