January 2022 will be a milestone in Uganda’s education history, but also a turning point. It will mark the Silver Jubilee since the institution of Universal Primary Education, which essentially democratised school, making it accessible to all, though some factors like retrogressive cultures kept some children away.
Now, January 2022 will find Uganda rising from the Covid-19 shock two years since the pandemic struck, and education will not be the same again.
The brutal shocks the pandemic inflicted on the country’s education system include, first of all, the most obvious: schools being closed for two years. For starters, we will have 7.5 million children, instead of 2.5 million, in Primary One for a while, as the sector managers iron out that bulge — call it constipation in the seven-step/year ladder of primary school.
Secondly, thousands of teenage girls got pregnant and became mothers due to idleness and gender-based violence occasioned by the lockdown.
Thirdly, we all grew older by two years, but the effect on the teenagers for being out of the controlled school environment is tremendous and far-reaching. Many went to work and won’t return to school. Others got idle and disorderly, like one Mubarak Mubiru, now 17, who got his mother Fatuma Nakazibwe’s phone, created a Facebook account under some bogus name and announced the death of the Inspector General of Uganda Police Force, Martin Okoth Ochola. Cyber detectives located the account user who, realising the game was up, confessed to the crime, the seriousness of which he hadn’t fathomed. The IGP asked the Director of Public Prosecution to drop the case and opted to counsel mother and son instead.
Fourth are the teachers. While the government has been paying salaries to its 250,000 teachers, an equal number who (used to) teach in private schools had no pay. With the construction industry booming during the lockdown, many learnt the simplest of building activities — brickmaking — and found it lucrative. So they won’t be returning to the classroom. Some became fishermen, politicians, etc.
But fifth, some entire schools will not be returning to the education sector. Education finance is a delicate undertaking. Banks used to lend schools with ease, at minimal risk, as they had control over their cash since school fees are paid into the school account in the lender bank. Now, with two years of no fees collection, what has become of the loan balances is easy to imagine. Some school premises have converted use, others have been sold, and many fear the opening day, when banks will be ready and eager to continue their fees collection role. You don’t want to be a school proprietor come January 2022.
Now to the turning point. A quiet (r)evolution has been taking place in homesteads. Some teachers who did not become brickmakers (or when they are not busy brickmaking) started being hired to privately tutor children who were becoming unmanageable. The lockdown was very clear against opening of schools, but it did not stop a person (who may be a teacher) visiting a home (where a student is).
It started as a trickle, where financially capable parents would hire teachers to go and teach their one child. Then more people became wiser. Instead of several teachers teaching one (rich) child, one teacher started teaching several (poor) children. As of now, we can safely estimate that half or more of Uganda’s schoolage children are being taught by professional teachers — around their homes. And the key feature of this model is that there are no costs for buildings, management, profits so it is cheaper to the parent.
The immediate challenge was, of course, the Covid-19 restrictions. Police in several places started raiding localities where schooling was obviously taking place. But police operate in the society and this being disruption of a community activity, not many cases went beyond cautioning stage.
Some police officers, like those in Mukono (in Greater Kampala), who were zealous in “enforcing the presidential directives against congregation which is likely to spread infection…”. got a stern warning from the Resident District Commissioner, a tough lady who gave out her number to the teachers so they call her if a police officer disturbs them. She spelt it out that “...the President closed schools, he did not ban teaching.”
The second challenge that will arise to slow the blooming of the new model of emerging “community schools” will be regulation and examination. National exams are a VERY BIG thing in Uganda and many countries.
Exams are conducted in designated centres which are registered schools. But it is not rocket science to design a way of regulating and community schooling. What is certain is that delivery of education services will not be the same after covid-19.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]