Uganda’s Education System Is Entrenching Social And Economic Inequality


The writer, Mr Samuel Olara

Writing in the daily monitor recently, Mr Rinus van Klinken, the SNV Uganda Dairy programme manager advocates that “Parents should contribute to children’s school feeding.”

He notes in the articles that, “In 2016, SNV through its dairy project funded by the Dutch government launched a national school milk pilot to get 5,000 school going children taking parent-provided milk while at school. The pilot was launched in six districts within the cattle corridor where SNV is implementing the dairy project. Within one year, 80,400 children were taking parent-provided milk in school on a daily basis.

Parents are sensitised about the benefits of the school milk programme and are encouraged to contribute money towards the purchase of milk for their children to take during break time. It is the parents’ sole responsibility to mobilise funds to buy milk and other consumables like firewood to boil the milk. As with many community processes, while some progressive parents embraced the suggestion, most parents adopted a wait and see attitude.”

With all its good intentions, the point the article misses is that in Uganda, children from peasant families are being condemned to failure because of an “apartheid” system of education that has been allowed to flourish unabated, driven by the ability to pay rather than merit.

The declining quality of Uganda’s education system must be a concern to all Ugandans.  Along almost every dimension of comparison in our education system today, there has developed glaring inequalities that clearly show a lack of concern for not only the welfare of our children, but also for the education system itself as an institution.

One hopes that the natural instinct of every parent is to secure advantages for their children in later life. In education, parents see a clear route to a better life for their children, education is therefore fundamental to the development of human potential and to full participation in a democratic society. That’s why it’s recognised as a human right. Everyone has the right to education, regardless of where you live, or a family’s financial status.

Education is also fundamental to the full enjoyment of most other human rights: most clearly the right to work but also the right to health. And to the exercise of social responsibilities including respect for human rights.

The degree of education of course varies, but should never depend on the ability to pay.  It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that a functioning education system exists for every child in its territory regardless of their status or background.

In the Uganda of today however, education seems to have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous and “quality education” will soon only be accessible by the chosen few. Our education system, which once produced world acclaimed scholars and professionals, has now been reduced to one whose products are mere minions without the hope of ever attaining any meaningful employment.

Unlike in the Uganda of yesteryears, where previous achievements were surpassed by successive generations, today, nostalgic references are always made to the feats of the past without any attempt to repeat or re-enact the same.

One reason this state of affairs has arisen could be because of the mushrooming private schools, built to cater for the needs of the “class with wealth”.  These private schools are perpetuating a form of “social apartheid” that will produce a political class drawn from a “segregated money-eyed elite”.

Parents already pay more than enough towards costs and requirements. It is explicitly clear to most parents that most schools are doing business rather than offering education. Because, other than the burden of school fees; parents are bombarded with a long list of items to bring back with their children whenever reporting back to school every term.

This list of requirements includes items such as contribution towards structural buildings – bags of cement, stationary, activity charges (PE & away days), computer cartridges, printing paper and sets of teachers’ text books.

Additionally, the children must also report with uniforms, basin, soap, body lotion, slippers, toilet rolls, razor blades, plastic chairs, buckets and mobs, brooms, slashers, woollen threads, hoes, sickles and in some cases bags of posho and beans.  This is just to mention but a few and it is expected of every student, every term.

Wittingly, the schools often indulge in the practices of favouring particular brands or suppliers, forcing parents to buy these items only from them.

As such, schools are booming businesses with their boards of management and owners enjoying lavish lifestyles at the expense of poverty stricken parents who have very little choice but to find the money, if they want to get their children “educated.”

This extortion must be stopped. It is happening every term and yearly but our political elite remain silent and the ministry concerned takes no notice of this open and well organised form of crime – a form of corruption that deprives children of their basic human right to education

This continued entrenchment of social and economic inequality, and the consolidation of privilege has become the preserve of our ‘progressive’ society of today – one where the top 2% own 65% of the country’s wealth.  This form of “apartheid” represents a significant move by those who occupy the top-end of the social hierarchy, and education is one way to ensure that this “apartheid” continues.

Children from poorest families are half as likely to achieve good results, let alone attain meaningful higher education – because their parents cannot afford the exorbitant fees levied by private schools at home or send their children abroad for masters or phd programmes.  They are also three times more likely to be excluded from any form of white collar employment.

Our public schools are now shadows of their past, intentionally “killed” to pave way for what has become one of Uganda’s most lucrative businesses.  Ugandans who went to those public schools must consider themselves fortunate to have been schooled in the Uganda of 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. There was hardly a market for private education then – because quality education was available in public schools where children from both poor and rich families went.  Adequate feeding and schooling requirements were provided by the school.

You had children from privileged families mixing with the children of peasants and those from middle class backgrounds.  Social mobility was thus enabled – which allowed able children from peasant families to rise above the conditions of their birth.

And because they mixed freely at school, children from privileged families were also exposed to the sort of diversity that helped educate them about the realities of their fellow citizens, thereby creating a sense of community across the social strata – thus contributing towards social cohesion.

It was the ancient Greek historian Plutarch who said that: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

That ailment is now deeply rooted – all because Uganda decided to swallow the IMF’s poisonous “structural adjustment” pill and embarked on a programme of privatisation and public spending cuts which have consistently denied crucial funding to publicly-run schools, but encouraged a business driven form of schooling in Uganda.

The former head of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, once said that, “the widening gaps between rich and poor within nations” is “morally outrageous, economically wasteful and potentially socially explosive”.

By allowing millions of Ugandan children to struggle without “milk” and “adequate educational opportunities” which are only available to the well-off, Uganda’s elite have created conditions that are inflaming social tensions which will inevitably explode.

There should be a limit to the selflessness of the parents who are just concerned about the education of their children, inspite of knowing that they are actively being coerced into participating in this organised crime.

The options are stark and clear. We can continue down the path of “separate development” in which the best facilities are available to a tiny few, or we can remember our constitutional obligations and invest in our public schools and create adequate educational opportunities for all according to merit and not ability to pay.

Mr Olara is a human rights advocate