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Education in Crisis in Uganda's North

Region struggles to rebuild school system after two decades of war.
By Patrick Okino
Although Daniel Omara, 17, comes to school early and waits patiently in his classroom each morning, he finds only other students there.

All too often, even by midday few teachers have arrived at the school, at Abella in the Otwal area northwest of the northern Ugandan town of Lira.

Most days end with Omara having learned nothing.

His fellow-pupils frequently fight one another, disrupting those are trying to prepare for their final exams.

“My [classmates] don’t know even how to read and write,” Omara told IWPR. “I feel so sorry because at the end of the term, you find that we have grasped nothing.”

But Omara does not blame his teachers; he knows that the complex problems plaguing education in northern Uganda stem from 20 years of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

Abella is the same school that was once attended by LRA leader Joseph Kony, who grew up in the nearby community of Odek.

After two decades of war and with warrants for his arrest hanging over his head from the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, Kony has taken his army to a remote corner of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

Like Abella, schools across north Uganda were abandoned and suffered damage during the war.

School representatives are working with the Ugandan government to provide free primary education for all children as part of the country’s Universal Primary Education programme or UPE. This was introduced by the authorities in January 1997 in an attempt to deliver free primary education to four children in each family.

An estimated 7.6 million children are currently enrolled in state schools nationwide.

However, because of the war, at least 30 per cent of school-age children in the north are not in education, according to Dan Okello, a spokesman for the Uganda Peoples Congress party.

“It’s a failure of the UPE programme in itself,” said Okello. “How can it be called Universal Primary Education when one third of the population of children of school age are excluded?”

Okello says average test scores in the north are well below those of the rest of the country. The majority of children in the north leave school without basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

While those who can afford it move their children to private schools, he said, this is not an option for poorer families, he said.

According to Okello, this means that children from rural schools in the north are not given opportunities to pursue careers in engineering, medicine or science, as few are able to compete for a university place.

Teachers complain that the UPE programme aims merely boost the numbers in education without addressing the quality of teaching. It does not, for example, ensure that school curricula are in line with the requirements for examinations.

“The principles on which examinations are used to promote students in the education system are ignored in the UPE programme,” said Joel Peter Onyutha of the Abella school.

Teachers say they do not even get the state salaries they are due, and depend instead on contributions from parents, which can halt the moment there is a disagreement between them. That is one of the reasons why teachers at schools like Abella turn up for work only intermittently.

“I take my time to go to school since I [must] first take my children to the farm, so that the next time parents fail to pay us, I will have something to feed them,” said another teacher, Jasper Odyek. “We cannot depend on parents’ contribution alone. It’s too meagre.”

Onyutha said teachers in northern Uganda also lack adequate housing, which is traditionally provided by the school.

District Education Officer Quinto Okello said some teachers sleep in one-roomed thatched huts built in the 1970s.

There are fears that some schools could even lose their property, as villagers try to reclaim land they once leased out to them. Some farmers want school buildings demolished so that they can farm the land.

That may not be possible, however, according to Uganda’s federal minister of lands, Daniel Omara Atubo, who explained that land donated to build either schools or churches prior to 1945 now belongs to the government.

“People who think that they are going to [get] back the land that was donated by their ancestors – their dreams might not come true,” he said.

While some schools are being helped by the National School Facility Grant programme, which provides money for teachers’ housing, the needs are still great, said Okello.

The money provided by this fund is insufficient to provide housing for teachers at all the schools in the district.

“This financial year, we have planned to construct only three teachers’ houses,” said Okello.

Overcrowding in schools in the north is having a detrimental effect on children’s education.

As peace has settled across the north in recent years, enrolment numbers have surged, putting pressure on classrooms and teachers, according to the district inspector of schools, Liberata Omach.

“Alanyi, which is a primary school in Abako area near Lira, has enrolled 2,015 pupils [but] has only seven classrooms,” said Omach.

She said that while the ideal pupil-to-classroom ratio in Uganda was set at 55 to one, the Alanyi school has 285 students per classroom.

Finding enough space for the pupils is also a problem at Abella. With more than 1,000 enrolled, only 300 children can attend the school at any one time, and even then it is crowded.

“If you want to sit comfortably, you have to reach school at 7 am,” said Polly Adong, an 11-year-old in grade four.

According to Omach, the school system in the north is in crisis, and current solutions are often “desperate measures” that do not address the root cause of the problems.

“The real solutions to the problem are the construction of more physical infrastructure, while the issue of human resources should also be given the attention it deserves,” said Omach.

Omach said her office has turned to aid groups for help such as Light Force International and Save the Children in Uganda.

Julius Peter Odongkara, a top civil servant in the district, said his department was unable to help.

“Our hands are tied because we have limited resources,” he said.

He suggested that the Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Programme, NUREP, could expand its education programme to help address some of the problems.

NUREP is a programme initiated by the Uganda government and funded by the European Union.

Beatrice Arach, a NUREP operation manager based in Gulu, said the organisation was already looking into the problem.

“There are many schools in the north where children are conducting lessons under trees, but we are trying to identify them and look how to assist them with resources,” said Arach.

In the meantime, Okello is concerned that the current problems with the education system in the north will have long-term effects.

He points out that less than 40 per cent of those who take the primary-school final examination here go on to secondary school.

“This also puts the integrity and the standard of universal secondary education, and eventually the universities in Uganda, in complete jeopardy,” said Okello.

In 2007, the Ugandan government started to offer free secondary education to 250,000 students, in an attempt to double the number of children staying on at school.

Okello criticised part of the scheme which envisages that teachers in the larger schools should work double shifts for the same money, warning that this would put even greater stress on already over-stretched staff.

“While government has proposed double shifts for the USE [universal secondary education]programme, it’s the same teachers [who are] expected to teach the double shifts for the same remuneration, albeit with increased responsibilities for evening classes,” said Okello.

“Teachers are already disgruntled over low pay even without the introduction of double shifts.”

Omach said that to boost the standard of education in the region, the government should give more incentives to teachers, increase their salaries, and recruit more staff.

Others say that disciplinary action should be taken against teachers who fail to turn up to school.

At the Walela primary school near Abella, seven teachers had their pay withheld because they did not show up to teach, and action is now being taken against them, said officials.

On one recent visit, Ayena said he found only four teachers out of 11 at work at the school. In addition, a total of 43 teachers in the region were found to have forged letters of appointment.

“To discipline teachers who never want to be on duty and to improve the performance, the salary department at the district is forfeiting their payment to compensate time wasted,” said Patrick Ayena, a community leader.

“For all of this term, they have not been on duty,” he said. “That is why we are taking serious steps against them.”

Ayena said that this problem was exacerbated by a lack of inspectors to enforce rules.

“There are only two inspectors to monitor teachers in 218 schools,” he said.

Despite the ongoing struggle to improve education, many say it will be hard to overcome the residual effects of the region’s long-running conflict.

According to Ruth Atala Adupa, the resident district commissioner of Dokolo, the problems in education come down to poverty and other problems associated with the prolonged LRA conflict.

Adupa said that rape is a major problem in the district, and that this is mentally and physically debilitating for young girls who lose their motivation to attend school.

“The biggest problem… is defilement,” said Adupa, noting that adults in the same community are generally the culprits.

Many young girls drop out of school and get married, she said.

Denis Moro, 29, said that living in refugee camps had “spoiled” his children.

“One morning I sent my girl to school, but I was shocked when I heard her crying for help in the neighbourhood,” he said. Instead of being in school, the girl had been hurt while playing with other village children, he said.

Moro is afraid that his girls will soon drop out of school.

“Girls are just like boys. [Refugee] camp life has brought [up] children in a silly way,” he said. “They think that life is all about violence.”

Patrick Okino and Bill Oketch are IWPR-trained reporters in Uganda.

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