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Schooling that’s free but not easy

The Ugandan government’s universal secondary education programme is part of its poverty reduction strategy. But is its Education Standards Agency equipped to handle the upsurge in students?

In the village of Amach in Lira, northern Uganda, 15-year-old Francis Okello is taking his father's goats to graze. These goats, an old bicycle and some chickens are all his father owns. Okello sat the primary school leaving examination last year and passed – qualifying him to join the government's new universal secondary education (USE) programme.

"It is a great opportunity for us. I am now hopeful about the future," says Okello, whose father has to support three other children at secondary school. He hopes secondary education will show him the way out of poverty. Okello's father, Obong Rafael is also happy. He hopes USE will relieve him of the heavy burden of paying school fees or, better still, reduce the prospect of Okello dropping out of school because his family cannot afford to pay his fees.

The government's free programme, which was launched on Monday, is part of its strategy to dispel poverty. The Ministry of Education says it will provide expanded opportunities for young people and equip them with the skills to find jobs or to create their own employment. The government is spending 30 billion Uganda shillings (about $17 million) this year from its own coffers, not from the big international donors, who have tended to prioritise primary education.

Fagil Mandy oversaw the start of universal primary education (UPE), which was launched a decade ago. He now works as an education consultant in Kampala and says: "USE is taking primary education to a higher level of skills and knowledge so we raise citizens who have better manual, technical and intellectual ability to handle advanced production and to understand the wider scope of the economy in Uganda and beyond."

He believes an immediate benefit of the scheme will be to inject money into the economy, creating new jobs in the construction sector as the government builds more schools, and increasing opportunities for consultants, publishers and suppliers of scholastic materials.

The start of UPE posed huge challenges for the government. There were scarcely enough classrooms and teachers to handle the sudden upsurge in the number of pupils, forcing some school administrators to run classes under trees. Making free secondary education available is expected to more than double the number of children in secondary schools from 150,000 to 380,000.

To avoid being overwhelmed by this, the government is phasing in free secondary education gradually – starting with the students who joined year one of secondary education this week. Some schools will operate a shift system, taking some children in the morning and others in the afternoon.

But there are other challenges ahead. Unlike primary education, which is managed by local governments, secondary education is managed by central government. Fagil Mandy is concerned that the current system will not be robust enough to monitor quality control and to curb corruption in schools. UPE has been described as one of the most corrupt sectors in Uganda, with allegations of abuse ranging from theft of large amounts of education money by district officials, shoddy construction of school facilities by corrupt building contractors and petty theft by school teachers.

The Education Standards Agency, which is responsible for ensuring quality control in the delivery of education in Uganda is, according to Mr Mandy, poorly funded, under-staffed and ill-equipped to handle the sudden upsurge in the number of students. "Even UPE, which is supervised by the local governments, has enormous problems of corruption and inefficiency among teachers," he says. "How much worse will it be for USE which is supposed to be supervised from the centre?"

Robinson Nsamba-Lyazi, acting commissioner for secondary education says that the government plans to use mechanisms such as Boards of Governors and Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) to supervise and monitor the implementation of USE. But PTAs have not always been seen an independent force. When secondary schools still charged fees, PTAs in some schools were accused of failing to ensure that fees were affordable, opting instead to raise fees in order to give teachers more money.

And there are other concerns in a country where many people struggle to live at subsistence level. Even though school fees will no longer apply to children who have passed their primary school leaving exams, parents like Obong Rafael will still be expected to bear the cost of providing uniforms and textbooks and indeed, of feeding their children as they study. That's still a huge challenge for many families – and could prove a test of whether the very poorest will be able to take advantage of secondary education even when there are no longer school fees to pay.

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Panos London

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