Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Catching up with the education news – in Uganda, that is

As everyone who works for an NGO or other such organisation knows, there are times when you feel that you are beating your head against a brick wall and nothing, but nothing, will ever change.  It’s not for lack of pleasant colleagues or a general acceptance that a particular public service is a good thing and could be helped to become an even better thing; it’s more a case of the systems sometimes being so dysfunctional across such a broad range of activities and at such a high level that you end up believing that nothing will ever work and nothing will ever change.  Fortunately, that feeling doesn't last forever, and within a few hours you are back plugging away as best you can, trying to move things along by a centimetre, a millimetre even.

Given the nature of our jobs, we don’t tend to write about such things as they affect us personally.  Instead, I thought a quick review of the papers to see what’s been happening generally in education might be of some mild interest. So, here are the big stories from the last few days, as reported in the national press: all out in the public domain and public knowledge, over here in Uganda, anyway.

Story No 1: Closure of all primary teachers’ colleges

All 45 government-aided primary teachers’ colleges in Uganda have closed due to lack of funds to meet their operational costs.  The 16,239 students in primary teachers’ colleges receive free education, the only free tertiary education in Uganda. The term started about a month ago.  The decision to close was taken by the Principals’ Association of Uganda (PAU) in order to avert strikes by the students.  The reason for their financial difficulties is that the government has failed to provide the promised funds, a modest Shs1,800 (less than 50p) per day for each student, to cover meals, medical care and stationery.  The problem has been rumbling on for a long time.  Colleges have been receiving money in instalments and their debts have been mounting.  Suppliers are now refusing them credit.   In April, Bishop Stuart College, near Mbarara, received only Shs18 million out of the Shs106 million expected, which lasted them three weeks.  In student terms, that means that for each student the college received Shs608 (about 16p) instead of the promised Shs1,800.  The college has not received its full capitation grant since 2004 and its debts have mounted to Shs532 million.  The students trained in these colleges are essential to the implementation of Universal Primary Education (UPE).

John Arinaitwe, chairman of PAU is quoted as saying, ‘If you give me money in halves, do you want me to teach half of the syllabus or …to teach half of the term?’

The Education Ministry said it was the fault of the Finance Ministry, which had only handed over Shs10 billion of the Shs30 billion needed for capitation grants to schools under the free education programme. Oh, and by the way, private secondary schools providing free education under this scheme are also threatening to close, for the very same reason.  The leader article in the Monitor claims that some heads even offer ‘kick-backs’ to ministry officials to ensure that their schools ‘feature in the first batch of capitation fund recipients’.

Apparently, so the new Education Minister says, the President has directed the Ministry of Finance to release the Shs20 billion balance for capitation grants to schools and colleges.  This hasn’t happened yet, but we are sure it will. 

The deputy secretary to the Treasury said, ‘There is no problem.  They can wait because we shall provide the money.’ 

However, as the newspapers have pointed out, even a few days’ disruption can interfere with young people’s learning and cause major worry to those committed educational professionals who are trying to shield them from the consequences of poor planning and management.

Which brings us to:

Story No 2: Billions returned to the Treasury

Somewhat embarrassingly, it has just been reported that the Education Ministry has returned Shs10 billion to the Consolidated Fund having failed to use it.  The money had been earmarked for the recruitment of primary teachers in rural districts, where they are desperately needed.  Ironically, every year higher education institutions churn out 400,000 graduates, who all compete for the 18,000 jobs available.  Some of those who are finding it difficult to get jobs are recently qualified teachers from primary teacher colleges, national colleges (for secondary teachers) and universities.  Responsibility for this state of affairs, say the newspapers, does not just lie with the Ministry; it also lies with the districts, which are in charge of teacher recruitment.  It is said that so many new districts have been created recently that they have not all been able to get the statutory arrangements in place to carry out key tasks like making appointments.  Why so many new districts (up from round about 60 a few years ago to over 112 just now and rising)?  Because people ask the President for them and, naturally, he likes to do what pleases the people.  And what do the cynics say? With each new district come lots of new jobs which not only provide salaries, but (dare one whisper it?) also enable people to ‘eat’, an East African euphemism for making lots of money by embezzlement and corruption.

Which brings us to:

Story No 3: Ghost schools, ghost teachers and ghost textbooks

It has just been announced that in March this year the Auditor General discovered 500 ghost schools in the Ministry of Education and Sports primary school database.  He found the ‘discrepancy’ when going through Shs900,000 million expenditure on materials for the new P4/P5 curriculum in UPE schools.  It has been suggested that officials inflated the number of schools in order to benefit.  It is possible, for example, that SHs67.6 million may have been spent on 'phantom textbooks' (a term which, up till now, I have been unfamiliar with).  Apparently the schools which are supposed to have received the textbooks have not submitted receipts.  The papers lists a whole series of ‘discrepancies’ too boring to reproduce here, but which, presumably, syphoned off thousands of pounds which could have been spent on Uganda’s dismal under-resourced schools and have helped thousands of its ill-supported children to learn.

The Daily Monitor then continues that last year the government was paying more than Shs20 billion annually in salaries for ‘quack’ teachers.  Again it accuses Ministry officials for being part of a ‘racket where appointment letters are shared among several teachers’.  You couldn’t make it up…

Which brings us to:

Story No 4: National school census

Like most countries, Uganda has a yearly school census.  The census being carried out this week, however is rather different from its predecessors.  Over the next two weeks, all ‘operational’ government and private schools must fill in new census forms which give particulars such as numbers of pupils, teachers and other staff, infrastructure and sanitation and information about HIV/Aids and physical education and sports.  Unlike during previous censuses, headteachers are going to receive ‘training’ in how to fill in the forms and are required to fill them in the venues where this training takes place.  District education officers are being asked to endorse the form.

Ministry of Education spokesperson Charles Kitonsa is quoted as saying that some district officials ‘have a tendency to give false information about schools in their areas,…’

There are supposed to be 17,865 primary schools (12,576 government-aided and 5,289 private) with a total enrolment of 8.3 million, 3,234 secondary schools and 181 degree and non-degree-awarding institutions.  Who knows how many there’ll be by the end of next week?

As the Monitor puts it: ‘… both schemes [UPE and USE] have been plagued by unchecked graft which has crippled the delivery of quality education in the country, particularly at the lower levels.’

Last year, President Museveni established a judicial commission to investigate the alleged misuse of funds for free education, the processes of disbursement to districts and schools and how the money for the construction of new classrooms has been spent.  (New classrooms? What are they?)

Which brings us to:

Story No 5: A new round of school inspections

The Education Guide in the Monitor got it slightly wrong when it used the headline Ministry resurrects inspections as school standards plummet – not the bit about plummeting so much as the bit about resurrection. 

School inspections have in fact been going on for years, though recently the secondary kind have been less in evidence than the primary kind.  The inspections which started this week and last for a fortnight are to establish to what extent secondary schools in the central region (Kampala and its surrounding districts) meet the government’s Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards (BRMS).   BRMS primary inspections (or ‘data-gathering’, a rather more accurate term as such visits do not involve much evaluation) have been taking place for some time.  Now it is the turn of the secondary schools.  BRMS checklists listed in a precious little blue book cover everything from the existence of a flag pole (though, strangely, not a flag) to medical examinations for school cooks. They don’t, however, cover learning, attainment or achievement.  Oh well, you can’t have everything, I suppose.

Anyway, the reports from these secondary inspections will be produced in due course.  In the meanwhile, the stories are trickling through and some get as far as the press.  We cannot imagine premature release of inspection evidence being countenanced in Scotland.  (‘The past is another country.  They do things differently there.’)

The inspections started on Monday.  By Tuesday, this story had appeared in the Monitor: Inspectors find school with two licences.  The first paragraph began, ‘From ghost schools, ghost pupils and ghost teachers, officials on yet another round of schools inspections yesterday found what they say is a school with two registration certificates.’

Naive readers in Scotland might say, ‘So what?  What’s the big deal?’  The big deal is that the authorities might have been drawing two sets of USE payments.

After one day’s inspection of 52 schools (can you believe it?), the paper reports one of the inspectors from the Directorate of Education Standards as saying that the inspections found ‘unprepared teachers, poor security and sanitation’.  It also found unauthorised boarding schools with some using classrooms as dormitories.  ‘Teachers …  don’t have schemes of work and lesson plans,’ said the inspector.

What is even more interesting is the fact that the Monitor can actually predict the outcomes of the inspection when the activities have barely started let alone the report published.  ‘It is expected to record the actual number of schools benefiting from universal education (schools benefiting?  not pupils?  Shome mishtake, shurely...) and ascertain stakeholders who defy the sector’s policies.’  Well, that’s that then.

One wonders why we bother having inspections at all when the newspapers can write the reports in advance.

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