Monday, February 6, 2012

Universal Secondary Education – the big Ugandan con-trick

What does the word universal mean?

Any dictionary will tell you that ‘universal’ means: worldwide, widespread, general, common, total, entire, complete, comprehensive, used by everyone, applicable to all, relating to/affecting/including/common to everyone in a group or situation.

When applied to primary education in Uganda, the word ‘universal’, as in Universal Primary Education (UPE, introduced in 1997), indicates that all children of primary age have access to free education. Indeed, primary enrolment rates in Uganda, at 92%, are average for Africa, one of its few successes  against the Millennium Development Goals. Actual attendance and retention are something quite different of course, being round about 45% and 30% respectively. So all children in Uganda have the right to go to primary school, but only a minority actually do so.

What about the word ‘universal’ when applied to secondary schooling?

Uganda has a policy of Universal Secondary Education (USE) introduced in 2007. That means that any child who passes the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) with an aggregate score of 28 or less has the right to free secondary education. Indeed, the first pupils educated under the USE scheme took their O levels last year. Middle-class families do not tend to educate their children through the UPE or USE schemes, fearing the overcrowding which has followed introduction of the schemes.

What does USE actually mean in practice?

What it certainly DOESN’T mean is that every child of secondary age in Uganda has access to secondary education.

Last Thursday, government officials and headteachers held a two-day meeting to allocate those pupils who had been successful in the PLE to those government or private schools which run the USE programme.  According to figures supplied by the Ministry of Education Selection Committee, 444,815 pupils (about a quarter of their age cohort) were eligible to join Senior 1 (S1). However, there were places only for 331,360 pupils. That meant that 113,455 pupils who only last week were celebrating their achievements in PLE were left without a secondary school place. In 2009, there were 320,860 places, in 2010 390,000 and in 2011 275,990. At least there was a slight increase this year. Last year 155,716 pupils were denied a place at secondary, so you could argue that this year’s figures actually represent an improvement: only 113,455 able resilient students who have made it this far have been left without a secondary school! And what do they do now? If their parents have any money for school fees, they will go from private school to private school hoping that one will take them in. Most, however, will abandon their hopes of secondary education.

And the lucky ones? The 917 government-aided USE schools will take 195,860 students. The 882 private USE schools will take another 105,840. Secondary schools generally, but particularly those with a good reputation, have raised their cut off points this year. Schools like King’s College Budo, Gayaza High School and St Mary’s Kitante will not take any pupils with an aggregate of more than four for boys and five for girls in PLE - in other words, only those with the very highest scores possible. Last year these schools had accepted students with aggregates of six. Pass scores go from an aggregate of four (the best) to an aggregate of 28 (the worst).
Seeta High School, a well-known privately-funded school.

Cut off scores are determined by the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) based on the number of candidates who sat the exam. A computerised system takes into account applicants’ three choices. Although schools are told by MoES how many students they can take, they can ‘adjust’ this figure and ‘sell’ excess students to other schools.

Private study in an ordinary USE government school.

What is the reason for raising cut off scores?

‘To maintain our standards, we have considered only those students we think can post better grades,’ said the headteacher of King’s College, Budo (Daily Monitor).

In other words, the most privileged pupils, those who have gone to the most favoured primary schools and who receive the strongest support from their families so that they got the highest results, will go to the ‘best’ schools.  Those from poor families, who have struggled all the way, who go to school hungry and without educational materials or facilities to do their homework, will be excluded in case they jeopardise the O level results. So, this is Universal Secondary Education!

Why the shortage of school places?

Almost all primary and secondary schools in Uganda were either built by the British during colonial times, or by the governments of Milton Obote, Idi Amin and their successors. Yes, those regimes which are notorious in the west for corruption, sectarianism, violence and authoritarianism were actually the regimes which improved the school stock. Between 1962 (independence) and 1971 (end of Obote’s first period in power) the government built 1,400 primary schools and 156 secondary schools. It also expanded former missionary schools to provide more classrooms, laboratories and dormitories.  Between 1980 (end of Amin’s rule) and 1985, the government built 326 secondary schools. A letter in the Daily Monitor written by a UPC spokesman a couple of weeks ago asserted that since then, the government has only built one secondary school. (We are unable to verify these claims.) What it has done is take mission schools into the government system, though some Foundation Bodies, as they are called, are now expressing regret at the loss of their schools, particularly as they observe them being swamped by USE students.

So the pressures on the secondary school system come from the introduction of the USE scheme itself, for more children are now eligible to go to secondary school. However, the number of places has stayed much the same. USE schools cope by introducing morning and afternoon shifts. Classes are overcrowded.

Classroom in a private secondary school.

Last year the government announced a 10-year programme supported by the World Bank to expand accommodation and upgrade 440 schools to A level status. So far work has started on 218 schools in 70 districts. These A level schools will have libraries, multi-purpose science rooms and teachers’ houses (to encourage teacher attendance and retention). It is said they will take pressure off other USE schools which teach to O level only.

On top of all this, the birthrate (births/per 1000 population) continues to rise (figures from Index Mundi updated January 9 2012). At 47.49 per 1000, Uganda has the second highest birthrate in the world. Niger has the highest at 50.54. The UK is ranked 162, with a birthrate of 12.29. Of course, infant mortality is higher in Uganda (62.47 per 1000, compared with the UK’s 4.62), so not all those children will end up in the school system. Nevertheless, that still means a lot of children added to the school population every year.

However, back to the issue of USE: even if young people pass the PLE and are eligible for a secondary school place, they may still not manage to register. Government schools receive Shs41,000 (£11) per pupil per term under the USE scheme, while private schools receive Shs58,000 (£16). This compares with Shs2,000 (50p) paid by the UPE scheme per term for each primary pupil. It is estimated that secondary schools spend around Shs120,000 (£33) per student, leaving a significant shortfall.

So, even though under USE secondary education is in theory free, parents still have to hand over a lot of money: for uniforms (including shoes), food, transport, scholastic materials and text books, and ‘development’ or supplementary fees (or whatever euphemism the school uses). These fees should not be enforced to deny children an education, although this does happen. They are used to pay for teachers’ housing and school resources and accommodation. Even in poor rural areas, such additional fees can be Shs60,000 (£16) per term. The government has just given schools the right to raise basic and supplementary fees because of high inflation (currently 25%). Many parents will be unable to pay. Girls in particular are likely to miss out.Thirteen of those unfortunate students are from Royal Pride Community Academy. Having gained very good results in PLE, they cannot go to a USE secondary school as their parents cannot afford it.

Lunchtime netball at a government school.

So, if secondary education is NOT free, how can it therefore be described as universal?

Not only is secondary education in Uganda not free, it is actually SELECTIVE, another reason for its not being universal. Whereas in some parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland education may be selective, those who do not get into grammar schools are not absolutely denied an education as in Uganda. They simply receive one of lower status and with fewer opportunities for students to achieve their aspirations. However, at least such students still do receive an education. In Scotland, there is no selection and all state schools are comprehensive.

The child’s right to education is enshrined in Article 30 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda; Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights 1948; Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966; Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (CRC); Article 10 of the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women 1979 – and so on. (Taken from an article in the Daily Monitor by Vincent Nuwagaba). While primary is the only stage of education identified specifically within the CRC, Article 4 states that governments should ‘create an environment where they [children] can grow and reach their potential.’ Within the CRC, a 'child' is anyone below the age of 18.

Figures indicate that roughly a quarter of Uganda’s children enter secondary education. Drop-out rates in secondary USE schools declined from 12.7% in 2010 to 9.9% in 2011. Still, that’s a lot of young people: 41,506 students over two years compared with the 8,598 who left USE between 2007-2008. Some may have transferred to other schools, but others will have been unable to pay the fees, have been orphaned or just could not cope with the pressures of walking for hours each day and trying to do their homework on the floor by the light of a tadooba (paraffin lamp). Girls may have entered early marriages. Headteachers will have encouraged some struggling pupils to leave so that their performance does not affect the O level results.

How far can we trust the statistics?

It is very difficult to trust any statistics relating to education (or, indeed, health) in Uganda. Only 20% of all births are registered, which means that no one knows if figures for enrolment at primary school are accurate. Most children with special needs will be invisible and unrecorded, as will those who live in remote places or whose parents cannot afford to travel to the nearest registry office. Many children enrol at primary school more than once as they keep dropping out when their parents cannot pay the fees. They come back again, although not necessarily to the same school, when the harvests are better. Anyone who dies is simply buried in the garden; so again, death rates may not be accurate.

There is also no system of accurately determining drop-out rates. Most surveys are completed by self-reporting with no triangulation against other, more objective, evidence. School managers have a vested interest in reporting the highest figures possible, as their capitation and the number of teachers depends on this. No check is carried out to compare enrolment figures with retention figures. The Ugandan education system simply does not know how many children are alive and how many once enrolled actually survive schooling until P7. The secondary statistics may be a bit more accurate because there is more control at entry.

What impact do the issues in secondary education have on the country as a whole?

Uganda is placed among the bottom 10 countries for gross enrolment in secondary education (27%) and tertiary education (4%). Some of those secondary figures will relate to students in vocational institutes. (Figures from Education at a Glance, OECD 2011) Only just over half of those adults surveyed were content with their local education facilities.

Uganda has a very poorly educated workforce. A typical worker has completed 0.4 years of secondary education (ranking Uganda 107th worldwide) and 0.1 years of tertiary education (99th worldwide). In the UK, 37% of the population have post-secondary education.

Currently, 85% of the youth population in Uganda is unemployed. Their only hope is to make their own jobs, but for that you need education and skills. The Ugandan government has just signed an agreement with Tullow Oil for exploration and development. How many young Ugandans will have acquired the skills necessary to be accepted as workers by engineering firms such as Tullow? Precious few, we think.

So, is Universal Secondary Education in Uganda 'universal'?


You may also find the following posts of interest:

Life of a secondary school student: exams, fees and a whole lot more

Visiting schools in eastern Uganda

Through a child's eyes

Growing up in Uganda

NB. The data on which this post is based come from various sources. The UNICEF and World Bank websites provide a wide range of statistics. The main quality English-language newspapers (New Vision, Daily Monitor, East African, Independent) always publish stories about the latest examination results, using data from government sources. However, the government does not make such data freely available to the general public, for example through its websites or that of the Uganda National Examination Board. We struggled for more than two years to get national inspection reports and other key papers on education published on the Ministry's website, to no avail. Nobody said no; however, the submitted materials were never uploaded.


  1. Thanks for this really interesting take on USE in Uganda.

    I work for a non-profit organisation that is starting to look at how to create quality incentives to improve USE in Uganda - would love to have a conversation. How can we get in touch?


    1. Thanks, Louise. Try contacting me on

    2. This is awesome work,i hope many ngos can step in,i personally iam an orhan heading more 2 sisters who are still in secondary,one in form 3 and the other just finished s.4,and my self struggling to raise my tution at makerere university business school.since s.5 resumed,i have struggled to get a use school for my sister but all in vain,she is not skilled,under age yet i dnt think its agood idea though to start job hunting...i wish some one could help with the girls atleast till they finish their A level studies...any one willing to help us can contact us at you in advance..

    3. Dear Grace

      Thank you for getting in touch. You have a demanding responsibility educating two sisters as well as completing your education yourself. Perhaps you should try one of the sponsorship organisations. I know Lessons for Life (which you can find on the web)supports secondary pupils as well as primary.

  2. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for this marvelous work indeed I personally appreciate, I live in Uganda but not many of us can come up to write something like this, all we do is talk and talk and talk. I have tried to take this line of research but have been disappointed every time, the ministry is not ready to give concrete statistics especially about USE schools. They may not actually have a true picture of what is on ground or may be hiding something...may be...

  3. Thanks, Muzamil. I agree that it is virtually impossible to get accurate data from official sources. What I do is keep newspaper files. Different sets of results are released at different times for different purposes and from different sources. I try to make sense of these. Perhaps no one wants the data to be analysed and conclusions drawn!

  4. Great works deserve appreciation, Elizabeth!.
    I am a freelance research in social, economic fields, but several times one goes to an office in our Uganda. The BEST response you receive, is " WE DO NOT ACCEPT RESEARCHERS HERE!). It seems the age of immoral and indecent management practices is at hand that any one researching is seem as a viper? Thanks for such an interesting out look on USE in Uganda. Its an enriching article. Hw do you at least succeed with such detail. I would welcome to receive your other articles: contact:

  5. Dear Elisabeth,

    Great post!
    Am trying to find figures on the status of secondary education. In your post your refer to the OECD 2011 report. However, I can't seem to find any information there on Uganda?

    Would appreciate your response.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. From that introduction you had posted on your blog, I can conclude that, that work universal education is referring to a very big number of secondary education that we must have to obtain in each individual. This simple means that all of us must have to fully complete our secondary education for the good and the bright future.

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  8. Hi Elizabeth,

    The main points in your post are absolutely right although some of the facts and figures are a little off. I run a network of low fee PPP secondary schools in Uganda (called PEAS) aiming to tackle the problem you're talking about and we're in constant conversations with the Ministry of Education about how to solve some of the issues you describe. The government have recently built 28 small SEED schools around the country and we have built a further 21 in the last few years with four more this year so some progress is being made but as you say we're chasing a moving target.


    1. Hi John. I am so sorry I have only just picked up your comments. You are absolutely right. Things have, indeed, been moving on in secondary education and I would want to express my support for organisations working i this area. Best wishes, Elisabeth.

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  11. Elisabeth Ritchie, thanks for the blog but be informed that Seeta High School, much as it may be well known, it is NOT a Government owned school. It is absolutely owned privately by Mr. Muyingo who is a Minister in the NRM government of Uganda.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out. I have changed the text.

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