Universal Primary Education, or UPE, is now getting universalized in the whole of Africa. Donor partners fork out money to developing countries to help with this grandiose programme, affixing time frames and making it part of the Millennium Development Goals. Everywhere classroom figures have skyrocketed, putting smiles on parents’ faces and giving fodder to the incorrigible politicians to tout success in service provision.
The same "success" story is told in all African countries pursuing the policy of UPE, with others like Uganda adding secondary education to the list of items crowding the over-burdened Finance minister’s table for budget support.
In Rwanda, 2010 is the target for achieving universal primary education, and the fact that girls, who were formerly left out of education considerations by their parents are now benefiting, makes it all the more desired.
There are stark facts, however, that argue for our reviewing the whole project of universal education so as to redirect it for greater benefit. Large figures alone that are now going to school cannot really make us happy that our countries are progressing, and I would not even want to quote any enrolment figure, because I regard them as grossly misleading, if not downright retrogressive. Rwanda is regarded as a young country, and has registered so much progress in its programmes that it would be good to note some things, and do them differently to maintain this steady progress. It needs to streamline its education policies especially; because it is from these that the human resource problem will be addressed slowly but steadily.
Uganda started its universal primary education programme in 1996, and all primary schools, in the urban and rural areas, were ordered to take up pupils. Teachers’ salaries were increased by government, but the most controversial order was for parents never to pay any single penny to school administrators, money that was previously paid under a scheme called Parents and Teachers Association – basically to help top up teachers salaries, which were meager, and also help with other school-running costs.
There was a stand-off between especially urban school head teachers and the government; with the former arguing that it was not sustainable for them to run schools whose populations had doubled overnight, without any major structural adjustments in terms of classrooms, desks and teachers. And this is the major contention against universal primary education.
Being rural born and bred, I cannot under-estimate the advantage of having everyone in the villages sending their children to school for free. People there are poor – despite fantastic figures showing development – and were not always able to send their children to primary school.
Now they do, but the Primary Seven end-of-year results are so woefully bad, that Ugandans mournfully joke about it and say it is a programme to just have everyone go to school, but not for education.
The implication here is very clear; government has emphasized quantity as opposed to quality. It has sacrificed good education standards for trendy mass schooling. No wonder most primary school graduates can neither read nor write – after seven years in school!
The reasons for poor performance are well-known: large unmanageable classes, with a teacher to pupil ratio standing at a conservative estimate of 1-150! When will one teacher attend to that number of children – effectively mark their books, provide special attention to slow learners, let alone knowing that there are some with higher aptitudes?
Too few teachers, cramped classrooms, inadequate and late funding to schools, and low salary remuneration to teachers are the basic challenges to UPE everywhere the programme is being applied, whether it is in Malawi, Kenya, Lesotho, or Uganda.
The implementation was also all wrong. It is inexcusable that UPE was ordered in even places that could afford to pay for their children’s tuition. All urban schools should have been left out of this blanket project, so that this releases those resources to the rural areas where they were needed most. Larger or more classrooms should have been constructed, more teachers employed to handle the large influx of pupils, better salaries paid. Parents in urban areas can afford their schools’ fees requirements; in semi-urban areas where this is not possible, special UPE schools can be constructed, or some few converted to cater for the parents who cannot afford fees, but with infrastructural standards so upped that all UPE schools can afford to teach well, pass students in grade one, and generally be competitive with their urban counterparts.
As it is now, all, and I repeat all, pupils who are passing through UPE schools in the rural areas are being buried to a life of mediocrity - condemned to merely going through an education level, from which they will have gleaned absolutely nothing.
It is an extremely depressing spectacle when results do not reflect any learning advantage; and it is being made worse with the automatic passing principle – these our barely baked brothers and sisters will happily join Senior One in the universal secondary education schools, for yet another grand dose of nothing. What kind of citizens are we really nurturing?
UPE should be restructured. Urban schools should be allowed to charge some fees – it should be closely monitored as it is also grievously abused by greedy head teachers – and release these funds for the village schools. And of course, governments should award big budgetary cuts to the education sector for recruiting more teachers, motivating them well and re-instating their battered pride as the teachers of the nation.
As Rwanda succeeds in positively transforming everything it touches, planners and policy implementers should beware of these pitfalls against an otherwise good programme, and give them a wide berth.
The writer is a journalist.