It is hard to say whether there are more questions or more accusations flying around the country in the weeks since the fire that broke out at Budo Junior School, killing 20 young girls. No one wants to take responsibility and everyone has a different idea of whom to blame. The Ministry of Education points at the local government, local government at school administrators, school administrators at guards and matrons, and the president at all of the above and everyone else in between.
Blame for the Budo incident and the consensus that someone must pay for it has resulted in the prosecution and jailing of some Budo staff. Few, however, have questioned the role of parents and the general public in this and, more generally, the deterioration of the educational system as a whole. The assumption is that parents take actions they perceive to be in the best interest of their children. It may be argued that parents brought their children to board at Budo, for example, because they perceived this school to be the best attainable learning environment for their children.
Many were likely aware of the overcrowding but nevertheless trusted that their children would be in safe hands. A letter written by a parent a few months ago demonstrates this awareness. It was circulated around Ugandan media houses in early February and published in The Daily Monitor, complaining of “buildings being run down, pupils being fed poor and late meals…[and] tap water being available only during the day when parents visit school.” Thus, though concerned parents had evidently been making noise about poor conditions, it was not until disaster struck that all of those involved began to take concerted and expedient action to solve some of the most critical problems. But given the fact that this is not the first, second, or even tenth school fire to occur in the past several years, what reason is there to expect that action will be taken outside of Budo to improve conditions in schools?
A primary issue, not just in education but also in nearly all public service sectors, is the lack of collective action. It is easier for parents to take care of the immediate needs of their individual children – for example, bribing teachers to give their children special attention or extra lessons – than to work collectively to demand that services be improved for the good of all the children. Likewise, it is easier for those with clout to buy a Land Cruiser rather than to demand that roads be constructed for which one does not need a 4-wheel drive simply to navigate potholed city streets. And it is easier to send a family member to South Africa for treatment than to revamp Uganda’s ailing healthcare system. Yet opting to act individualistically in matters regarding public services can actually backfire – catastrophically in the short term or incrementally in the long term.
This is not in any way to suggest that parents are to blame for the deaths of their children. It is merely to show the level to which the collective action of all those concerned has failed with disastrous consequences. This collective includes not only parents, but the larger society that should have a vested interest in ensuring its children are safe, healthy and receiving quality education. It is not news to anyone that public services in Uganda such as education, roadwork and healthcare are in shambles. What is less clear, however, is why in so many cases the collective whole has allowed these systems to flounder and fail.
There is a danger that lies in a myopic investigation of the Budo fire and other incidents symptomatic of wider structural failure. Focusing on the prosecution of individuals and on the details surrounding the Budo fire is ultimately obstructing the larger picture – that the educational system in Uganda has degenerated quite literally into a powder keg threatening both children’s lives and opportunities. The endemic and monumental problems facing education in Uganda require both a vision and collective action.
The educational system is flush with cash when compared to other sectors, receiving around Shs 767 billion in 2007/8 – 16% of the total budget and significantly more than any other sector. Yet in lieu of a vision for what education should provide, the focus of policy appears to be increasing the percentage of children that can fit in a classroom and be passed along from one grade level to the next. Around 7 million children are estimated to be enrolled in Uganda’s primary schools, and this number is expected to increase in the next few years to meet the target of 95% primary enrolment, up from 91.2% currently. High rates of enrolment in P1, though a seeming positive achievement, may distract the public, government and donors from serious structural and substantive issues facing primary education. Aside from the oft quoted statistics on low rates of primary school completion – for example that only 22% of students who began P1 in 1997 reached P6 by 2002 – there are quality and safety standards which are often breached in the few cases where such standards exist at all. Literacy rates have remained stagnant for the past few years, and in 2003 only 20% of P6 students were achieving minimum literacy or numeracy rates.
In addition to quality concerns, a commercialisation of education has resulted in an attempt by schools to pack as many students as possible within their walls, regardless of their capacity to manage and teach these children. Mr James Collins Dombo, Under Secretary of the Public Service Commission and parent of a Budo Junior pupil expressed concern regarding such commercialisation, explaining the perception of some school staff that “the bigger the numbers [of pupils] the more you earn.” And indeed, when asked about the condition of Budo Junior School, one teacher interviewed by The Independent mentioned the first “positive development” at Budo to be the ever increasing number of pupils.
Quality of content is also an issue. A premium is placed on memorising information from textbooks and churning out high scores on tests, without a critical examination of what this crammed information will provide. Since passing these tests is a prerequisite for continued study, however, parents will pay a high price to ensure their children are prepared to perform well by this measure, even if it is at the expense of ensuring quality in other areas, such as the conditions in which these children must live and study. Parents at Budo Junior, for example, pay approximately Shs 400,000 per term per child, and there are over 1300 students in attendance. Nevertheless, there had been no electricity in the school for several days leading up to the fire, children were sleeping in triple-decker beds, and Budo teachers had recently gone on strike after failing to receive their pay cheques. If Budo, one of the “best” primary schools in the country is facing such blatant administrative, financial or managerial problems, what must be the condition of primary schools elsewhere in Uganda?
Serious challenges thus face the primary education system in terms of vision and capacity. But before it has even resolved these critical issues, the government is again off and running with a new campaign, this time for Universal Secondary Education (USE). Though an admirable idea, it is hard to see how USE will not further distract those involved in the educational system from the many problems that already exist. The Ministry of Education, local governments, and schools themselves have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to effectively manage the burgeoning population of primary students – how will they possibly manage a growing population of secondary students as well?
Organisation and management within the sector will have to be addressed. In fact, the disorder within the educational system as a whole is largely responsible for the circular finger pointing that took place at Budo after the fire. Possibly because of the existence of so many institutions and people charged with various responsibilities within the educational sector, each assumes that a lapse in their contribution will not make a meaningful difference. It is perhaps when everyone – central government, local government, school administrators, school staff, parents, etc – is depending on someone else to run the show that the whole system falls to pieces.
For example, on his visit to Budo following the fire, President Museveni called upon the Ministry of Education and minister herself to carry out quality control measures saying, “You [Ms Bitamazire] are the quality controller and you should set the standards.” Yet at a press briefing two weeks ago Ms Bitamazire deflected responsibility, instead stating that as a result of decentralisation in 1997, the local governments and not the Ministry of Education had a “100% mandate to run primary schools.” Ministry officials admitted that there had been a weakening of inspection as a result of decentralisation and rather audaciously requested “stakeholders” help to make sure they enforce the law.
There was no specific mention of who these stakeholders are, but in any case, the principle stakeholders should be the Ugandan people and parents in particular. Granted, the ministry officials should not require stakeholders to breathe down their necks in order to ensure that the laws protecting children are enforced. Nevertheless, this is the state of affairs with which the country is faced.
The minister of education recently tried to assuage concerns regarding school safety by announcing a new education bill creating a “Directorate of Inspectorate,” which would be allocated a starting sum of Shs 2.5 billion. But the creation of even more oversight bodies will not solve the fundamental problems that exist. It may even further dilute the responsibilities that already existing institutions and officials have, creating even more opportunities for free riding within the educational sector. It will take not more institutions working separately, but collective action that will improve education in Uganda. One must hope that the Budo tragedy will not end with the punishment of a few underpaid school staff, but rather will lead to a realisation that acting individualistically within the current system is in the best interest of neither the children nor the society, both of whom have already paid too high a price for systemic failure in education.