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Gov't Faces Mounting Pressure to Implement Free, Compulsory Pre-Primary Education :: Uganda Radionetwork

Gov't Faces Mounting Pressure to Implement Free, Compulsory Pre-Primary Education

In Uganda, less than 10 percent of children aged between 3-5 years are enrolled in formal pre-primary education while over half do not attend any school. In turn, families who want their young ones to go to school have to look for private ECD schools since there is no government provision of public pre-primary education.
There is a growing need for free ECD education in Uganda
Calls for the government to provide free and compulsory pre-primary education are intensifying, with different players from various sectors highlighting the critical need for early childhood education.

A recent study report titled "Lay A Strong Foundation for All Children" has prompted a renewed call for action since it emphasises how fees are turning into a discriminatory barrier to essential pre-primary education in Uganda.

“Fees for private preschools for children 3-5 years create an insurmountable barrier for most families, particularly those in rural areas and those with little income. The government should make at least one year of pre-primary education compulsory and free for all children,” the report reads in part.

Human Rights Watch and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights-ISER conducted this study in several districts of the country from 2022 to 2024.

In Uganda, less than 10 percent of children aged between 3-5 years are enrolled in formal pre-primary education while over half do not attend any school. In turn, families who want their young ones to go to school have to look for private schools since there is no government provision of public pre-primary education which often incur high costs.

Other reports have shown that ECD encompasses physical, cognitive, emotional, and social aspects required for holistic development of children. Brain development among other things is facilitated by ECD programs that also enhance language skills, communication skills as well as social-emotional intelligence and promote access to nutrition and health care hence improving physical health.

The private sector provided pre-primary education coupled with limited state regulation has increased costs dramatically which means many children are excluded. For example, pre-primary education costs five times more than primary school fees in Kampala.

Further, in urban centres these charges could easily reach 1.75 million shillings or more per child per term, outstripping the expenses of numerous university degree programs. This financial strain makes it impossible for many households to afford pre-primary education thereby aggravating challenges related to access and affordability within early childhood education.

The findings also reveal that even in rural areas where the costs are relatively lower, like 5,000 shillings registered in Nakapiripiti district, access is limited due to insufficiency of such schools.

Angella Kasule Nabwowe, ISER’S Executive Director says the government intervention is necessary in addressing the problem of accessibility and affordability. She proposes a measure to create pre-primary units within existing public primary schools.

“This approach could provide a practical and immediate solution to extend pre-primary education to more children, especially those from underserved communities; children’s access to pre-primary schooling should not depend on parents' ability to pay fees,” she said during the launch of the report in Kampala.

Currently, since pre-schooling is more expensive than primary schooling, many parents register their children to primary school before they turn six; a stage at which they are underage and unprepared.  

Figures show that 20 percent of Ugandan children aged five are already attending primary school. Early entrance into primary schools results in overcrowded classrooms, worsens the inefficiency within the education system and increases repetition rates.

Hajjat Fatuma an experienced teacher at Nakasero Primary School with eighteen years experience knows young learners’ issues well. During her tenure she has seen firsthand what happens when children do not have access to early childhood development.

“These children often exhibit disruptive behavior upon entering primary one, lacking the foundational skills and readiness necessary for schooling,” Fatuma said.

She added: “Without prior exposure to ECD, they may struggle to adapt to the academic and social demands of primary education. Addressing this issue early is critical, as these children may face difficulties catching up with their peers due to the lack of preparation and other contributing factors.”

According to a 2023 report by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, children who haven't engaged in ECD initiatives are prone to class repetition. Yet, this excessive repetition could extend a child's education by 1.2 years on average, contributing to an estimated 5–10 percent overspending in the education budget.

Timothy Opobo, Executive Director of Africhild, emphasized that for Uganda to enhance its future human resources, prioritizing education and skills development is crucial. He underscores that the focus must be on not just any education, but on ensuring quality education, which cannot be achieved if early childhood education is neglected.

Opobo asserted: "Investing in education is investing in the future. Evidence shows that investing in pre-primary education has transformed outcomes in other countries. This should be a primary focus for our government."

As noted by Opobo, a report titled Investing in the Future: Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pre-Primary Education in Uganda showed that showed that every shilling invested in pre-primary education can yield up to 16 shillings in benefits. Additionally, the same report underscores that Uganda could potentially save significant funds currently spent on repeaters—amounting to billions—simply by implementing ECD programs.

The report goes on: “The funds saved due to these efficiencies can then be redirected back into pre-primary education, further enhancing its quality and reach. Consequently, the improved pre-primary education continues to produce more efficient and successful primary education outcomes.”

The new Human Rights Watch – ISER report also says that expanding access to pre-primary education in Uganda could potentially reduce Primary One repetition rates by 50 percent.

Hajj Ismael Mulindwa, the Director of Basic Education at the Ministry of Education, acknowledges that while the government has made some progress in providing access to pre-primary education for children, particularly in urban areas, challenges remain, especially in rural areas.

Mulindwa emphasizes that the government recognizes the benefits of Early Childhood Development, but current plans prioritize consolidating Universal Primary Education (UPE) before expanding pre-primary education.

"The government must amend the education act for it to take on the responsibility," says the director. "However, this is pending and requires the government to prepare with funds, infrastructure, and staff. Once everything is ready, the government will proceed to implement ECD."

Recently, the cabinet approved a new ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) policy as a regulatory framework for this sector. However, pre-primary education remains largely in the hands of parents and private institutions despite this development.

In the last three years, the push for universal ECD programs has been gaining momentum, emerging as a heated topic discussed before the Nuwe-Amanya Mushega-led Education Policy Review Commission. Many African countries have already implemented universal ECD education due to its proven benefits.  

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