Opinion: The challenge of public versus private schools in Uganda

A primary school in Uganda. Photo by: Christiaan Triebert / CC BY-NC

When it comes to providing access to quality education for all, government-run schools in Uganda have a long way to go. So when the country’s High Court upheld a decision to close 63 Bridge International Academies schools for failure to comply with the basic requirements and minimum standards for schools, it was welcomed by many as a step forward in addressing the quality of education through enforcement of standards.

Bridge International Academies is a for-profit company that runs a chain of private nursery and primary schools offering fee-paying, standardized, technology-driven education in countries in Africa and Asia. Their model relies on technology and data, including internet-enabled tablets and smartphones, to automate education delivery. Bridge schools are not a part of Uganda’s state-provided education system but part of a burgeoning low-fee private education sector. In Uganda, 27 percent of primary schools and 66 percent of secondary schools are private.

Research shows that as private actors have stepped into Uganda’s education sphere, the government has stepped back from its obligation to provide quality public schools. This shift risks eroding the gains in access to education for vulnerable children that were made when the government of Uganda abolished tuition for primary education.

Private schools often charge fees that are out of reach for most Ugandans, and even low-fee private schools ask for money for scholastic materials, school uniforms, and examinations. These fees prevent the poorest families from enrolling, and even the less poor who enroll their children in low-fee private schools do so with significant sacrifice to other needs such as health and adequate nutrition.

Devex published a guest column from Bridge Academies on their view on private education in Uganda. Read the article here.

The children who attend these schools face a higher risk of dropping out due to changes in family income — a 2014 report identified cost as the number one reason children drop out or never enroll in school at all.

What’s more, privately run schools are not properly regulated or monitored. Uganda’s High Court flagged several such concerns about the BIA chain, including unlicensed schools, untrained teachers, substandard infrastructure, poor sanitation and subpar curricula.

These flaws are detrimental to the Ugandan school system at large. Unqualified teachers in BIA schools, for instance, drag down standards for teachers across the board and are detrimental to the teaching profession.

According to a report by Education International, BIA teacher pay ranges from 130,000 Ugandan shillings ($39) at the nursery and lower primary levels up to 180,000 Ugandan shillings at the upper primary levels. Public primary school teachers, by comparison, receive at least 279,000 Ugandan shillings per month. This disparity undermines advocacy for better pay for government-employed teachers.

Tech moguls such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have backed the BIA model for its embrace of technology in the classroom. We should embrace technology, but it’s important to remember that technology can also have negative impacts. For example, the use of tablets can externalize lesson plan development, as is the case with BIA, which can hinder teacher contextualization. The model, which relies on scripted lesson plans, also limits student-teacher interaction, a critical component of effective learning.

Uganda and other developing countries should work towards sustainable, inclusive, quality education for all, while allowing for a well-regulated private education sector that supplements — but does not supplant — the public system, as advised by the July 2016 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution.

The resolution recognizes that building sustainable, inclusive quality education will require increased investment in education. States should prioritize financing the education sector through appropriate budgetary allocations in line with internationally recommended percentages of 6 percent of gross domestic product, or 20 percent of the national budget. Investment should go toward critical aspects such as improved supervision and monitoring, quality assessment, teacher motivation and training, curriculum development, instruction materials and textbooks, and school infrastructure.

Public schools should be equitably distributed across the country, ensure nondiscrimination and have reasonable accommodation for children with disabilities. Public schools should be able to attract all classes in society. Those who choose to go to private schools do so because they are looking for exclusivity, or other aspects such as religion, but not because the public system is poor.

A well-regulated private education sector involves both development and implementation of legal and policy frameworks to promote quality and accountability by private education service providers. Specifically, the U.N. Human Rights Council advised that states should put in place a regulatory framework, guided by international human rights obligations, that establishes minimum standards for the creation and operation of educational services, and addresses any negative impacts of the commercialization of education.

The focus on provision of free and quality basic education is also consistent with international human rights obligations of the state and recommendations that have been made to Uganda by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Prospective and existing BIA investors — including the U.K. government’s Department for International Development — should be aware of the human rights concerns inherent to the business they are backing. Potential investors must also conduct rigorous objective evaluations of the business to satisfy themselves that their investment will “do no harm” — especially in terms of its impact on the right to education for children from poor families.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Salima Namusobya

    Salima Namusobya is the executive director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights and an expert member of the Working Group on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. She is a lawyer and human rights advocate who has specialized in international human rights law and forced migration.