How Schools Operate in Uganda
The government runs “government schools” which go from P-1 (like kindergarten in the U.S.) to P-7. These are called primary schools. Then, there are also government run secondary schools for S-1 to S-6 which is like 7th to 12th grade in the U.S. There are major exams at the P-7, S-4 and S-6 levels. If your scores are not high enough, then you are not allowed to continue on in school. At this point, you might consider vocational training if you can afford it.
Since about 1998, the Ugandan government allows three children from each family to attend primary school while paying only minimal tuition in certain schools (called UPE schools for "universal primary education") in more remote areas. However, none of the children in the Jinja area go to schools which receive this benefit. Therefore, the parents must pay whatever fees the schools charge. Some schools in the Kitgum area have this benefit which results in a lower annual school fee requirement for a beader’s child who is in a UPE school.
Private Schools and “Higher Standard” Schools
Private schools are very common in Uganda for many reasons. Sometimes the closest government school is considered to have a “lower standard” as evidenced by the quality of teachers, condition of the school and exam grades the students receive. If a child intends to go to university, then he/she will need to attend a school with a “higher standard” in order to be able to pass all the necessary exams to enter the university.
Therefore, the family might decide to send their child to a private school to achieve this. Often, the secondary schools will have varied programs of study, and sometimes particular private secondary schools are more desirable for being able to enter the university and possibly obtaining a government scholarship. Secondary schools which teach the courses in English are sometimes considered to be preferable to ones that don’t. Sometimes schools with religious affiliations are desired.
Not Going to School
Often the government run schools are very crowded with over 60 students in one classroom. Occasionally, a class may not have a teacher at all. In rural areas, some schools may be meeting under a tree. Some may discriminate against female students. As a parent, you must be very wary about your child’s welfare at school and do whatever you might possibly be able to afford to ensure he/she gets a good education. If conditions are too bad at the closest school, and you can afford nothing else, then perhaps it means your child does not attend school at all.
Sometimes boarding school is necessary because there is no “higher standard” school within walking distance (an hour or two) from the child’s home or because the child’s living conditions are not conducive to the amount of studying required, getting enough sleep etc. Occasionally, a boarding school is necessary because the child has nowhere to live if his/her parents are deceased or have left the home, or the family has been scattered because of the war in northern Uganda.
More often, secondary schools have boarding sections or the entire school might be a boarding school. Some boarding schools might take students as young as P-3.
Why Are There School Fees?
If a school is not a designated "UPE" school where the government allows students to attend for free, then the parents must pay whatever school fees each primary school charges. This is usually not affordable for the very poor family living on less than $2 per day.
In addition, the family must pay for uniforms (required at all schools), possibly a particular type of shoe, a sports uniform, school supplies, exam fees, and possibly other “minor” items which are huge to a poor family. Typical primary school required costs range from $50 to $150 for day schools.
And it is worse for secondary school where tuition is typically required, more books and supplies are needed and things are just more expensive. Boarding school adds more costs, but is still very minimal compared to the U.S. boarding costs. Secondary school fees are more often in the $300 to $450 range for day schools. Boarding schools are typically from $650 to $850 or more when all costs are considered.
What Happens If the School Fees Aren’t Paid?
If school fees aren’t paid, your child can’t enter school. If you can’t pay the fees during the year, after the child has started, then your child is “chased from school” meaning sent home and can’t return until fees are paid. For many poor families, having children chased from school is a fairly frequent event. They miss some school, pay fees, go back, get chased away a few weeks later, and so it continues all school year.
The bottom line is the child may miss so much school, that he starts a long slow slide toward the bottom of his class. Ultimately, this hurts him so much that he/she eventually drops out of school. Especially at the secondary levels, children may be sitting at home right now, just hoping that their parents will somehow be able to afford to pay their school fees for the next school year so that they might continue. Often, these children never return to school. Jobs are so difficult to find, it would be unusual for a child to be able to find a job to earn his/her own school fees.
Going to the University
During S-6, there is a major exam that students take. If your score is high enough (probably the top 2 or 3%), you might qualify for a government scholarship to the university such as
Makerere. If you are still in the top one third or so, you might still qualify for the university (either public or private), but would have to pay for it yourself. A year of room, board and tuition at the university typically costs around $1,600 but varies based on your program of study. Most university programs of study last three years.