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Uganda's dash for expansion

In 1997, President Museveni ignored expert advice to give four children in every family the right to primary schooling. Pupil numbers have rocketed, but so have class sizes - to more than 100. Brendan O'Malley reports.

A WALK around Arua primary school in northern Uganda would humble even the most overworked British teacher.

On the day I visited the smallest class numbered 82, and the largest 169.

They were packed in, sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the concrete floor except for several rows of desks for the lucky ones, where they were squashed up together, three to a desk.

Outside on a bench a teacher with a free period was racing through a knee-high pile of exercise books - 147 of them - trying to get his marking done.

"You cannot know all the children in the class," says Onzima Swalle Ishaq, the 31-year-old head. "It is hard to know even three-quarters of their names."

Uganda's problem in trying to provide primary education for every child is not motivation - the population is thirsting for it - rather it is a lack of resources and management experience in running a national system.

The floodgates opened in 1997 when the government boldly declared that four children in every family - where there were girls, two had to be included - would be entitled to free primary education.

Primary enrolment numbers jumped in two months from 3 million to 5.2 million and steadily increased to 6.5 million by March 1999. But the number of primary teachers increased at a far slower rate.

Uganda is now being held up as an example of what can be done to provide primary education for all in even the least-developed countries.

But President Museveni has taken a massive political gamble. He believed if the commitment was made, the aid would follow.

In one respect the decision has worked beyond all expectation - in getting numbers of pupils through the door and spurring communities to take an interest in their schools.

Research shows that there is only one government policy that the masses are aware of and that's UPE (universal primary education) and 60-70 per cent of Ugandans believe it's the best thing it could have done.

But the decision was taken against the advice of aid organisations and the teachers' union and the system is now at breaking point.

Without resources in place, the danger is that the rise in enrolment will be matched by plummeting standards. And if parents see that their children are learning little, millions of pupils may simply drop out.

"We told them it had to be step-by-step," says Matthew Okot, general secretary of the 25,000-member Uganda Teachers' Association. "Now the hallenge is to increase the quality before disillusionment sets in."

The resource gap is alarming. The textbook ratios are one book per three pupils in English, one per four in maths and one per seven in science. Class-sizes are so high that, frequently, pupils are forced out to learn under the shade of a tree.

The official teacher: pupil ratio is 1:110 for the first two years of primary and 1:55 in the upper classes; though Arua primary's case shows the real ratio may be much worse. "For one teacher to handle 110 is an impossible task, especially considering that these are infants who need individual attention," says Mr Okot.

The government, local districts and aid agencies are now in a race against time to train staff to teach such large classes, build classrooms (see above), and find funds for more textbooks.

A key driving force is international aid and debt relief which in 19989 boosted funding for primary education by 37 per cent. In addition, the development budget, of which 90 per cent is funded by outside governments, is expected to rise from $60m in 1997 to $125m (pound;89m) by 2002, and will pay for a quarter of education spending.

The international funds are seen as the only way to increase the number of teachers. Last week it was announced that Uganda's nominal debt will be cut from $3.2bn (pound;2.3bn) to $1.9bn (pound;1.3bn), allowing the official teacher:pupil ratio for the first two years of primary to be improved from 1:110 to 1:80 and, by 2003, 1:50.

Aid from Britain's Department for International Development is helping Uganda build up to 37,000 of the extra 50,000 classrooms it needs.

But the transformation will not come from foreign aid alone. Clare Short, Britain's international development minister stressed at Dakar that most education spending comes from national governments and it is the way that it is spent that will make the most difference.

Just 11 per cent of Uganda's education spending comes from foreign aid, so the main effort to expand enrolment means switching domestic funding priorities.

Money is not the only obstacle. Failure to enrol or drop-outs are caused by a host of factors, from AIDS - two million children have lost one or both parents due to AIDS - to disruption caused by rebel insurgencies.

And what will happen when the new pupils work their way through to secondary school?

Izio Tata Aggrey, head at Arua Hill secondary, says they will have to increase intake to absorb the numbers. "The infrastructure will have to expand two or three-fold. That will depend on government policy.

"But if donors withdraw, the whole system will crash. It could end in a coup."

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