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More parents shun nursery education due to high fees

A teacher conducts a lesson at Parent’s Hope Nursery and Primary School in Namayingo during the ISER field visits to nursery schools

A teacher conducts a lesson at Parent’s Hope Nursery and Primary School in Namayingo during the ISER field visits to nursery schools

Parents, teachers, and government officials have identified fees as a critical barrier to accessing nursery education in rural and low-income earning families.

Whereas the government underscores the benefits of pre-primary education, it does not fund this level of education but facilitates a department that oversees nursery schools across the country, writes YUDAYA NANGONZI.

When 14-year-old Kevin Sseddungu was called to the front to share his experience of pre-primary education, he looked anxious and nervous. A primary five pupil at Nsambwe C/U Primary School Mukono, his voice was shaky when he began to speak.

“I greet you in the name of our Lord,” Sseddungu said, before requesting to speak in Luganda because “it is the language I know better.”

An applause from the audience reassured him and his voice grew stronger. Sseddungu didn’t attend nursery school. He started primary one at age 10 as his father and grandmother didn’t have the money to send him to school early.

“When I joined P1, our teacher grouped us; those who studied or missed nursery sat in different rows [for easy follow-up on learners by teachers]. I find challenges with the spellings of English words, and I don’t perform well in class. My friends who studied nursery also find challenges [in spellings] but not as much as me,” he said, sending the audience in silence.

In contrast, Mark Waidhuba, a P6 learner at Kitante PS in Kampala, came with a written speech in English prepared by him for the day. He spoke with confidence and strong command of the English Language for at least five minutes.

“I can write and spell many words – thanks to my nursery foundation. I speak confidently when given any opportunity at any platform,” Waidhuba said.

The two learners met at the launch of a report on access to pre-primary or nursery education held at Sheraton Hotel in Kampala last week. Titled “Lay a Strong Foundation for All Children” Fees as a Discriminatory Barrier to Pre-Primary Education in Uganda, the report is a collaboration between the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The research, conducted between July 2022 and January 2024, involved 102 interviews with children aged eight to 17, parents, guardians, teachers, and government officials in Kampala, Omoro, Nakapiripirit, and Namayingo districts.

According to the executive director of ISER, Angella Kasule Nabwowe, the experiences of Sseddungu and Waidhuba depict the enormous benefits of pre-primary learning with a high chance of mitigating income inequalities among children from families of different incomes.

For many parents, the joy of watching their three to five-year-olds take their first steps into formal education has been tempered by the daunting reality of nursery school expenses. The latest research suggests that nursery fees have surged radically, with some schools in Kampala charging Shs 1.75m per term – almost comparable to an Engineering degree or higher than most arts courses at Makerere University.

This academic year 2024/25, a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering costs Shs 1.7m for Africans and Shs 2.7m for international students per semester.

“It’s striking that parents spend more money at the lower levels than at university. Whereas some parents may afford this money, other parents are not given government alternatives to educate their children at the lower level. Every child has a right to education whether their parents can afford it or not,” Nabwowe said.

FINDINGS

Nabwowe said pre-primary learning has long been lauded for its benefits such as better preparedness for primary, improved social skills, and enhanced cognitive development. However, these benefits come at a steep price.

“Less than one in 10 children aged three to five study from a licensed pre-primary school. Sixty per cent of children who are supposed to be enrolled for pre-school are not attending school. Children who miss out on these foundational skills are likely to repeat P1 and may never catch up to their peers who attended nursery schools,” reads the report.



During field visits, some schools implementing UPE had set up ramshackle structures to teach nursery learners following complaints from P1 teachers that learners come ill-prepared while others are underage for primary. Due to high preschool fees, parents opted for early enrolment in primary one which has created overcrowded classes, exacerbated inefficiencies in education, and increased repetition rates.

A grandmother who sells groceries at a Kampala market told researchers that she pays fees for her five-year-old grandchild but will send her younger sibling when she gets the money.

“... I take them to study nursery at five years for one year and go to P1 because their mother does not have money. I cannot afford to pay for three years. If there was free pre-primary, I would enroll them at three years,” she said.

A mother of six in Omoro who works as a subsistence farmer said: “I always struggle to find money. Some of my children did not finish all the levels because I could not afford fees for every term.”

Other parents discontinued their children from preschool due to financial constraints while others lacked a school in their area. In rural areas, some schools may require the provision of food and other items. For instance in Omoro, one parent said she pays Shs 85,000 per term, and provides the school with 20kgs of maize four, 10kgs of beans, and 4kgs of rice.

In Nakapiripirit, a parent provides 1kg of sugar per child. The report concluded that even if some parents and guardians can initially afford to enroll their children in preschools, fees may become unaffordable if the parent’s income is not steady or predictable. The result is an interrupted education in the early years, a key period for children to benefit most from continuous immersion in early learning.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Researchers urged the ministry and parliament to amend Section 10 (2) of the Education Act, 2008 to obligate the government to fund and implement universal pre-primary education.

Currently, the Act stipulates that financing of pre-primary shall be the responsibility of the parents or guardians. The government should also make at least one year of free and compulsory pre-primary education for all children, with a plan to include additional years over time.

This is in addition to regulating preschool fees to increase child access.

“Children’s access to pre-primary education should not depend on their parent’s ability or willingness to pay fees. All children should have access to education at this critical point in their lives and be able to reap its lifelong benefits,” reads the report.

The director of Basic and Secondary Education, Ismael Mulindwa, launches the report in Kampala last week
The director of Basic and Secondary Education, Ismael Mulindwa, launches the report in Kampala last week

It further highlighted that multiple analyses have found that Uganda can secure adequate resources for the education sector by widening
its tax base, improving compliance with existing tax laws, revisiting tax exemptions, and curbing illicit financial flows and corruption, among others.

Jo Becker, a Child Rights Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, argued that global targets indicate that governments must invest at least 15% of their national budget but Uganda is not committing half of this. For this Financial Year 2024/25, the education sector has been allocated Shs 2.497tn out of the Shs 72tn budget.

“Sierra Leone has a compelling story. It is one of the poorest countries with its GDP being half of Uganda’s but they are devoting more than 20% of the national budget to education compared to Uganda at 8%. If a poor country like Sierra Leone can invest in educating its children, I believe Uganda can do so,” she said.

The ministry should ensure that all nursery schools have a unified curriculum, licensed, registered, and regularly monitored to ensure compliance with standards. In 2019, there were 28,194 privately owned pre-schools in Uganda with at least two million children. The only government-funded pre-primary school is based at the School of Education at Makerere University but is meant for children of the university staff.

As the quest for free pre-primary education continues, the divide in learning is evident among Sseddungu and Waidhuba with far-reaching implications in the education sector.

Ministry speaks

The state minister for Primary Education, Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, who released the report, commended the researchers for highlighting the exorbitant fees charged by private providers in pre-primary schools.

In a speech read on her behalf by the director of Basic and Secondary Education at the ministry, Ismael Mulindwa, the minister noted that the commitment by the government to regulate nursery school has, to some extent, seen more children access quality learning. However, the ministry is still grappling with limited access to nursery schools in rural areas.

“The pace of brain development is at highest in this first stage of learning which presents a big opportunity to create a positive difference in children’s lives. Nursery education is not only beneficial to the learners but the country at large,” Kaducu said.

She pledged to table the report findings and recommendations for discussion in the ministry’s senior management meetings.

“It may take some time to debate the recommendations by the ministry and cabinet but we shall give the researchers feedback,” she said.

nangonzi@observer.ug

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