School in Uganda: The Good, Bad, and the Sort-of-Less-Ugly

Education in Uganda

MUWANGUZI RUTH presented Natalie with a laminated paper stamped with an official looking logo, concern flickering in her eyes. Natalie, BOH’s Executive Director, scanned the document. This was a graduation certificate and final grade report for Derrick, one of Muwanguzi’s children and a vocational student in BOH’s Student Scholarship Program. Natalie looked up, smiling and said, “These are very, very good marks. Derrick has done well.”

Muwanguzi and her children live in a rural Ugandan village forty minutes from the nearest town. Roads are dirt, people’s primary mode of transportation is their own two feet, livestock are roped to trees and children run errands for their elders. Here in Bubugo village, attending school above Primary 7 (the American equivalent of 7th/8th grade), or even regularly attending school at all, is rare. Studies show that 68% of Ugandan students are likely to drop out before even completing primary school (Mwesigwa). Thus, Derrick’s accomplishment in nearing his Advanced Certificate - a certificate making him eligible for University by learning a trade - is definitely a feat to celebrate!

Muwanguzi Ruth & Derrick

Muwanguzi Ruth & Derrick at his graduation ceremony on October 6, 2017. Photo credit: Cathie Amede.

But why, 20 years after primary education, and 10 years after secondary education, was made free, is Derrick’s achievement a rarity, rather than the norm? Why do Ugandan children still not attend school? This is a look into the Ugandan school system and what makes it the way it is today.

The Good: To the ‘90s!

To understand schooling in Uganda, we first join hands with Ugandan history. When Yoweri Museveni established himself as president in Uganda and unified the country in 1986, education was not free and therefore a luxury beyond the reach of most Ugandan people. In order to make education accessible, Museveni initiated Universal Primary Education for Uganda in 1997. For the first time, the Ugandan government would provide funding to make primary education (the first seven years of education) “free” for its young citizens. At its start, enrollment rates soared and was a “dream come true for most poor parents in the east African state” (Mwesigwa). However, the dream faded when parents were still required to pay for uniforms, materials, and a school meal for their children. These costs were, and still are twenty years later, impossible for families living off of $1 a day.

Ugandan children out of school

Many Ugandan children stay at home during the school day.

This means many rural children drop out of school or attend sporadically as money allows. This is the case for most of the women we work with. While education for their children is ranked high on their priority list, many say it is too expensive for them to both provide for their families and pay for school materials. 

The Bad: Teachers Need Salaries, Too

While finances are one setback keeping children out of school, larger, systemic issues are another. When federal funding for primary schools was first initiated in 1997, schools struggled under the dramatic influx of students without the infrastructure, teachers, facilities, or financial planning to handle them (Kavuma). Funding was sporadic or late, and without regular pay, teachers would not show up to teach. Then, without enough formally trained teachers, others were hired without proper schooling. This meant that if students did attend school, quality education - or even a teacher - was not guaranteed.

Sporadic attendance and informal teaching makes reaching secondary education especially difficult for students. If a student does reach their seventh year of primary school, they sit for qualifying exams to attend secondary school (last four to six years of school before university). However, if the students have not received the education needed to score high enough on these exams, they will not be eligible for secondary education. Thus, even if a student is eager and determined to learn, they may not have the schooling required to continue and will return to work at home. If they do have the finances, grades, and ability, primary students move to secondary school where the hurdles continue.

BSSP Secondary Students

Natalie visits BSSP secondary students.

Should a student make it into secondary school and remain until their fourth year, they sit for their S4 exams. These exams are taken during three weeks in October and aim to reveal a student’s strengths, competency, and interests. This October, four BSSP S4 students took these tests. Should they get excellent marks, they may continue to the final two years of secondary school, S5 and S6, finally receiving the equivalent of a high school diploma at the conclusion of those years. In our experience with BSSP students, most students do not get the grades they need for S5 and 6. Those who do - our best and brightest students - find those final two years so difficult that even they struggle and their grades dip. Fortunately, there are other options for students who do not test into S5 and 6.

The Sort of Less Ugly

For those who do not attend S5 & S6 and have the funds, vocational school is an excellent option where they learn a trade related to their best subjects and within their interests. When they complete these programs, students receive an Advanced Certificate which makes them eligible to be considered for University. Because vocational school allows students to pursue programs specific to their interests, we have found it is almost always better for a student to take this route, even if they do get the qualifying marks for S5 and 6. These students, like Muwanguzi’s son Derrick, excel and truly come into their own during their time in vocational school. Watching these young men and women pursue their passions, unveil their unique personalities, and even coach the younger students is a true delight!

School In Uganda

In order for Uganda to meet it’s goals for quality, accessible education, the country will have to work out these social, financial, and systemic issues. Thankfully, steps are being made. More Ugandan teachers are being trained and sent to schools, which will improve education. This October, the Uganda National Examinations Board announced that they will grade schools on not on just on the marks on students’ final exams, but on the improvement of those marks over time (Ahimbisibwe). The hope is to encourage schools to welcome not just high-scoring students, but also students with poor grades but who are eager to improve.

Hope is reflected through our students, as well! Derrick walked the first graduation ceremony for his Motor Vehicle Engineering program on October 6th. Muwanguzi attended, along with BOH staff members Cathie and Jane. When I spoke to Cathie, she said it was a “very good time” and that after the ceremony, everyone went back to Muwanguzi’s house to celebrate with matooke (roasted or steamed starchy bananas). Derrick is now entering his final program to achieve his Advanced Certificate for Motor Vehicle Engineering and will have his final graduation next year. Because there are so many obstacles and setbacks for a child to attain secondary school - let alone vocational school - Derrick’s graduation is an achievement of no mean significance! We are so proud of Derrick and all our students, who work hard everyday to achieve their dreams. One BSSP S4 student, Akuwulira Jackline, says it perfectly when she writes, “I know education is the key to success everywhere.”

Blog by Mackenzie Lanphear


Ahimbisibwe, Patience. “Uneb Introduces New System to Grade Schools.” Daily Monitor, 13 Oct. 2017, Accessed 30 Oct. 2017.

Kavuma, Richard M. “Free Universal Secondary Education in Uganda Has Yielded Mixed Results.” The Guardian, 25 Oct. 2011, Accessed 30 Oct. 2017.

Mwesigwa, Alon. “Uganda’s Success in Universal Primary Education Falling Apart.” The Guardian, 23 April 2015, Accessed 30 Oct. 2017.


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