Children usually start at the age of three and complete nursery school by the age of six. Until recently, many rural areas did not have nursery schools but demand has prompted their development in many areas. As pre-primary school enrolment is fee-based, the majority of the rural population in Uganda is unable to attend this level.
In the districts within which HEAL International works, children may start their education between the ages of five and ten at the nearest primary school (the official government recognized age of entry is six years). In Uganda, there are seven primary school years, from primary one (P1) to primary seven (P7). With normal annual progression this means primary school should last seven years, but many pupils drop out part way through and may return later, so it is not unusual to find teenagers sitting primary exams.
At the end of P7, pupils sit their first major national exams – the primary leaving examinations (PLEs). Presently PLE has four examinable subjects – English language, mathematics, science and social studies. The best possible mark pupils can achieve is a total of four (which means one point – a distinction – in each subject), while the worst is a total of 36 (nine points for each subject, which means a fail).
Students with between four and 12 points pass the PLE with a first grade, or division one.
Those with scores between 13 and 23 get a second grade (division two); 24 to 29 get a third grade, while those with 30 to 34 pass with a fourth grade.
In 2012, almost 90% of students in two of the schools supported by HEAL International (through our school program with Learning Beyond Borders: www.learningbeyondborders.com) achieved division 2 or higher on the PLE. This achievement is largely due to the support provided in the way of practice exams, books, sporting equipment and other supplies. There is evidence to show quality performance is determined by the availability of reading materials in the school.
Primary school tuition has been free in government schools in Uganda since 1997 but families must provide uniforms and all supplies from whatever financial resources they have. But pupils, especially those in rural areas, face serious challenges to finishing their education – for example – they lack shoes, scholastic materials (like books and pens), they often have to study all day on an empty stomach since no meals are provided at school, and schools often have poor teaching materials or an inadequate supply of qualified teachers. There is no shortage of energy or ambition in the students and teachers but these issues can often be insurmountable.
In their most recent report (2011) “Ugandan Education Statistical Abstract”, the Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports states that in primary schools, inadequate sitting and writing space is an ongoing issue. This tends to be seen more in P1 and P2 (51.2% and 60% respectively) as those grades have the highest enrollment with a steady decline to P7. This same report notes that 96% of all primary schools had access to a safe water source.
Besides government schools, there are many expensive day and boarding private schools at all levels, where wealthier or more ambitious parents send their children.
The Ugandan school system at this level consists of six years.
Technically, pupils who pass their PLE can progress to secondary school, though mainly those who achieve division 1 or division 2 standings qualify for admission due to a smaller number of secondary schools, hence a fewer number of spots available. Secondary school has two stages: the first four years, senior one (S1) to senior four (S4), constitute the Ordinary level (O-level) period. At the end of S4, students sit the second major national exams known as the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) or simply O-level examinations.
Students who are accepted may progress to Advanced levels (A-levels) or the Higher School Certificate (HSC). This lasts two years, S5 and S6, after which students sit for the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examinations, also known simply as A-levels. All these three annual national exams are sat between October and December.
In some districts, there may be a limited number of secondary schools where it is possible to only offer education up to O-levels. The government abolished tuition fees in public secondary schools in 2007 in efforts to increase access. However, only students who have scored 28 points or higher, can be admitted to this universal secondary education program. In practice, only those who achieve division 1 qualify for no fees and if a student is enrolled in one of the better resourced schools, there are tuition costs as well as mandatory fees. For some students, there are also uniform costs, supplies and accommodation/food to consider.
University and other Tertiary Institutions
Students who pass their A-levels may choose to progress to university, where they can study for degrees, or to other tertiary institutions that award diploma and certificates. Some wealthier parents send their children to universities and colleges abroad.
The government gives about 4,000 university scholarships each year to those that achieve a first class standing in their A-levels, and sponsors thousands of other students in other tertiary institutions. But tens of thousands of students who do not get the competitive government scholarships depend on their parents and guardians to pay their tuition and upkeep. It is also common that students may not get funded for their desired program of study and may have to choose a program that the government has selected.
Some tertiary institutions, like primary teachers’ colleges, and some nursing schools, also admit students who have completed their O-levels.
Not so long ago, about 95% of the student population attended Makerere University (government sponsored). This not the case now with many students attending private universities (including many Christian-based universities).