In September 2000, the largest number of world leaders in history met together to adopt the “UN Millennium Declaration.” They committed to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty, setting out a series of goals with a deadline of 2015. One of these was to provide Universal Public Education (UPE) for all children.
Uganda had already taken steps to UPE in 1997 by creating free primary education. For parents of poor families, it was an extraordinary opportunity. Enrollment in the government supported schools increased from 3.1 million pupils in 1996 to 8.4 million in 2013.
In many ways, UPE has been a success, but there are also many problems. This huge increase was faced with too few classrooms, failing infrastructure, too few teachers, latrines, desks and supplies. While the goal is 60 students per class, often 90 students or more is common. Teachers become demoralized and walk away. While school fees are free, families are often charged for lunch, paper, bricks, and pencils – charges the rural poor cannot pay.
Academic performance, especially in rural areas, plummeted. Schools that once provided a good education could no longer do so. An estimated 68% of children who enroll in primary school are likely to drop out before graduating from their 7th and last year.
President Museveni recently warned school administrators that imposing fees on UPE students would not be tolerated. The goals are admirable. Achieving them challenging.
Bwindi Watoto Primary School (BWS) is a private school, receiving no government funding. Classes never exceed 30 students, and the quality of teaching is high. Its mission is to serve mostly families of extreme poverty, orphans and gifted children of the poor. In Bwindi, those parents who can afford to pay fees choose to send their children to Bwindi Watoto, yet this provides only a small portion of the funds needed to run the school. Without sponsorships, it could not exist.
Test results are some of the very highest in the District. Children are visibly healthy and happy.
These are some of the sources used for this article:
Bwindi Watoto Primary School was founded in 2008 to offer opportunity to Bwindi’s most vulnerable children. As time went on the most gifted children from Bwindi’s poorest families were also targeted.
Many of the children who attend Bwindi Watoto are “double” orphans, with no parents, or “single” orphans, with only one parent. Parents die from AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, diabetes – and perhaps simply despair. Most of our families make less than $500 per year. Children are often imperiled; education not even a possibility.
But there always is a catch. The school receives no government assistance, which generally permits the school to keep class size small and the overall quality of education up. However, because Watoto takes no government funding, tuition fees and donations must support the school.
But there’s a catch again. Because most parents live in extreme poverty, many cannot pay the entire amount and default. The school is in a constant and difficult balancing act of deciding who must go home, and who can stay in school.
Without outside sponsorships and general donations, the school cannot pay its bills. Sustainability is a constant topic of internal conversation, but it is difficult to find a solution.
Today over 300 students attend Watoto. All sponsored students board. Boarding is considered the best way for children to be educated. It provides the best opportunity for consistent academic work, a healthy and positive environment and positive community and much more nutritious food than they would be likely to receive at home.
Primary education lasts seven years (and, if possible, is preceded by up to three years of nursery school). Although children would typically begin first grade (P1) at six years old, poverty often delays entrance. It is not uncommon that students start one or more years late because of the lack of money for school fees (unless sponsored).
Educate Bwindi makes sure that every newly sponsor child get the basics needed for boarding, for example, a mattress, sheets and a blanket among a variety of other things. Each year after, sponsored children receive other supplies which would, for example, include perhaps shoes, clothing, a metallic lock box, personal supplies, school supplies, etc. If there is a little extra money, we may use it to purchase similar items for children whose needs may be the same but who are currently unsponsored.
The specifics may vary term to term, year to year and once in a while even child to child, but the goal is always the same: to create a happy and healthy environment in which children can learn.
Bishop Comboni College is one of the best, (nipping at the heels of the top) secondary schools in our District, Kanungu. It is about a 2 ½ – 3-hour drive from Bwindi. Of the 550 students at Comboni, approximately 35-40 are from the Bwindi Watoto Primary School.
While the school was founded by a Catholic order, it is non-denominational and welcomes students of all faiths. Funding comes from a combination of school fees paid by families (or, in our case, sponsors), government funding and funding from the Church. The Head of the school has also been superb at finding grants for infrastructure, including a new dormitory for girls, a new science building and a computer lab.
The school is run by a Board of Governors. A voluntary PTA meets once a year and sends a member to the Board of Governors meeting once a term.
This is our first choice for secondary education for the highest performers, defined very roughly as the top 5-6 students in the Watoto graduating class. The academic quality, the quality of food and sanitation, the facilities and campus – even the extra-curricular activities are all excellent.
When discussing education in Uganda, it is important to understand that all education in rural Uganda is significantly weaker, as well as less expensive than what is found in Kampala. Academic averages are much lower, even for bright students. In general, students ranked below 6th in their last year of primary school at Watoto are often unable to maintain an academic average of 50% – 55% (these are national averages). Receiving averages in the 60’s and 70’s puts a student in the top of the class. Those who receive less than 50% in their third year, may be asked to repeat. Sponsors should not be discouraged, but rather proud of a student receiving an average in the 60’s!
Please see www.BwindiCommunityProgram.org for further information.
In 2017, we added San Giovanni as an option for secondary education.
To date, most students sent to secondary are very bright. These students should attend Comboni if at all possible, since they offer one of the top secondary educations in our District.
We hope that working with San Giovanni opens the door to more secondary sponsorships for children who care about school and work hard, but may not be academically strong or for sponsors who may not be able to afford the cost of Comboni. San Giovanni offers a solid academic environment and is significantly less expense than Comboni.
It also offers a good alternative for students who, without secondary school, might be in danger of early marriage, malnutrition, abuse or neglect when still very young.
San Giovanni is only a little more than one hour from Bwindi, and the students will be under the watchful eye of the Primary Headmaster and the Bwindi Watoto Sponsorship Coordinator who will visit often.
Most vocational students begin programs immediately after the fourth year of secondary education (Senior 4). This is also what we usually recommend. It is less expensive in the long run for the sponsor and gives the student a more rapid entry into the workforce.
Vocational programs offer a Certificate after one or two to 2 ½ years depending on the program. Students can then begin working full-time, and if they wish, attend evening and weekend classes towards a Diploma. A diploma brings better opportunities and a better income. Some sponsors prefer to fund their student through the Diploma.
Costs vary per program, but run from around $2800 – $3500.
Here are some of the programs which provide skills currently in demand.
Nursing \ Scanology \ Midwifery \ Electrical \ Engineering \ Carpentry and Joinery \ Construction \ Plumbing \ Hotel and Restaurant Management \ Hotel and Restaurant Catering \ Chef
Our partner, Bwindi Community Program, handles vocational students and funding for vocational program and for University.
To be eligible for University, students must complete all six years of secondary school. Eligibility for University – and for specific programs – is determined by a combination of elements through a complex system of points.
For rural students, especially those from poor families, attending University is especially rough. Only 4000 (for a population of 37 million) government scholarships for University are available.
Total costs run between $3000 – $4000 total per year. Typically, programs are three or four years long.
Nonetheless, even graduation from University does not guarantee work. Many University graduates are underemployed or unemployed. Some might say it is the same in the US or Europe, but our University graduates do not run a 52.2% unemployment rate for those employable in this age group. Because of high unemployment, a Master’s degree (one year) has become virtually essential for employment in the field of one’s degree.
Except for the best and the brightest of our Bwindi students, Vocational programs are usually the wiser choice.