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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 towards UPE in 1997 by creating free primary education, offering many existing private schools government funding to become public.   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 2019, about 47% of the population of Uganda was 14 or younger.

In many ways, Ugandan UPE has been a success, but serious challenges remain.

This huge increase in students in schools obligated to take whoever wanted to attend was met with too few classrooms, failing infrastructure, too few teachers, latrines, desks and supplies. While the goal is supposed to be no more than 60 students per class, classes may be even larger.  Teachers sometimes become demoralized and walk away.  School fees are free, but operating support from the government may be late and too little.  Parents may need to pay for uniforms, lunch, school supplies, etc., which leaves many of the rural poor unable to keep their children in school.

Academic performance, especially in rural areas, plummeted after UPE began.  An estimated 68% of children who enroll in primary school are likely to drop out before graduating.

President Museveni has warned school administrators that imposing fees on UPE students would not be tolerated.

The government goals are admirable. Achieving them difficult.


Sources used for this article include:




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Bwindi Watoto Primary School

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 have no parents, or only one. Often there is only a mother with too many children and no work. It is common that children live with an aging grandparent. 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 close to 200 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).

Sponsorships are used to pay for everything from teachers’ salaries, to food, to providing healthy sanitation. All sponsored children receive annual “packages.” Every newly sponsor child receives a mattress, sheets and a blanket among a variety of other things. Each year following, sponsored children receive other supplies, for example, school 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 as pressing 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, healthy environment in which children can learn.

TEACHERS:   There has been tremendous competition in our area for high quality teachers. Payroll costs have skyrocketed (thought teachers still do not make much).  The culture is such that if one new teacher is brought in at a higher salary, the word gets around rapidly requiring that increases have to be given to all teachers in a comparable category, or they will leave for another job.  Ugandan law is very favorable to teachers, so even a contract does not fully protect a school from having a teacher walk away with little notice at any time.

CLASS SIZE:   In the past two+ years since we purchased Watoto, we have been decreasing class size.  Except for Nursery School where classes are even smaller, we are around 20 students in most years.  We discovered with the help of one of our Board members that the cost of a day students cost us much more than they pay, yet the vast majority cannot pay more. Best case is that one day, all students would be sponsored – a challenging goal.  In the meantime, we have decreased the number of day students, thereby reducing more classes to the desired size and reducing the “extra” cost of a day student.  In another two years, all classes will reach the goal.  Two of the current three years of pre-school are already closer to 15 students.

INFRASTRUCTURE:  We have been able to rebuild or repair several of the most pressing infrastructure issues, starting in December 2019, and as funding permitted, continuing through September 2020.  We still have a number of projects remaining, though it may take us time to raise more funds – and, eventually, we hope to find major funding to build new dormitories on the land we purchased in 2019 (putting in a new road, clearing and leveling the land and building additional latrines and showers next to the dorms on the new location).

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Bishop Comboni College Kambuga “BCCK:   (High School)

BCCK is the best secondary school in our District and is constantly improving in every possible way.   It is about a 2 ½ – 3-hour bus 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 (School Board) meeting once a term.

We start with school fees and uniforms but then add in the costs of a freshman supply package which includes new mattresses, trunks, clothing, books, personal items and a great deal more. The first year is close to $1000, though that drops in the second year.

BCCK is worth it.  The academic quality, the quality of food and sanitation, the facilities and campus – even the extra-curricular activities are all excellent. Our students transform quickly in to (usually) responsible adults with excellent English, serious interest in their studies and soon become much more interested in the world and the possibility of a good future.

This is our first choice for secondary education for the highest performers in the graduating class.  If a student who is not sponsored is in the top three of his/her class, we try very hard to find a sponsor, though it isn’t always possible. (Sponsors who have supported a child for some years is more likely willing to send that child on to secondary education).

In most cases, students spend six years in secondary which is based on the British system.

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 (most) bright students. Some will average 50% – 55% (these are national averages). Those who perform with an average in the 60’s and 70’s will rank high in their class.  It is uncommon, but happens that one of our students receives an average in the 80’s.  It is important if you sponsor a secondary student that you ask lots of questions of us when you receive school reports since what is quite good in rural Uganda might be upsetting as a grade in another country.

Please see our sister organization for further information.  Educate Bwindi will continue to work closely with you, providing information, guidance and recommendations as well as school reports, etc. for you.  Although you will continue to work with us., our sister organization, BwindiCommunityProgram.org is the primary contact with the school and also helps considerably with post secondary program,s. One of us from Educate Bwindi  visits the school and the Head of School annually, and we stay in touch on a regular basis with all our students will visit often.

© Educate Bwindi is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization: Your donation is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. Please check with your tax advisor.

Get in Touch

Please contact Lorna Gladstone +1 312.316.7386 or Gina Norgard +1 516.996.3926 to answer your questions and provide additional information, or send us an email at EducateBwindi@gmail.com

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Vocational Programs

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.

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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.