Uganda, like many African countries, faces major challenges in providing quality and accessible education through government-funded schools. This is why advocates of private schools speak of their ability to help rapidly increase access to quality education where government budgets or infrastructure are inadequate to meet the rising demand.
According to the Uganda Schools Guide, there are about 17,858 private schools in 135 districts in Uganda. Among them are the high-end ones which target the well-off and the ones that target middle income earners.
However, as much as private schools in Uganda have managed to contribute significantly to educating this nation, some still face a number of challenges even before the Covid-19 outbreak. Some of these challenges have led to the closure of schools, which affects students, teachers, the parents and the community at large.
High operational costs
"Sometimes it is challenging to sustain a school due to the increasingly high costs of living every year," Umar Katumba, the director of studies at Broadway High School, Kawempe says. He says this is because most private schools rely on funding from school fees to meet their operational costs. Katumba says like many other businesses, Covid- 19 caught private schools off guard and many are wondering how they are going to sustain their operations when the school year resumes.
Katumba explains that by the time the lockdown came into effect, most private schools had at most collected between 50 to 70 per cent of the school fees and other dues which means that the rest was still unpaid and uncollected.
"This made it almost impossible to pay March and April salaries since the term had been anticipated to end in April 2020. That's why most private school employees were last paid in either March or April," he explains.
Katumba adds that to make matters worse, most parents only pay when it's time for end of term exams. That's when they normally raise the rest of the school fees.
Aside from funding, a private school just like any other business venture requires proper business management skills for its sustainability.
Christine Kitasimbwa, the director of Pax Junior School, Kira, says it is sad to note that most universities and colleges only train teachers to teach but not to manage business and yet it is a vital aspect for these schools.
"We were not prepared for the business challenges that we are grappling with in private schools. Yet business training would go a long way in easing school administration," she says.
Kitasimbwa reveals that they have challenges especially in areas of financial management, strategic planning, human resource management, customer care, governance, record keeping, and legality of institutions, among others etc.
She adds that these challenges spill over and affect the performance of their learners and staff like teachers thereby undermining the quality of education and the long term stability of private schools.
Unfair terms and conditions
Lucia Nakitende, a teacher at Gracious Senior Secondary School, Nsangi says it is not uncommon for private schools to have unfavourable terms of service and exploit teachers who are usually desperate for employment.
Some schools pay cash to teachers rather than remitting it to bank accounts. This means, there would be no NSSF remittance which is a disservice to the teacher in the long run.
"Some school administrators even pay salaries at their own convenience. This could mean going months on end without pay for the teachers. It is because of such reasons that some teachers set up side businesses to try and meet their financial needs," Nakitende says.
While having a side business is good, it usually causes the teachers to give less attention to their students.
Nakitende also shares that while most government schools have fixed standard working hours, for instance from 8am to 5pm, private school administrators usually dictate inhumane hours. These are usually long and drawn out and yet rarely compensated for financially.
Irregular appointment processes
There is also a challenge of some private school owners failing to give appointment letters to teachers. Nakitende says they do this on purpose as a way of avoiding legal commitments.
The private school teacher also shares that in some schools pregnant teachers are only given a month or even less of maternity leave despite government's set time frame.
"In some private schools like the one I was in, they would give you maternity leave of only two weeks. After the two weeks, the new mother has to come back to the school or risk having her salary deducted or contract terminated," she says.
The teacher further reveals that in certain private schools, compassionate leave is non-existent . If one insists on being allowed time off say for instance if they are bereaved, they are threatened with termination. Speaking up about such grievances could also get one fired.
George Mutekanga, the assistant commissioner for private schools at the Ministry of Education, says government cannot support private schools as much as they'd like to.
Mutekanga says that their major area of concern as a ministry is to address the challenges these schools face. Challenges tied to issues such as, appointment processes, remuneration of staff, and the like.
"That is where the challenges are because you find a teacher works day in, day out but at the end of the year they have nothing to save. That is where we want to tighten as a ministry," he explains.
The assistant commissioner further emphasises that private investor should make sure they implements favourable conditions. He gives examples of how they have been offering licences, registration, monitoring and supervision free of charge .
To address some of these challenges, some non-government organisations (NGOs) have come on board to offer financial and technical support to private schools that struggle with providing quality education.
Opportunity International, a UK based organisation, runs a programme called Edufinance. In 2016, it launched an initiative called EduQuality in Uganda that supports private nursery, primary and secondary schools.
According to Dr Innocent Masengo, a senior specialist with the organisation, the project targets low cost private schools because these are often isolated, without central support structures.
"Every year we help them make school development plans and support them as they implement their plans and whichever school does greatly in implementation, they win an award and cash prize," Masengo explains.
40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation (40-40) is another Kampala based independent, youth-led, charity organisation which has been committed to supporting the learning process of low- income schools by supplementing their school curriculum with fun and educational activities.
The organisation through their Angaza literacy programme has aimed at creating a favourable learning environment for children by improving their reading and writing skills, encourage expression and build confidence through public speaking.
Kisa Kasifa, the head of the programme, reveals that they also support teacher reskilling which plays a vital role in the continuity of the Angaza clubs, as well as their plan to set up learning centres which will ensure that children always have a safe place to learn in their communities.
"This does not only support teachers to best deliver lessons but helps them to create an environment where children and teachers interact freely and all this is for better learning outcomes," she says.
According to Garry Nimanya, an education specialist with the Ministry of Education, having NGOs that can come on board are welcome and a long overdue opportunity for struggling private schools to be able to offer quality education services to the community.
He says that private schools are providing the children with education but need support to improve the quality.
Nimanya explains that this is in line with Sustainable Development Goal number four that talks about countries providing equitable, accessible quality education for all.
The education specialist states that however, he hopes that the new methods are consistent and compatible with the curriculum.
He further reveals that his worry is whether the programmes are looking at strategies for making education in the private schools more affordable such that the dream for access to education comes true for most of our learners.