Earlier this year, Uganda launched its Universal Secondary Education program to enable more students from low-income and rural families to get a high school education. Cathy Majtenyi files this report for VOA on the challenges and rewards that lie ahead.
This year, some 155,000 primary school graduates who scored high marks are being admitted to some of Uganda's 790 government-sponsored and 350 private high schools across the country under the Universal Secondary Education program, or USE as it is commonly known.
Until now, less than half of all students who finished primary school made it to secondary school, largely because their families were unable to afford the school fees.
But with the USE program, the Ugandan government is aiming to have at least 60 percent of primary school graduates move on to secondary school this first year
Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire is Uganda's minister of education. She explains why it is important for more students to be given the chance to get a secondary school education. "We are industrializing. We want to start modern economic activities and programs. We are adopting the information and communications technology and sciences. We as a country and a government, we can't see how we can move into those areas without an educated, well literate community."
But providing spaces for so many students at once may prove to be easier said than done. When Uganda implemented its Universal Primary Education program 10 years ago, schools faced serious shortages of teachers, classrooms, learning materials and other equipment as they were being swamped with new students.
The education ministry says it is relying on private schools, parents, donors, and innovative strategies to fill in the gaps.
Ms. Bitamazire, adds, "In the over-enrolled schools we are introducing what we call double-shift sessions, a school in the morning up to one (p.m.) and a school in the afternoon up to six (p.m.), because we cannot easily multiply the numbers of schools, but we can use one school for two schools in one day."
Joseph Apira is head teacher at Koro Secondary School in Gulu, northern Uganda. He describes his school's plans to accommodate 200 more students this year. "There are quite a number of changes that we are trying to make. One of them is to work up together with the parents in order to work together with the local community and put in more buildings. Secondly, the non-governmental organizations who are in the area, they are helping to accommodate these students too -- constructing some classrooms for them so that the schools can cope up with that number. And the Ministry of Education is also coming up with these payments and their developmental policies."
The government says it is approaching outside donors to provide funds and other assistance for the secondary school program.
Tsuyoshi Okamoto works for the Japan International Cooperation Agency as an advisor to science and math secondary school teachers in Uganda. He says it may be difficult for the government to get this donor support. "We need more international attention on the secondary education. So far, what I observe -- this is my personal opinion -- is that most of the international donors stick with primary education. I understand that this is because of the [United Nations] Millennium Development Goals. They want to achieve these Millennium Development Goals and Uganda is on the right track."
If all goes according to plan, one million more students will be in the secondary school system in four years time. That will mean that 80 percent of children who finish primary school can get a high school education.
For many children from low income and rural families, this will be a dream come true.