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Urgent case for ECD overhaul in Uganda

Between 2017 and 2018, Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) is reviewing its early childhood development (ECD) policy, working closely with Cambridge Education.

Uganda offers an opportunity to provide a benchmark ECD model in a country that desperately needs it.

We can’t just leave it to the private sector, with no checks and balances. There is real potential to improve government capacity, but also to help parents know how to keep an eye on centres in their communities.

The message to the government and to donors is that there’s no time to lose.

Kate Martin

Deputy Team Leader

Despite achievements under the policy and Uganda’s burgeoning commitments to national and international goals for improved access to early childhood care and education (ECCE), our research indicates that much of the delivery is in the hands of private providers who charge fees for the service, meaning that the poorest in society lack access to valuable stimulation at this important stage in their cognitive development. Up to 70% of the country’s 3.6 million children between 3 and 5 years enter primary school unprepared to learn.

Our research also found that poor teaching skills and a widespread lack of accountability is putting child development – and also child safety – at risk. As spearheaded by the Government of Uganda, wholesale change in policy implementation is needed to avoid Uganda slipping further behind its East African counterparts.

Context

International evidence is unanimous on the necessity for quality early childhood development and education services to achieve the full cognitive, educational, economic and social potential of children. Investment in high quality ECCE provision is shown to bring greater return than at any other period in the education cycle.

When the Ugandan MoES developed its policy for ECD in 2007, their efforts and resources were directed towards achieving the goal of universal enrolment for primary and secondary education. However, given the shortage of public resource, the ministry effectively handed responsibility over to the private sector and maintained a limited regulatory role.

Parents must pay large amounts – often half of their income – for kindergarten care that does not guarantee good learning outcomes. Issues of abuse and corporal punishment are also occurring, as parents are detached from classroom practices and perhaps unaware of the consequences of such forms of discipline.

Few parents have experienced the benefits of play-based learning and classroom stimulation, believing their little ones should be sat in front of a teacher and blackboard. “My child should learn reading, writing and English – otherwise why am I paying for it?”

Due to the high cost of private ECD services, parents often send their youngest children to primary school with their bigger siblings. This creates a massive burden on primary schools –which are effectively being treated as childcare centres – leading to high rates of repetition and poor learning outcomes in lower primary.

Uganda has since fallen behind neighbours such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, in terms of delivery against the Sustainable Development Goals’ framework, of which it is a signatory. Goals of the National Development Plan (NDP 11) 2015/6 -2019/20 and Vision 2040 will not be met under present conditions. In 2017, the ministry therefore initiated a 10-year review of its ECD policy, and Cambridge Education were duly funded by the Global Partnership for Education to assess current performance and make recommendations for change.

However, with very limited resources for investing in ECD, how should the government determine how much to invest in ECD? And what interventions should it prioritise when the pot is small?

Approach

Through literature reviews and interaction in 143 centres across 10 regions, our team made a number of key findings related to the quality of services, equitable and inclusive access, and the availability of trained and qualified teachers. We also investigated access to information, support capacity, communications and parent and community awareness.

We found that

  • Up to 70% of the 3.6 million children in Uganda aged 3-5 years are not accessing an age-appropriate service
  • 70% of centres are privately owned
  • 40% of senior staff and at least 37% of caregivers are completely untrained and unqualified
  • There is a lack of compliance with MoES standards – 58% of centres in the sample did not meet minimum criteria
  • The majority of respondents said that the registration process is cumbersome, slow and possible to corrupt
  • Family income is a key determinant of attendance in a pre-school
  • Salaries of ECD practitioners are very low compared to primary and secondary school norms and the profession is not attracting high calibre candidates
  • There is a need for more parenting education, to enable parents to support their children’s development and to create more demand for early education services
  • Infrastructure and materials are of poor quality and insufficient

Progress

The review of Uganda’s policy guidelines and teaching frameworks didn’t flag up major need for policy change, per se. However, we concluded that wholescale transformation is needed in terms of implementing and targeted funding of the policy. Therefore, together with the Ministry, we are designing a 10-year action plan – including a series of practical costed options for change. Depending on investment from the government or donors, we have presented a series of recommendations on what this new approach might look like in regard to scaling up interventions in ECCE.

Universal access for ECCE is unaffordable, while there is growing evidence that a ‘class zero’ approach just expands problems from primary stages. However, we have recommended to the ministry that the Government becomes more engaged in building its capacity to retain an interest and influence at this critical stage, and specifically focuses on communities and parents and the crucial role they can play in the children's early experiences.

A ‘hybrid model’ would put Uganda on a similar footing to many other countries, where pre-schools are privately run, but must adhere to clear regulations. This is vital for guaranteeing the safety of young children: an area of urgent concern that the government must face up to. Equally, for the most marginalised and vulnerable, the government must create the push and the platform for parent and community engagement and low-cost models of early childhood stimulation.

The most important first steps are to ensure the quality training of pre-primary teachers, and to enhance community-led ECCE services. If the government can create a cadre of well-trained caregivers in its ECCE centres, then the picture will change quickly. Furthermore, evidence of successful and low-cost national programmes exists and it is our recommendation that these programmes are used as a basis for generating solutions for Uganda. We have also recommend a large communication campaign to sensitise communities and parents on the importance of ECD – as well as their rights as ‘the customer’.

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