As schools struggle to safely reopen, many countries, including Uganda, are grappling with the impact of COVID-19 on education and its implications for children's future. Even before the pandemic, a report by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity estimated that 90 percent of children in low-income countries fail to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life. The World Bank’s “2018 World Development Report” called the learning gap a “learning crisis,” and the global community mobilized to seek more funding to support education systems across the world. Yet a large number of marginalized children and youth still remained outside the education system before COVID-19, and without significant efforts by international institutions, they will continue to lack access to basic education.
In a recent article in the Financial Times, World Bank President David Malpass outlined the institution’s steps for equitable education as an essential part of the COVID-19 response. He underscored the threats to children, including the linkage of school closures to increased sexual exploitation and abuse, violence against children, and child labor. Uganda has experienced similar challenges as the government searches for innovative ways to respond. To facilitate continuity of education, Uganda implemented measures such as online education; learning through radio, TV, phones and media print; or moving community teachers between different villages. However, many children have been left out as they cannot afford internet, phones, radio, TVs, or batteries for radio.
The pandemic offers an opportunity to clarify a vision for stronger, more inclusive education systems. The World Bank can support this vision by taking the following steps to provide safe, accessible, quality education for Uganda’s children.
1. Prioritize building strong, resilient and inclusive public education systems. As the World Bank focuses funding on health and economic recovery, it must also prioritize public education as essential to equalizing opportunity across Uganda. While public schools in Uganda are free, extra fees charged by schools make it difficult for some parents to pay. Additionally, as income constraints continue, many parents will be unable to afford private school fees, resulting in an influx of students in public schools. Growing burdens on public schools underscore the need for increased investment and technical assistance to make schools accessible and inclusive. Public schools also serve as an essential place for child protection and prevention of child labor. The government, World Bank, and other stakeholders must recognize the potentially devastating impact of emergencies on child protection and child labor, and work together to implement effective prevention and response strategies to fulfil children’s right to an education. Moreover, the Bank can incorporate WASH and health components in education projects, enabling students to better understand how to prevent or reduce the spread of disease. These essential components like accessible toilets and handwashing stations help to bring kids to school and enable them to stay there. The World Bank should work with the Government of Uganda to take a multi-sectoral approach to bringing and keeping children and youth in the education system.
2. Leverage local learning ecosystems that have emerged during COVID-19. President Malpass has urged that education reflect the importance of families and conditions at home, and ensure continuity of learning both in the classroom and in the community. When Uganda’s schools closed, teachers began to partner with parents and caregivers in innovative ways as they attempted to support learning at home. Schools formed new relationships with community health and social welfare organizations, as CSOs helped prepare schoolwork for children with disabilities. As the Bank examines how to leverage these emerging partnerships, it should prioritize stakeholder engagement with communities to help identify and mitigate barriers to education. For example, in response to school closures, Yiya, an NGO in Uganda, designed an offline learning program called Yiya Airscience. The program provides an interactive STEM learning experience for remote populations that lack internet access, smartphones, or academic materials using only simple keypad phones and radios. With over 15,000 registered youth, of which 30 percent were not enrolled into school before the pandemic, young people and their parents/caregivers are listening to the radio lessons, working on hands-on experiments, and submitting lesson responses via a shared phone. This collaboration can provide opportunities for learners to pair direct instruction with innovative pedagogies allowing for experimentation and solve community problems. As President Malpass highlighted, the Bank must bridge the digital divide to allow effective use of online tools for hybrid learning and to reduce large inequities in education systems.
3. Focus on back-to-school measures and enrolling new students. The Bank’s Uganda COVID-19 Emergency Education Response Project includes assistance for back-to-school campaigns, which should consider the impact on marginalized groups and those entering school for the first time. Projects need to include specific provisions for children from marginalized groups, such as encouraging parents to send their children with disabilities to schools and giving pregnant girls an opportunity to safely return to school. Education projects must enable all children to learn, including those with disabilities, by providing learning materials in Braille or sign language and re-organizing structures for more accessible classrooms. The back-to-school campaigns should consider how to sensitive parents/caregivers and community leaders on the value of education and support high academic performance. The Bank should also regard back-to-school measures as an opportunity to bring children into the school system for the first time. Access to primary and secondary education is essential for Uganda to build its systems back better in the COVID-19 recovery.
The World Bank should support Uganda’s government to work with communities, including children, to reimagine education and accelerate change in teaching and learning. By prioritizing safe, accessible, and inclusive education, the Bank can support Uganda’s children, particularly those from marginalized groups, in community-based learning systems to access education.
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