A Brief History of Public and Private Education in Uganda and the Bridge Schools saga

The Bridge Schools are back in the news. They were ordered to close by the Ministry of Education two years ago, for failing to fulfill basic minimum requirements for private schools in the country. They went to court to challenge the decision and they lost the case. Parliament undertook its own investigations on the matter and returned with a position that agreed with the Ministry of Education. Bridge schools do not abide by the minimum required standards for private schools.
Despite this consensus by all the three arms of the state, Bridge Schools are open. They have put up a very strong and well-financed PR campaign, which includes portraying the Ministry of Education as contradictory in its approach to the schools. Bridge supporters ask how the Ministry can claim to uphold standards when other schools are not doing better than Bridge. The purpose of this short post is to explain the various types of schools in Uganda, and the different roles the Ministry plays in the ownership, management, supervision and regulation of the various types of schools.
The Ministry of Education is a regulator of private education in the country. The word ‘regulator’ is very important. The Bridge schools fall under the private ones whose relationship with the ministry is that of being the regulated. In its role as regulator, the ministry of education is supervised by both the judiciary, to resolve disputes, and under parliamentary oversight. In the Bridge case, both the judiciary and parliament agree with the decisions of the Ministry of education. This regulatory role over private schools should not be confused with other roles of the ministry when dealing with other types of schools, to which I turn below.
To understand the complex situation of public education in Uganda, we have to go to the colonial era. The first schools in Uganda were religious schools. They were owned by missionaries. The colonial government decided to give grants to these schools but never owned or took them over. In as far as they were ‘church-owned’, these schools were in a technical sense, private schools. The Muslims realising that they were losing out because of the religious discrimination in these schools (which were set up to convert the ‘heathens’, to ‘civilise’ them and so required baptism etc), started their own schools to provide education to Muslims. The colonial state also started a few schools in urban areas, that were not attached to any religion. The Asian community and local governments (kingdoms, especially Buganda, for example) also started their own schools. Primary and secondary education during the colonial era in Uganda was segregated by religion, class, gender and race to different extents. There were schools for only European children of colonial administrators, and Asians, and upper class ‘natives’. Then there were schools for the rest.
The idea of ‘government-funded’ schools started from the colonial era. The colonial government sent money to religious-based schools, as support. The colonial government did not in fact have an office for education until later. It decided that education was a function for the missionaries, and its role was to support them. To run the schools, the missionaries and the church charged fees from parents, to supplement government funding.
A lot of changes have happened since the colonial era, including racial integration in the earlier European and Asian-specific schools, but what has not changed is the ownership of religious schools. In a strict sense, there are very few ‘public’ schools in Uganda. If we use two broad categories, public and private, the public are the state owned schools, so we are talking of schools like Shimoni demonstration school, Nakasero primary school, Kitante primary school, Kigezi College, Butobere, etc. When Obote made Uganda a republic, the state took over assets that used to belong to kingdoms. Some schools became state-owned than local government-owned that way. The kingdom had started its own non-denominational schools in its role as a local / federal government. The rest of the schools are not state owned, and therefore fall under the definition of private, as that which is not state owned. In this category, are schools that are religious, the majority, and those started by private entrepreneurs for profit, and others started by communities.
This broad category of private schools can be subdivided into two sub-categories. There are government funded but privately owned schools, and private commercial schools that do not get government funding. Government funded schools are those started by religious organisations, or even local communities, that the state funds through grants, as it were in the colonial era. Most of the so called government schools, fall in this category. Gayaza, Kigezi High School, Namagunga, Mbarara High School, Bweranyangi, etc. They are not public schools, strictly speaking because they are owned by the religious institutions that started them. Government pays salaries, gives them grants, etc but ultimate control, ownership of land and structures, all that is religiously or community owned. So we can say that the government funded schools are half public, half private. The others are private profit-making, commercial schools. To be fair, there are also privately owned schools that are not government funded, and do not make profit, the Nyaka Schools are an example.
The Ministry of Education is the relevant office in government that owns and runs if you may, the strictly public schools, which are very few. It owns the land on which they sit, it has total control of these schools. It has some limited power over the government funded schools because of the money it gives them through paying salaries to teachers and other grants. Universal Primary and Secondary Education funds are in that milieu, and not all government funded schools accepted these programmes, again because full control is by the religious organisations and communities that started them. So, not all government funded schools are part of the UPE and USE programmes.
The ministry is also the regulator of the commercial and non profit, private schools, started by individuals, companies, organisations, even religious organisations. Majority charge school fees, they make profit, and do not receive government funds. This is the category in which Bridge schools fall. The role of the ministry as regards to these schools is purely that of regulation. It sets the standards that they need to meet, and supervises them to ensure that they are compliant. Some private schools do not charge fees but do not receive government funds either. Such non-profit schools like Nyaka, referenced above, are totally philanthropic. They, too must meet the basic requirements set by the ministry, as if they made profit.
Public discussion about the Bridge schools issue conflates the three types of schools above, and the different roles the ministry plays, in regard to each type. I do not think that any useful analysis can emerge from the conflation of three separate types of schools, which come with different roles for the Ministry of Education. The Bridge Schools are profit making, but pretend to be ‘doing good’, helping the poor and so do not meet the minimum set standards because of this. Isn’t it ironic that Nyaka Schools, which do not charge school fees, which have over time proved to have had a huge impact on poor communities, actually meet the set standards? They are nonprofit, and private. Bridge as a private school, is in the league of Kampala Parents, reputed as one of the oldest private schools in the country, and it must meet the minimum standards set. It is corporate capitalist greed, the desire to make as much profit as possible, at the expense of children’s futures that sees Bridge Schools seek to cut corners.
51QQROMAp8L
For further reading on the history of education in Uganda, see Ssekamwa and Lugumba’s A History of Education in East Africa. Wulira, also produced a podcast episode on the UPE programme. See their references and listen to the podcast¬†episode.