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Here is a case for a temporary school food subsidy

Only 27.3% of children aged between 13 and 18 years are attending secondary school and more could drop out as food prices push up school fees

Kole North MP Opio Samuel Ocuti on August 16 rose on a “matter of national importance” touching on the impending hike in school fees. Ocuti referenced a communication by the organisation that brings together directors of private schools that they intended to hike school fees starting this term mainly due to the rising prices of food.

The proprietors of private schools spoke in light of the rapid rise in the prices of food starting in the middle of last term, in particular beans and maize meal which most schools feed learners. Schools were sent scampering for what to feed children yet they could not increase the resources at their disposal in the middle of the term. In a video clip that went viral on social media as the second term progressed, schoolchildren were being served adulterated bean soup, with each receiving barely any beans to go with it.

The price of maize flour doubled from Shs2,000 to Shs4,000 a kilo – and it now costs more than that in some places – draining the resources of schools and forcing some to close the term a month early. Virtually no school fulfilled the date that the ministry of Education had set for closing the second term because they had to send away learners early for want of what to feed them.

The picture is gloomy, if you speak with those who run schools. Those I spoke to say virtually all the monies they collected last term were exhausted in feeding children until they were forced to close shop before the official date. A number of school proprietors say they closed last term without fully paying the wages of their teachers and other employees, and certainly did not pay them during the holidays, meaning that the teachers had to endure hunger during the holidays as they hoped for the schools to reopen and get some pay.

The money to pay the teachers was expected to come from school fees at the beginning of the term, but school proprietors say many of the parents have been unable to return their children to school yet and many who have returned to school have paid only a fraction of the fees. To worsen matters, many parents were unable to pay full their children fees for last term, and there is a fear that they won’t have money to pay up this term.

In his “matter of national importance”, the MP Ocuti cited Uganda Bureau of Statistics data, which shows that on average only 27.3% of children aged between 13 and 18 years were attending secondary school in the country. At a regional level, the data shows, secondary school enrollment varies immensely, with Kampala having around 52% of children in that age group attending secondary school, while the corresponding figure for Acholi sub-region is a paltry 7.2%.

The national average for primary school enrollment is much higher but also needs to improve, currently standing at 80%. Ocuti expressed worry that with the intended increases in school fees, school enrollment, especially secondary school enrollment, would worsen as more learners drop out due to lack of school fees.

Education State Minister Joyce Moriku Kaducu

Education State Minister Joyce Moriku Kaducu

In search of a remedy

To remedy the situation, the MP made two broad suggestions. In the first place, he suggested that the ministry of Education should regulate school fees. His second prayer was that the government comes up with measures to enhance secondary school enrollment so that it goes much higher than the current average of 27.3%.

In response, Education State Minister Joyce Moriku Kaducu told the House that the law, in particular the Education Act of 2008, mandates her ministry to issue a statutory instrument that among others regulates school fees. She said an instrument in that regard was being prepared. The instrument would ensure, the minister said, that school dues are kept within acceptable range and that there are laid-down procedures for increasing fees, with the decision involving bodies like the school management committees and the parents.

Weeks later, Kaducu’s colleague, Higher Education State Minister John Chrysostom Muyingo, informed the House that their ministry had indeed made it clear to school administrators that there would be no arbitrary fees increments, and that any increment had to be agreed upon with the parents’ body.

If you consider the prescriptions that the MP Ocuti puts forward, and what the ministry of Education says is being done about the serious problem that the MP raises, you realise that there is a tendency to treat the situation as normal. But we are currently faced with extraordinary circumstances, and extraordinary interventions are required.

What should the government do?

Which extraordinary circumstances am I talking about in the first place? The economic situation is dire and the incomes of very many parents have collapsed, meaning that their ability to feed their families, pay for medical care and afford school fees has been severely constrained. On the side of learners, this is the first year they have had an opportunity to concentrate on learning following two years of disruption and almost no learning for most of them due to the lockdowns caused by Covid-19.

For this reason, the government had meant for this year to be for intensive learning, with longer school terms and shorter holidays so the learners may make up some lost ground. But after the Covid-19 virus has receded and the learners can stay at school, hunger cannot let learning continue in many instances. It is even subject to debate how much learning many of the children experienced last term since they were perpetually hungry due to the very small rations that the schools and their parents afforded them.

This is why the government needs to adopt extraordinary measures to deal with the situation of feeding learners, at least for this third. And before I make my suggestion, let me first paint a picture of what is currently happening in the food market. The first rainy season this year was short, starting around mid-March and ending in May. The Meteorology department had warned the farmers about the short rains last season, which would not be conducive for growing crops like maize that take relatively long to mature. But the farmers had to plant the maize anyway and many of them lost their crop, leaving the price of maize very high.

The drought, apart from affecting Uganda, also affected neighboring countries like Kenya, making Uganda a hunting ground for maize grain traders from especially Kenya. There is virtually no policy on food crop trade in Uganda, and grain traders will tell you they are currently competing for their gold with Kenyan grain traders in some cases up to the village level. Because the situation is dire and there are many mouths to be fed, you will not hear of the government of Kenya citing aflatoxins in maize from Uganda, which they sometimes reference to block our maize exports when they have a bumper harvest.

Kenyan traders are currently exporting even ungraded maize to their country with no problems. This means that the respite that the new harvest was expected to provide Ugandans has in most cases not materialised, and the prices of food remain very high and will not fall or even increase as the year winds down.

The schools have increased fees for next term in reaction to the food prices, with some I have sampled hiking their dues by a whopping 25%, some even higher. If they are to be subjected to the standard that the Minister Kaducu spoke about, most of the schools would be able to justify their new fees structure, given that the prices of food are high and are expected to further rise in the coming months.

But then, the general expectation, which the government also holds, is that the rise in food prices is temporary. The food prices are expected to drop when the Russia-Ukraine tensions ease and more grain can be imported from that region to ease the pressure on Uganda’s maize grain. Also, food production in-country will likely get back to normal following what appears set to be a normal season that has started. This may be as soon as end of year or early next year when the coming harvest comes on board.

In light of this, why would the government let temporary disruptions lead to a permanent hike in school fees during a very bad economic season? That is why the government needed to prevent a hike in school fees this third term based on problem. But this would require that the government does much more than just issue statements purporting to bar schools from increasing fees.

I don’t know how much would be required to feed all learners in primary and secondary schools for next term, but whatever figure it is, I bet many Ugandans would be pleased to see the government re-align its expenditures to make it happen. It would be a welcome stimulus package for very many Ugandans, especially those who need it and are struggling to keep their children in school.

The school food I suggest would not discriminate against private schools. In fact, private schools, especially those which educate the children of poorer Ugandans, are most in need of this stimulus. The schools would then be required not to increase fees and be allowed to use the fees they collect to clear their arrears, prioritising paying teachers and other workers.

Since the onset of covid-19 and the fuel price hike that followed, different governments have come up with different initiatives to alleviate the pain that their citizens feel. In our neighbourhood, Kenya and Rwanda intervened to try and keep the price of petroleum manageable, and Kenya has been subsidising the price of maize corn as its citizens felt the bite. Uganda, on the other hand, has adopted the view that subsidies are bad for the economy and could create long term distortions that would be very hard to correct.

I have intently listened to the arguments that President Museveni and other government officials have put forward in this regard. And, to add, there is now a fear that inflation could get out of hand, which has forced the Bank of Uganda to resort to raising its lending rate to levels it has not been in years.

But even with all that in view, I think a school food subsidy is a matter of necessity at the moment. The ongoing food scarcity has exposed many children to hunger and poses a serious risk to their growth, which could affect their growth and. The one place where the government can target most of the children is school, and it would be nice for the government to do it for once in these special circumstances.

In considering this matter, the government needs to do a quick survey of how many children have returned to school this third term. It should also do a quick scan of the economic health of schools, especially the smaller ones, because insolvent schools cannot properly educate our children.

Once the food crisis is gone and our economy is back on its feet with even more children going to school, the government will be free to brag about the matter.

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