‘Please, madam, could you help me with my school fees?’
The young woman who had stopped me as I walked up our lane was about 15 or 16 and dressed in a neat and clean school uniform. I had no idea who she was. It was January 2010, six months after our arrival in Kampala and just before pupils returned for the new school session.
How should I react? As my husband knows only too well, I tend to have knee-jerk responses to such pleas, handing out fivers as if from a bottomless wallet. However, this time I remembered the sensible advice from our sponsors, VSO. If I started handing out money willy-nilly, the recipients would probably come back time and time again and there would be no end to it. Furthermore, I knew nothing about the situation and could easily be contributing to child exploitation. I also did not want to become a ‘Lady Bountiful’, demeaning to the beneficiaries and corrupting to me.
‘No,’ I said, stiffly. ‘I have never met you before and don’t know who you are.’
‘But I really need the money, madam,’ she protested. ‘I can’t go back to school without it.’
However, I was adamant and she went away disappointed. I continued up the hill feeling thoroughly ashamed of myself, despite believing that I had done the ‘right’ thing.
There was nothing particularly dramatic about this incident and I never became aware of any positive or negative outcome. It was a common enough scenario, after all. Did the girl gather enough money to go back for the new term or was she one of the thousands of young Ugandans thrown on the educational scrap heap through lack of funds? Only 25% of Ugandan children make it to secondary school and far fewer than that continue to the end. I would never know, but I hope that her persistence led her to benefactors more generous than me.
Why these constant pleas for school fees? The ‘free’ overcrowded government schools can often take no more students, or have set their entry grades too high. Anyway, even government schools demand supplementary fees: for building projects, laboratory equipment or teachers’ salaries. Ironically, poorer students are often reduced to attending low quality private schools. Almost all the professional middle classes, government officials and politicians have rejected the state system for their own children. Indeed, the First Family is said to part own and profit from some of the most famous, and lucrative fee-paying schools in Uganda, the St Lawrence consortium. The poor do not have these choices.
Last summer, a one-man show called Educating Ronnie received an Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award. The advertising blurb contained the following words: ‘The show tells the true story of Joe, who in 2002 went on a gap year trip to Uganda. While there he made friends with Ronnie, a meeting that was to change both their lives.’
Joe, a student aged 18, ended up supporting a Ugandan friend Ronnie from Mityana in central Uganda, for the best part of ten years, first through school and later through university. He also bailed Ronnie out of various mishaps which befell him and his family over the years. Tellingly, Joe calculated the cost in pints of beer, that universal student currency. Over the years, he contributed the equivalent of thousands of pints of beer to Ronnie’s education, though at any one time, the cost was negligible by our western standards.
Joe said, “For years I was ashamed to talk about giving money to Ronnie. I didn't want to be seen as 'holier than thou' or shown up as a total mug for trusting this bloke I met on a Gap year trip. Now I'm proud to be telling this story all around Scotland, whatever the response. My hope is the story makes people feel, think and reflect and so, in a little way, changes the world."
Fortunately for my conscience, we did change our minds about paying schools fees and over the nearly two and a half years we were in Uganda supported a number of young people, sometimes with one-off payments, and others more regularly. As one might have predicted, we are still contributing today, even though we left the country well over a year ago. And, to be honest, as with Joe and Ronnie, the end is NOT in sight.
Of course I know all the arguments about the dangers of developing a dependency culture, putting oneself in a position of superiority, or potentially being taken advantage of (though I don’t think we ever were). However, I also know that without our contributions, few of these children would have been able to stay at school or progress as far as they have done.
So who were they?
- One lad we met when his family helped us after our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. After a on-off payment of 50,000 Ugandan shillings (£12.50) to help clear the debt which was threatening to end his school career, we ended up contributing to his next two years at school and the cost of sitting his O levels. I visited his school and kept in touch with the deputy head. What happened to Ronald after we left, I don’t know. His chances of getting a job with only O levels were slim. If we had stayed longer in Uganda, I would have continued the support, but saw no way of doing it. Ronald had half a dozen siblings whom we did not support and who, may have dropped out, as the family was really struggling.
- We paid petty amounts of money for fees, uniform and school necessities for various destitute children who attended Royal Pride Academy, including a boy who as a baby had been left on a rubbish heap. He was rescued by an old woman who struggled to feed and clothe him. His school fees cost Ush 40,000 per term, £10. His shoes cost £2.50. Our support for Royal Pride finished when we left Uganda.
- Stuart helped his golf caddy through secondary school and then a driving course to increase his employability, a total of about Ush 250,000, the princely sum of £62.
And so it goes on. The total amount we have paid is considerable by Ugandan standards but minimal in comparison with British school fees and our own financial situation. We have no doubt that paying school fees has at least given these individual children a chance. We don’t fool ourselves that we have done more than that. However, we do believe passionately in the power of education to transform lives.
The issue of school fees is not just a Ugandan one, of course. Walking past a secondary school by the shores of Lake Malawi, I was accosted by a group of young men selling homemade jewellery, a common enough situation. They were all students at the school but had been unable to pay their fees so were no longer able to attend. Their modest profits from such sales, and from working on the boats, contributed to their school fees fund. Shockingly, they were all in their early twenties and their secondary education had been stop-start from the day they enrolled, as money became scarce or more available. This is not the best way for any young person to learn and succeed.
Now I haven’t recounted these individual stories in order to impress my readers with my generosity or make myself feel better about the tiny drops I have contributed to the ocean. I have done it to explore some of the issues which emerge from the overwhelming impact of school fees on individual families in the developing world, on the conduct of employees who are responsible for paying school fees for their families and on the quality and sustainability of education as a whole.
Before I went to Uganda, I had quite a different attitude towards sponsorship. I was aware of the various reputable charities which arranged such assistance, World Vision, for example. However, I felt that it was wrong to pick particular children out of a family or a community for educational support, leaving their siblings and peers with nothing. When I eventually changed my mind, it was for emotional reasons and because I actually knew the children concerned, at least to some degree, and was aware of the enormous difference even limited financial backing would make to their lives.
A chat with one of our Ugandan colleagues confirmed my changing views. He pointed out that strong family ties in Uganda meant that those we helped would invariably go on to help their own siblings, and so what was quite a small gift from us would be increased immeasurably as all the family – and community – benefited from the educational success of the one supported child.
And yet, and yet…. we also became increasingly aware of the negative impact of school fees on the provision of public services in Uganda. As you would expect, it wasn’t just us transitory westerners who were contributing. Most Ugandan professionals were supporting through school not only their own children, but numerous poorer relatives and orphans.
I was shaken when I realised how many children in Uganda were without effective parental support. Many lived in ‘child-headed households’ or were given a corner of someone’s hut, a bowl of posho, a sleeping mat and, if lucky, school fees. In return they often worked as unpaid skivvies and were part of Uganda’s huge child labour problem. The impact of AIDS, TB and malaria, years of civil war and the disruption to communities caused by the negative impact on agriculture of climate change, a rapidly increasing population and over-farming meant that many children were orphaned while others were abandoned when their parents left to seek work in urban centres. Many Ugandans struggle beneath the burden of all these extra mouths to feed.
Furthermore, the demand for school fees contributes to ‘corruption’ and inefficiency. Many hospital staff have two jobs to enable them to pay school fees, or run their own private clinics on the side. As a result neither institution benefits from all their working hours or attention. Sometimes drugs and equipment belonging to one clinic are transferred to another. It is patients who suffer. Women in labour turn up at clinics to find there are not enough staff, and sometimes none at all. Often they are asked to pay extra for the most basic of treatments. Some midwives are said to sell the birthing kits provided free by central government.
Many teachers in government schools, often working for months without pay, run small shops on the side or work as boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) to pay the fees to keep their own children in better schools than the poor rural establishments in which they work. Attendance rates among teaching staff while we were in Uganda were around 40% and among headteachers around 50%. Many headteachers and district officials also own private schools, taking their time and attention away from their substantive jobs. The desperate activity of making money on the side means that public funds are often ‘eaten’ (stolen). Public servants often spend their time frenziedly going from workshop to meeting and meeting to workshop just to claim expenses, rather than doing the jobs for which they are paid a salary. Sadly, such workshops are often run by non-governmental organisations and international donors.
We sometimes heard educated Ugandans who should have known better, express the view that poorer families did not ‘appreciate’ the bountifulness of the government in providing school buildings and teachers and evaded their own responsibilities for providing school requirements such as exercise books and pencils and for making sure their children were fed.
If you are a subsistence farmer growing food mainly for family use, then you often do not have the actual cash to pay for school fees. Instead you take precious goats to market or sell some or all of your family land, leaving you with even fewer resources to pay school fees next year. The women who already do almost all the hard work in farming still end up in debt.
The desperate need for school fees results in children hawking snacks along dark night-time streets. It results in teenage girls selling their bodies to middle-aged men, often their teachers. In 2012, a study by Makerere University School of Public Health, funded by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) found that in Kampala 21% of female secondary school students between the ages of 14 and 17 had engaged in ‘transactional sex’ – providing sex in exchange for something, usually money. One in twenty had had sex with a relative for this purpose. (See Life of a secondary student: exams, fees and a whole lot more.)
You may wonder why I am still thinking about this problem of school fees, after all this time.
One trigger is the current debate in the British press about state versus fee-paying schools, in particular the declaration by Michael Gove, Education Secretary for England and Wales, that state schools should aim to emulate, and hence achieve the same standards as, their fee-paying counterparts. In so saying, he ignored the positive impact on independent schools of academic-, social- and self-selection, higher parental aspirations and greater levels of resourcing. He also devalued the successes of the many effective state schools which provide for ALL children regardless of social background and family prosperity. Latin, debating and competitive sports, rewarding though they may be for some, are not among the main drivers of a country’s overall educational achievement.
Another trigger is a very personal one. In one of my final posts about our time in Uganda, When goodbye really means farewell, I wrote about our caretaker who was bringing up three children alone. She had managed to keep her eldest girl in secondary school until A levels while the two youngest were still in primary. Our parting present was to help the eldest girl study for a university diploma in a vocational subject. All seemed well. However, within months of our leaving, the mother lost her job as caretaker when the landlord gave her job to one of his relatives, a common-enough tale. Subsequent to that, our erstwhile caretaker was evicted from her house. No income and no accommodation.
And her children?
There was no money to pay school fees. I knew those children, the smiling eleven-year old girl in her smart school uniform and the bright little boy of nine or so, so eager to learn and to lap up opportunities to improve his English. I couldn’t bear the prospect of these children whom we knew dropping out of school and joining the mass of under-age, semi-literate and exploited unskilled youth. So, again, we stepped in, with the prospect now of our support continuing for several years at least, until we are really quite old.
So what is the solution?
In both Britain and Uganda, with their very different contexts and priorities, the state system of education needs the public and practical support of policy makers and professional educationists. Undermining the standing of state or government schools in Britain and profiting from investments in fee-paying establishments in Uganda both send messages to parents about the relative worth of each system. Families which can barely afford to provide their children with food and a place to sleep are persuaded for a range of quite valid reasons to spend scarce resources on school fees. Large-scale opting out of the state system, for whatever motive, by powerful individuals who would otherwise be committed to resource and improve it, results in a lowering of standards overall.
And, in the meantime, a few well-meaning individuals try to save a handful of children by paying their school fees.