Educational Challenges in Uganda

Written by Luna Plet

Uganda, also known as the “Pearl of Africa” is home to more than 32.0 million people and is rich in culture and diversity.[i] Since the colonial period, the education system has undergone many systematic changes. After gaining independence in 1962, several committees and other government actors were created to monitor educational systems and standards throughout the country. This has positively influenced the nation, as literacy rates have grown exponentially in the past years. Most recently, the literacy rate (of those 15 and older) has increased by 2.47% from 2018 to about 79% in 2021.[ii] In Uganda, children view school as a vital and happiness-inducing aspect of their lives, strongly linking it to their aspirations for achieving future success and securing good jobs.[iii] They relish their interactions with their peers. The situation is a source of sadness and anxiety for those not in school, as they fear it may jeopardize their prospects. However, obtaining an education remains one of their foremost life goals, and they are determined to attain it. Therefore, this article will delve deep into the challenges that Uganda is facing that result in the barrier between children and education.


Poverty and education are inextricably linked, as individuals living in poverty may drop out of school to engage in activities that provide immediate livelihood improvements.  While income inequality, gender disparities, and regional disparities present significant obstacles, Ugandans are leveraging education to carve brighter futures for themselves.[iv] This progress is evident through government initiatives, private school alternatives, and the enduring zeal for education among the Ugandan populace.

Public Education Initiatives

Uganda instituted the Universal Primary Education Policy in 1997, which eliminated fees for students attending the first seven years of school, covering primary 1 to primary 7. Although attendance remained voluntary, parents were still responsible for providing essential supplies and contributing to the construction of school facilities. Remarkably, primary school attendance surged by 145% within six years of implementing this policy. In 2007, the program expanded to encompass secondary education.[v] This remarkable increase in attendance reflects the profound thirst for education within Uganda. Although this can help combat poverty by ensuring universal access to education, the program’s impact on poverty remains limited. John Ekaju argues that this ‘UPE-centric’ approach overlooks the predicament of a considerable number of illiterate children, youth, and adults.[vi] Although the UPE policy eliminated general fees, the reality is that schooling is not entirely free, as families continue to grapple with expenses such as Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) fees, books, materials, mid-day meals, examination fees, and uniforms.[vii] Moreover, children, both in primary and secondary levels, are plagued by concerns about the threat of physical violence and sexual abuse from teachers or peers, rampant teacher absenteeism, and overcrowded and inadequately maintained facilities, often citing these as reasons for their non-attendance or dropout[viii]. Therefore, Ekaju suggests a reevaluation of the policy, predicting that enhanced higher education could halve poverty rates.

Moreover, poverty profoundly impacts school readiness, which reflects a child’s ability to thrive academically and socially in a school environment. Poverty negatively affects school readiness through various factors, including health issues stemming from inadequate nutrition, homelessness, food insecurity, and the inability to access medical treatment for illnesses. These factors place immense stress on learners, hindering their ability to succeed in school.

Challenges in Secondary and Higher Education

Education in Uganda is intensely competitive, with rigorous examinations following primary school dictating access to secondary education. Often, this selection process favours the best-performing students, with schools striving to enhance their grade averages and national rankings. While primary education attendance has improved, the quality of education itself has not kept pace. The dearth of resources coupled with an overwhelming student-to-teacher ratio, sometimes reaching 100 students per class, creates adverse conditions for educators and learners.[ix] This impairs the effectiveness of individualized instruction, a critical component of quality education. Consequently, students who aspire to receive a quality education often turn to costly private schools.

Gender Roles in Education

Remarkably, girls have achieved significant educational progress, with higher primary and secondary enrollment rates than boys.[x] However, they still confront gender-based obstacles to staying in school, including early marriages and negative community attitudes towards girls’ education, such as the perception that fees are wasted on them. Some girls are additionally hindered by their inability to afford sanitary pads, leading to occasional absences and, in some cases, permanent dropouts.

Role of Private Education

Boarding and private schools offer a higher quality of education, supported by better-qualified teachers who can provide personalized attention to students. This option is promising for some families but remains inaccessible to those entrenched in poverty. Many families in Uganda survive on less than $2 a day, and the typical annual costs for primary schools range from $50 to $150 for day schools, making them financially unattainable. The Initiative for Social and Economic Rights emphasizes that the fees charged by private schools perpetuate discrimination and further exclude children from low-income households.

Photo by Stijn Kleerebezem on Unsplash


March 2020 will forever be etched in the annals of the education community in Uganda as the month when all schools across the nation shuttered their doors.[xi] The government’s decision to institute nationwide school closures was a response to the looming threat of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. The far-reaching consequences of this decision affected pupils and students across the country.

Despite the widening income gap among Ugandan families, a substantial portion of whom benefit from Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE), the swift implementation of these closures necessitated an abrupt shift to internet, television, radios, and newspapers for learning, particularly among the candidate classes. This inevitable transition placed immense pressure on candidates, leaving little room for comprehensive planning. According to recent poverty statistics released by the Ministry of Finance, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated poverty levels in Uganda, with a rise to 28 per cent.[xii] The Eastern region, with a higher poverty rate and a higher likelihood of falling into poverty, surged to 53.3 percent from 28.9 percent, followed by the Northern region at 44.8 percent from 30.3 percent. Unsurprisingly, the general performance levels in the final 2020 Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) exams, both for UPE and USE, serve as a reflection of the income disparities in the country, particularly between regions.

Poverty and education are inextricably linked, as individuals living in poverty may drop out of school to engage in activities that provide immediate livelihood improvements. Despite government promises to ensure continuity of learning during school closures, there was little progress in providing learners with access to devices such as radios and televisions, particularly in rural households and villages. Furthermore, many households lacked dry cells for radios, and most rural areas suffered from a lack of electricity. Combined with challenges in internet connectivity and network coverage, as well as economic pressures on families, distance learning became an unrealistic solution. Overall, resource inequalities between rural and urban areas have persisted for decades, with rural areas lacking the necessary technology and infrastructure for transformation. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated these disparities.


In conclusion, recognizing the significance of investing in children is paramount for national development. With children and young people constituting a substantial portion of the population, they represent invaluable assets for Uganda’s future. Child poverty transcends individual and household levels, extending to lifelong consequences such as compromised education and diminished earning potential for those whose growth is stunted in their formative years. The ripple effect extends to the economy, with estimates indicating that Uganda experiences an annual GDP loss of 5.6% due to undernutrition.[xiii] Consequently, it is imperative that interventions in health, education, and protection target children at the right juncture. Such investments guarantee the fulfilment of children’s rights and set in motion a virtuous cycle of growth and human development, benefiting the nation as a whole.

Overall, these findings underscore the pressing need to address educational challenges in Uganda to ensure that children, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, have equal access to quality education, fostering their personal development and the nation’s future growth and development.


[i] “Facts & Figures | Uganda National Web Portal.”

[ii] “Uganda Literacy Rate 1991-2023.”

[iii] UNICEF, “Situation Analysis of Child Poverty and Deprivation in Uganda.”


[v] Thelwell, “The Impact of Education on Poverty in Uganda.”

[vi] Thelwell.

[vii] UNICEF, “Situation Analysis of Child Poverty and Deprivation in Uganda.”

[viii] UNICEF.

[ix] Thelwell, “The Impact of Education on Poverty in Uganda.”

[x] UNICEF, “Situation Analysis of Child Poverty and Deprivation in Uganda.”

[xi] The independent, “Poverty Undermines Uganda’s Public Education.”

[xii] The independent.

[xiii] UNICEF, “Situation Analysis of Child Poverty and Deprivation in Uganda.”

“Facts & Figures | Uganda National Web Portal.” Accessed October 17, 2023.

The independent. “Poverty Undermines Uganda’s Public Education.” The Independent Uganda: (blog), August 12, 2021.

Thelwell, Kim. “The Impact of Education on Poverty in Uganda.” The Borgen Project (blog), July 23, 2020.

Tuyambe – Kinder Not in Africa. “EDUCATION CHALLENGES FACED BY UGANDAN CHILDREN IN RURAL AREAS,” September 28, 2020.

“Uganda Literacy Rate 1991-2023.” Accessed October 17, 2023.

UNICEF. “Situation Analysis of Child Poverty and Deprivation in Uganda,” 2014.

Cover Image by bill wegener on Unsplash