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Children at the private Kitante Primary School in Kampala, where the fees for pre-primary students are UGX 350,000 (US$ 93) per term, or UGX 1,050,000 (US$ 298) per year, representing more than five months’ average wages for a Ugandan in paid employment. © 2022 ISER
  • The Ugandan government provides free primary education for all children, but parents whose children are enrolled in pre-primary school must pay often prohibitively high fees.
  • The pre-primary years are a critical time for children’s development, and children who miss out on pre-primary education may never catch up to their peers. The lack of government-funded pre-primary also inhibits Uganda’s economic development.
  • The government should make at least one year of pre-primary education compulsory and free for all children, and make additional years free over time, as expeditiously as possible.

(Kampala) – Uganda’s failure to provide government-funded pre-primary education causes lifelong negative consequences, Human Rights Watch and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) said in a report released today. Fees for private preschools for children ages 3 to 5 create an insurmountable barrier for most families, particularly those in rural areas, and those with little income.

The 68-page report, “Lay a Strong Foundation for All Children”: Fees as a Discriminatory Barrier to Pre-Primary Education in Uganda,” documents how lack of access to free pre-primary education leads to poorer performance in primary school, higher repetition and drop-out rates, and widening income inequality. Fewer than 1 in 10 Ugandan children ages 3-5 are enrolled in a registered and licensed pre-primary school – known locally as “nursery” school – and 60 percent attend no school at all until they reach primary school. Pre-primary education refers to early childhood education before a child’s entry into primary school, which in Uganda is at age 6.

“The pre-primary years are a critical time for children’s development, and children who miss out on pre-primary education may never catch up to their peers,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Failing to provide government-funded pre-primary education hurts children’s lifelong prospects, and also undermines Uganda’s social and economic development.”

The Ugandan government introduced free primary education in 1997 and free secondary education in 2007. Under its 2008 education law, however, pre-primary education is to be provided by private agencies, with parents responsible for the cost. Without access to government-funded pre-primary, the fees for some parents amount to several months’ income just for one child’s annual tuition. While there is a large variety between fees at preschools, those advertised by some are higher than the average tuition for some programs at Uganda’s leading university, Makerere University. 

Uganda devotes only 8.4 percent of its national budget to education. By contrast, neighboring Kenya and Tanzania both allocate more than 18 percent of their national budgets to education. As part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, all governments pledged to allocate at least 15 to 20 percent of public expenditures to education.

ISER interviewed over 100 education officials, teachers, parents, and children in Uganda’s capital Kampala, the Namayingo district in Eastern Uganda, and Nakapiripirit and Omoro districts in Northern Uganda.

Many parents said they could not afford pre-primary fees for their children, or described the financial hardships they experienced to send their children to nursery school. A subsistence farmer in Omoro district said: “I always struggle to find the money. For some of my children, they did not finish all the levels because I could not afford fees for every term.” An electronics businessman in Mukono district said that his child had been sent home from nursery school when he was unable to pay the fees on time.

Because pre-primary school is not free, many parents enroll their children in primary school before the standard age of 6, even though the children are underage and often unprepared. Early enrollment in primary school creates overcrowded classes, exacerbates inefficiencies in the education system, and increases repetition rates. Children in Uganda who do not attend pre-primary school are twice as likely to repeat the first year of primary school, compared with children who attend pre-primary.

Early childhood learning has profound long-term benefits for children’s cognitive and social development, their health, future educational attainment, and employment, and other opportunities later in life. Studies estimate that every shilling invested in pre-primary education in Uganda can bring up to 16 shillings in benefits. Greater access to pre-primary schooling increases the employment and income of parents, by allowing them – particularly mothers – to enter or re-enter the workforce earlier.

A 2023 cost-benefit analysis by UNICEF, the Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports, and G:ENESIS estimated that 90 percent of the costs of scaling up pre-primary education in Uganda could be covered through savings from reduced repetition rates, and underage enrollment in primary school. More than half of the world’s countries already guarantee at least one year of free pre-primary education in their domestic law.

Research by UNICEF, UNESCO, and the Ugandan government has found that:

  • More than half of children in the poorest 20 percent of Ugandan households never attend a day of pre-primary school.
  • Sixty percent of early childhood development centers are located in the central and eastern regions of Uganda. This concentration excludes over 80 percent of the population who are poor and live in rural areas.
  • Expanding access to pre-primary education in Uganda could reduce Primary 1 repetition rates by 50 percent. One year of free and compulsory pre-primary education could increase primary school completion rates by 12 percentage points. 

The Ugandan government has recognized pre-primary education as a foundation for further education, and set a goal that all children in Uganda should have the opportunity to complete at least one year of quality pre-primary education. President Yoweri Museveni has called for the establishment of an early childhood development center at every government-funded primary school in Uganda.

The government should make at least one year of pre-primary education compulsory and free for all children, and make additional years free over time, as expeditiously as possible, Human Rights Watch and ISER said.

“Children’s access to pre-primary schooling in Uganda should not depend on their parents’ ability to pay fees,” said Angella Kasule Nabwowe, executive director at ISER. “The government should move quickly to fulfill its promises to provide free pre-primary schooling for all children.”

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