Fighting for education amidst COVID-19 in Uganda
This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.
Using a mix of context-specific approaches and genuine low-resource remote learning to ensure education gains aren’t lost during COVID-19 school closures.
Uganda has made immense progress in increasing refugee children’s access to education. Two years ago, over half of school-aged refugee children were out of school. Now the gross enrolment for primary school children sits close to 80%. A record number of refugee children passed the primary leavers’ examination in 2019.
The Covid-19 outbreak risks turning back the clock on these achievements. Like many countries, Uganda has closed all schools to try and curb the spread. Previous blogs on INEE’s website have talked about how learning can continue while schools are shut. However, the education sector is often perceived as not a ‘critical’ or ‘essential’ activity, so as EiE practitioners we’ve had to advocate for a seat at the table in many countries when it comes to Covid-19 response plans.
All over the world there is a risk of education inequalities being further exacerbated by school closure. To minimize this we need to ensure that there is adequate funding for EiE, that the most vulnerable children and their families are considered in programme design and implementation, and that education and child protection are prioritized from the outset and throughout the response. These things don’t happen by themselves, and we have to speak up again and again to ensure education is not left behind. Here’s how we’ve been working to secure these foundations in Uganda.
Donors, government and stakeholders first need to understand that learning can indeed continue, why it’s essential, and how it can be done.
Funding for EiE is always a challenge. Even at the best of times, only 3-5% of humanitarian funding is allocated to education. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in Uganda, the Ministry of Education pulled together a Response Plan that included remote learning options. However, some stakeholders felt that with schools closed, education activities were inevitably suspended.
We heard informal whispers from donors and development partners that education funding was at risk of being reallocated to other sectors. The Uganda Education Consortium rapidly produced a briefing note within 48 hours of schools closing, spelling out the risks to children at this time and education’s vital protection role, and providing practical, tangible examples of how learning could continue. 17 NGOs – national and international – signed up to the briefing and it was used to advocate with in-country and international donors and government.
EiE actors have continued to raise the importance of education and child protection activities throughout various iterations of inter-agency and UN business continuity plans. We’ve found that ensuring cross-sectoral initiatives has really helped with this. For example, as education actors we are providing soap and clean water to schools and communities, and integrating child-friendly information about the virus and wellbeing/MHPSS messages in learning packs and radio sessions.
Ensuring continuity of learning for the most vulnerable children is not easy.
Planning discussions often recognize that technology such as internet learning and tablets are exclusive, but assume that radio learning is ‘low resource’. However, in Uganda, many of the poorest households don’t have access to radios and national radio stations don’t reach all refugee settlements. A survey by one Consortium partner found that among the most vulnerable refugee households, less than 25% had access to radio.
Even if the household can access radio, children – especially girls – may have little power to decide which programmes and stations are listened to. Children who have hearing impairments are also excluded.
The Consortium has therefore advocated for a mix of context-specific approaches and genuine low-resource remote learning. In Uganda this includes distributing home learning materials as well as radio and tech-based approaches, and adapting materials for children with special needs.
One partner has procured bicycles for teachers and trained them on social distancing so they can hold small group learning in their community (maximum three learners). Another partner identified the most vulnerable children with disabilities, at risk of dropping out of school permanently, and equipped their parents with a basic phone and airtime, through which they can receive remote learning at home from specialist Inclusive Education Officers.
Protecting our teachers’ livelihood has also been a top priority.
Teachers were fearful that school closure would mean no income. Teachers are a huge resource during this period and are critical for supporting these activities. We immediately informed donors that continuing to pay teachers’ salary was a priority.
There are, of course, further challenges ahead. Uganda’s education sector remains hugely under-funded: for example, many children are yet to receive a home learning pack. Some schools have been identified for use as isolation units in case the health system becomes overwhelmed, which could delay children returning to school. The longer that schools are closed, the greater the risk that some children never return. This is especially pertinent for those children who previously had to drop out of school but are now enrolled in Accelerated Education Programmes.
We cannot allow Covid-19 to reverse the huge achievements we’ve made in Uganda and we must continue to advocate for the importance of refugee education.
Rachael Corbishley manages the Uganda NGO Education Consortium, which is hosted by Save the Children. The Consortium brings together international and national NGOs with expertise in education, child protection and mental health and psychosocial support to improve access to quality learning for refugee and host community children.
The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.