Updated by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 1703 EAT on Wednesday 1 March 2023.
Interviews with parents have painted the broadest picture yet of the pain many go through to get their children admitted to senior one or senior five classes in prestigious schools.
Many claimed that schools have orchestrated a scheme of placement buying and bribery – all to help rejected children get into prominent schools. Some claim they paid about Shs 5 million to Shs 6 million in bribes, to get admission for their children.
The painful search for placements in secondary schools starts just days after the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) releases the official exam results. Results for the 2022 Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) were released on February 9. The official central selection/ placement exercise started on February 23 and closed on February 24 at Lugogo, Kampala.
So, parents of children who didn’t make the official selection cut are working around the clock to get their children into prominent schools before the March 6, 2023 reporting date for senior five students. Senior I students began their first term last week.
Interviewed, head teachers who participated in the exercise expressed concern about the limited number of slots in schools vis-à-vis the overwhelming number of parents seeking placements.
The pressures are higher in elite, traditional, and government-aided schools that charge hefty fees. Some school heads want the education ministry to review the selection exercise because it has turned into an annual “ritual of sorts” with minimal impact on addressing admission challenges.
“We spend two days sorting students at Lugogo, but it’s a different story at schools. Some head teachers are under pressure to give away merit slots to those who can afford their schools even when they are not within their cut-off point range,” a head teacher who preferred anonymity said.
The head teacher added: “The pressure at the school level is enormous since the government banned backdoor lists. To some extent, some selected children don’t show up at schools (to take up the slots) since some parents fill in choices just for the sake of completing a mandatory exercise.”
In 2017, the minister of education and sports, Janet Museveni, banned backdoor admissions. The special admission lists sent to schools by education ministry officials, religious institutions, foundation bodies, and top government officers comprised mainly children of VIPs and wealthy parents.
At every selection, some school heads engaged in closed-door meetings where ministry officials grilled them for ignoring the special lists or tasked them to take on new ones. These meetings – all stopped. There is a notable change in schools, but not for parents struggling to get admission for their children.
“PARENTS BID FOR VACANCIES”
Whereas the renowned “backdoor” admissions are no longer available, parents are now paying a variety of fees to ensure their children’s admission to elite schools. The non-refundable fees range from commitment and application to full payment of school fees, whether the child was selected on merit or forfeited their vacancies.
A parent who recently secured a senior one admission for her child at Nabisunsa Girls School said “It was a tug of war.”
“We pleaded for admission as if it were a bidding process! Regardless of your child’s performance, teachers were honest and said that whoever wanted a place, patience was key,” the parent said.
“In the queue, we waited for the head teacher for about four hours with a female minister [name withheld] who also wanted some vacancies. Luckily, my child got admitted, but a teacher advised me that the slot would be more secure if I deposited the school fees in full and returned with the bank slip on the same day,” the parent said.
The parent paid Shs 3.5m in fees, which included school requirements.
“It was an overwhelming situation. There were candidates with aggregates of four and five, but they were denied admission in some schools, which in turn admitted those with aggregates of 10 or more due to connections. Admissions in schools are now based on who you know and your readiness to pay their school fees,” the parent said.
Another disgruntled parent said his child, who scored six aggregates in the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), was denied admission to a prominent traditional college.
“I am not lamenting but very disappointed at an institution that pretends to teach kids integrity but themselves are no different from the Pharisees. They made me fill out forms as an old boy, and I also got an endorsement from the chairman of the old boys, which in actual sense is wrong because the criteria should be based on merit. My child got six—the cutoff. I guess they threw the application in the bin. So, I see no genuine reason to pay subscription fees [to the old students’ association],” the parent said in a post on the old boys’ WhatsApp group.
The parent said his son was denied admission, yet the school was his first choice.
“I pleaded, but the guy looked at me as if he were seeing rubbish; moreover, after waiting for a whole day. With their integrity, they admitted even students with aggregates seven, eight, and above but not mine with six yet they claimed they stopped at six. There is too much moral decay in this country,” the parent added.
Many parents who have bought their way into traditional schools share this anguish. Another parent tried at least four schools before he got senior one admission for his daughter.
“I got a slot in the fourth school be- cause the school director is a friend of my friend. He also offered me a discount on school fees, unlike in the other [three] schools. However, the director said I must pay for requirements alone worth Shs 800,000,” the parent said.
He said as long as a parent paid for admission, school uniforms, curriculum, requirements, and personal effects for a child, the school allowed the child to study and demand school fees later. The parent said the school requirements charges are more expensive than the actual school fees.
The parent was also concerned that in all the schools, the proprietors were charging varying fees for items labelled as registration, admission, and application – yet they literally mean the same thing.
“It was very disturbing that schools are charging us separate cash for implementing the new O -level curriculum, yet we pay high school fees. Surprisingly, the curriculum fees ranged between Shs 100,000 and 250,000. Did the Education ministry allow schools to charge us this money or we are being cheated…?” the parent asked.
The school uniforms also varied from Shs 250,000 to 350,000 but ridiculously, schools also charged labelling fees.
BE FAIR TO PARENTS – EDUCATION MINISTRY
The chairperson of the selection/placement committee, Dr Jane Egau Okou, said it’s unfortunate some schools have not only denied children placements, but some head teachers have also chosen to disappear from their duty stations.
“I am informed that some head teachers completely locked their school gates. Let us be fair to parents and all candidates. Take pity on parents that parade your schools for weeks and just wait for you to say, this is what I have and there is space, or it is full,” Egau said.
She observed that it’s unfortunate that some children are not placed in schools of their choice due to a lack of career guidance from teachers.
“A child came to my office recently after he gave Namilyango College, a first choice but was left out with an aggregate of five. I discovered that the school used the incorrect code for Namilyango when filling out the forms, and Uneb did not select this child. Schools need to be more careful while filling these forms so that we don’t disadvantage the children,” she said.
Egau added, “Children should be guided to know, for instance, that when I put King’s College Budo as my first choice, St. Mary’s College Kisubi should not come next because both schools normally ask for the same grades. So, the chances of being left out are high, yet your third choice, where your aggregates fall, will not take you on because you didn’t give them first choice.”
The head teacher of Bweranyangi Girls SS, Juliet Atuhairwe, said it’s not deliberate for some head teachers to ignore parents.
“The parents sit in the comfort of their homes or offices and start calling us while others are forwarding results via WhatsApp and demand immediate feedback, yet vacancies are got after double checking the authenticity of the results. I know some parents are anxious about their children’s education, but some are abusing the opportunity of having our contact numbers. Surprisingly, we also get calls from children seeking placement, and to me, this is indiscipline,” she said.
Atuhairwe urged the ministry to devise means of releasing Uneb printouts with contacts of parents or guardians to ease the relaying of information about selected candidates as well as encourage parents to follow up on their choices.
Meanwhile, effective this year, the education ministry will also keenly follow up on schools that are fond of under-declaring their capacity and prefer school-based selections over and above the number of learners selected centrally at Lugogo. Schools will be given maximum numbers and only make replacements if the selected candidates do not report.
A few slots will be reserved for candidates whose results may be withheld by the board and later released.
“I want to give parents and students hope that we are streamlining the system and that the selection/placement exercise will regain the importance it once had. The purpose is to place students where they deserve to be based on merit,” Egau said.
Asked whether the selection exercise has outlived its purpose, Egau said: “That is what I am hearing from the public, but there’s hope for change. This time, we’re paying close attention to schools that exclude merit students.”
All schools that participated in the senior one selection process at Lugogo are expected to submit returns by March 31, 2023.