Mukwanason A. Hyuha
Professor of Economics
Centre for Critical Thinking and Alternative Analysis
June 12, 2019.
According to the 13th Uganda Economic Update, released on June 7, 2019, the World Bank has advised Uganda, inter alia, to:
1.Scrap Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) and rely heavily on continuous assessment.
2.Eliminate class repetition so as to reduce on wastes and encourage the learners to complete.
3.Stop constructing teachers’ houses, libraries and laboratories in secondary schools.
4.Expand pre-primary education so as to improve the reading and numeracy of its citizens.
5.Privatise poorly performing schools.
Recommendation 2 (automatic promotion) is effectively being implemented in the primary section of Uganda’s education system. In my opinion, there are more cons than pros on this policy; hence, one hopes that it will not be extended to post-primary sections.
The World Bank gives two reasons to justify the first recommendation. First, because $82million is lost in ‘unproductive education’ as many children leave in the middle of primary education when they are still illiterate. Second, one “way to improve the issue of low transition to lower secondary could be abolishing examinations in the final grade of primary. The rationale for this policy is that most countries now consider primary and secondary education as part of the same foundational education, which they are making compulsory. …”.
The ‘advice’ to stop building teachers’ houses, libraries and laboratories in secondary schools is justified because this activity is, allegedly, not only costly but also unsustainable. In addition, the last two recommendations are justified because they are supposed to improve the country’s reading and numeracy levels and result in cost reductions and efficiency.
In this short paper, I critically evaluate some of these ‘advices’—with great emphasis on the first three. I believe that the ‘advices’ are not only misplaced and inappropriate but also imprudent and likely to result in a further deterioration in academic standards, and, eventually, lead to unintended results. Implementation of the advices is bound to increase ignorance—lowering of academic standards across the board—and yet ‘ignorance is more expensive than education’. Besides, in a corruption-ridden country like Uganda, is a continuous assessment system likely to operate optimally? Given the society-embedded corruption, with the profit motive being the basic guiding light for private schools, are many schools not likely to distort or inflate continuous assessment grades for their students so as to outcompete others?
High Dropout (Attrition) Rates in Uganda
It is true that attrition rates are very high, thereby contributing to the lower transition from primary to lower secondary education sections. As the following table shows, in 2009, pupil enrollment in P.1 was 1,943,552, and in 2013, the enrollment was 1,883,803, while the enrollment in the same years in P.7 were 544,531 and 579,431, respectively. Assuming that these are typical years, this gives attrition (drop-out) rates of 72.0% and 69.2% for the two years, respectively.
What explains the high attrition rates in the primary section? As I stated in an earlier (published) article (see the New Vision, April 3, 2019), since there is automatic promotion of pupils at the primary school level, the attrition cannot be due to examination bottlenecks. Instead, research has shown that factors that lead to this significant attrition include, inter alia, the following:
1. High poverty levels that lead to poor provision to students by parents and guardians of the required tuition fees, reading materials, school meal charges, uniforms, and other scholastic materials. This is more pronounced in rural than urban areas. A parent under abject poverty is in great pain and stress to provide his family with a decent meal; hence, he/she should not be expected to afford scholastic materials or cater for his/her child’s feeding at school.
2. In view of the extreme poverty, there exist several other families that ‘force’ their children to get employed in sugarcane estates, tea plantations or rudimentary mines—even if the families have a high value for education. The fact is that the harsh socio-economic conditions under which they live compel them to put their personal economies ahead of education.
3. Bad parenting, whereby children are left on their own. In such a situation, children may abandon their homes and become ‘street kids’.
4. Excessive alcoholism in a family, a situation that leaves very little income for spending on education and other necessities. This may also result in children becoming ‘street kids’.
5. Violence and/or severe misunderstandings among parents in a home. This situation may also lead to children running away from their homes to become ‘street kids’.
6. Negative societal attitudes towards the girl-child in the face of biting poverty, that often lead to parents and guardians marrying off their daughters early so as to get bride price.
7. Lack of necessities, such as sanitary pads, as far as girls in the upper sections of the primary school level are concerned.
8. A poor teaching and learning environment, mostly in rural schools. This includes poor physical and academic infrastructures, poor teaching and high teacher absenteeism rates, poor motivation for both teachers and students (e.g., poor teacher remuneration and lack of career guidance for pupils), etc. For instance, various studies have shown that pupils’ learning environment and conditions are quite harsh and unconducive; hence, most primary school graduates can neither read nor write, nor do basic mathematics. This has led to the low quality of education, yet the strength of a structure or system depends on its foundation or pillars.
9. Availability of factors that attract pupils away from school—such as local ‘cinema halls’, gambling and other distractions. Besides, many parents in rice-growing areas, like Doho in Butaleja District, often engage their children in tending rice gardens during school time—leading to high pupil absenteeism. In fact, even teachers in such areas pay more attention to their rice gardens than to teaching; some report to school as late as 11.00a.m. daily.
10. Other explanatory factors include the exorbitant fees charged by private and other schools, in addition to poverty and the high cost of living. A parent will often erroneously appear not to prioritise education, yet deep down he/she would have loved to see his/her child in school.
Note that, as evident from the above table, attrition rates at the secondary school levels (Senior 1 to Senior 4) are also high, although far lower than those at the primary school level.
Extremely Low Academic Standards at All Education Levels
I and various other researchers and writers on the education system in Uganda have argued and shown that academic standards in the country are very low, across the board. This is due, among other things, to poor physical infrastructure at all levels, poor academic facilities, a poor teaching and learning environment, poor supervision or oversight, poor staffing, poor or insufficient consumables in institutions (chemicals for laboratories, computers, other laboratory equipment/requirements, etc.), inadequate teaching, poor remuneration of instructors across the board, adverse effects of the corruption scourge, and issues of inappropriate governance.
In fact, the World Bank itself is in agreement with this issue of low standards—yet it makes the above bizarre recommendations. A report of a study, commissioned in 2018 by the World Bank and other partners, showed that children in Sub-Saharan Africa learn very little in education systems with millions of them lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills even after spending many years in school. The report explains that schooling is not the same as learning, and that in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, when Primary 3 pupils were asked during the study to read a sentence such as “The name of the dog is Puppy”, three-quarters did not understand what it said.
Further, according to the report, at least 80% of pupils in Primary 2 in Uganda cannot perform a two-digit subtraction, whereas 61% cannot read a single word of a short sentence. For example, in rural areas, the report says, nearly 75% of pupils in Primary 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction, such as “46 – 17”, and by Primary 5, half still could not do so.
Analysis and Conclusion
It is obvious that the World Bank bases its recommendations mainly on the need to reduce attrition (dropout) rates, need to boost transition from primary to lower secondary school levels, and need to cut costs. That is why even mind-boggling recommendations like stopping “constructing teachers’ houses, libraries and laboratories in secondary schools as this is costly and not sustainable” and “privatising poorly performing schools” are made—without taking into account their likely impacts on academic standards.
Garbage in, garbage out; in the face of very low academic standards, automatic promotion and abolition of the PLE would lead to forcefully pushing children with extremely low numeracy and literacy levels from Primary 1 to Senior 4; and these are the majority of learners during the 12 formative years of education. Isn’t this more costly than if automatic promotion is abolished and PLE is retained? Should emphasis be placed on avoiding high attrition rates and improving transition to lower secondary, rather than on measures aimed at bettering working conditions for teachers, revamping physical infrastructure at all school levels, improving academic facilities and teaching and learning environment, fighting the corruption scourge, and so on?
The problem with the Uganda education system is not the high attrition rates and the existence of (the PLE, UCE and UACE) examination ‘bottlenecks’ per se, but existence of factors that militate against lowering dropout rates and improving academic standards across the board.
Thus, to improve education across the board, I strongly believe, the factors that lead to high attrition rates and low standards—some of which have been enumerated above—should be tackled head-on. Automatic promotion, abolishing PLE or UCE or UACE, stopping constructing houses for teachers and other measures recommended by the World Bank are, to say the least, misplaced and inappropriate priorities. If one does a comparative analysis of the situation now and the situation that obtained in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, one is bound to draw the same conclusion as I have done. Otherwise, how could a child, like me, from a poor family and a rural school (Busolwe Primary School), along with many others, have joined a good school like Ntare School? What went wrong? This is the question that needs focus, rather than prioritising the ‘advices’.