What future do poor upcountry Ugandan children have?

Pupils enjoy a lesson in a UPE school. PHOTO BY Stephen Otage.

Tony Blair won the British Premiership in 1997 using ‘Education, Education, Education,’ as one of his key campaign pledges. Education was his first, second and third most important priority! After 14 years in power, the labour government made insignificant education achievements and lost the election.

I have first hand experience of this. My daughter sat her 11+ and Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), the equivalent of Uganda’s PLE.

Evidence suggests lack of basic skills. At my daughter’s level, the Ugandan education system had enabled me to understand and use concepts such as BODMAS, factors and multiples. She thought BODMAS was a ‘magic’ word, when I introduced it to her.

In February, Channel 4 televised a documentary about how the British system is failing children from attaining basic maths skills.

The documentary involved subjecting a sample of 150 primary school teachers to maths SATs – an examination set for their pupils. Only one teacher scored 100%. 45% of the teachers scored less than 50%.

This is where the problem lies. Primary school teachers in the UK are university graduates who must teach all subjects in their classes. Therefore, they have to be knowledgeable in all subjects.

But, as we all know, people have strengths and weaknesses in different subjects. Maths for example, is like ‘quinine’ for many teachers. They themselves were probably taught by teachers weak in the subject, and consequently neither developed interest nor a good understanding of the subject.

Instead of addressing this problem, the system perpetuates it to generation after generation. The partial solution is parental intervention – either through direct assistance of children at home, or provision of paid extra tuition.

Direct parental assistance is only possible if the parent understands the subject. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Even when the parent understands the subject, there may be no time! This leaves paid tuition as the only option. But it comes at a cost. Therefore, your children are doomed if you are financially poor and also weak at the subject! Unfortunately, many families fall in this category.

In Uganda, the same problem exists, in principle. In practice however,Ugandais one step ahead of the UK. Most Ugandan schools acknowledge this human weakness and address it through specialisation.

During my primary, teachers responsible for P1 to P5 taught all subjects. In P6 and P7 however, I was taught by teachers specialising in just one subject, i.e. a P6 and P7 maths teacher. This way the fundamentals of the subjects were installed by teachers very knowledgeable in the subjects.

Because of this approach, the examination performance of many rural schools was comparable with urban schools. The education system enabled some children from humble backgrounds in rural schools to joinUganda’s first tier elite secondary schools.

The beauty of Uganda’s system was that each ‘tribal’ district hosted at least one of these elite schools. There was: Acholi [Layibi]; Ankole [Ntare]; Buganda [Buddo, Gayaza, Kisubi, Kitovu, Nabbingo, Namagunga & Namillinago]; Bugisu [Nabumali]; Bukedi [Tororo – St Peter’s & Girls]; Bunyoro [Kabalega]; Busoga [Mwiri]; Karamoja [Moroto College]; Kigezi [Kigezi College]; Lango [Comboni & Boroboro]; Sebei [Sebei College]; Teso [Teso College]; Toro [Nyakasura] and West Nile [Ombaci].

These schools were academic powers, second to none and competed at equal levels. Their academic equality encouraged many students to have an experience of studying in schools outside their own districts. The schools became intra-Uganda centres of education ‘tourism’.

Having a local elite school was itself a source of inspiration for local children. Joining one of these schools was an aspiration of every primary pupil. That is why they dominated first choices on secondary school application forms.

Uganda’s corridors of power have been monopolised by elite school products since independence! These products include people from poor rural backgrounds, who were empowered by the education system.

Unfortunately,Uganda’s tribal district elite school model is no more. The above listed schools no longer compete at the same level. Most of those from Eastern and Northern Uganda have dropped to the second tier. Instead, a new set of elite schools exists, mostly in close proximity to Kampala.

Although many factors have contributed to this, I single out two of them – coaching and concentration of wealth.

Coaching to pass examinations replaced tuition to instil fundamentals. While rural school children fetched firewood, picked mushrooms, and harvested food for their teachers, urban school children were drilled to pass examinations. This tipped the balance between urban and rural schools. Rural primary school children lost competitiveness for the elite secondary schools.

Competition from an extremely large number of candidates for limited University places induced unbelievably high entry points. It in turn prompted demand for a new type of elite secondary schools – schools that drill children to pass examinations.

This ‘examinations passing’ model favours the capital city, and has tipped the balance between upcountry secondary schools and city proximate schools. Consequently, many previously elite upcountry schools have lost competitiveness to the new brand of elite schools.

The city has a critical mass of students for coaching. Coaches charge premium fees, either because they genuinely deliver the desired results, or because they use part of the proceeds to infiltrate the examination system.

Most of the wealthy who can afford these premium fees reside in proximity ofKampala. They prefer their children to attend schools and spend holidays close to the city – a place where they can have them drilled to answer examination questions.

Many of us from poor remote villages are lucky to have grown up during the tribal district elite school years. That education system empowered us. With all roads now leading to Kampala, what does the future hold for many poor upcountry children?

A practical partial solution, wrong as it may initially seem, is a discriminatory remuneration policy, which rewards upcountry teachers with a significantly higher salary – to motivate them into teaching pupils with a dedication equal to the Kampala coaches!


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