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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Red Letter Day for (some) Primary 7 pupils

Thursday was the day many parents and children across the country had been waiting for.  On this day, the results of the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) were published. Uganda being Uganda, the event didn’t go entirely according to plan.  Sophisticated city-dwellers could receive their results by mobile phone, whereas, up in the north (it is always the north) district officials from half a dozen areas just didn’t get round to collecting the results from the office, so the children had to do without for a few days. Several thousand results (also in the north) were late because of administrative problems at the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) - though, having experienced the Scottish Qualifications Authority Highers debacle of a few years ago, who are we Scots to comment? 

A hard-working rural primary school teacher.
Achieving a pass at PLE is no mean feat, as Stuart and I discovered when we tried some of the practice papers published in the national press.  Much of the PLE involves rote learning of factual information.  Indeed, it is said that Ugandans develop particularly good memories as a result.  The examination asks for short answers to a large number of questions, rather than extended essays.  Overall, we feel there is a ‘1950s’ feel to the upper-primary curriculum and to the PLE examination papers.  The tests are very similar to the old 11-plus which we both sat all those years ago, though with less problem-solving in Uganda.

So what did we think of the practice papers?

  • We didn’t understand this maths question at all.  Use distributive property to solve (2.5x7.5) + (7.5x7.5).  Nor this one: Expand 4.35 using exponents.
  • Social Studies included the following slightly loaded question: What is the importance of the Uganda National Examinations Board in the education system in Uganda?  We are pretty certain of the correct answer to that question and, sadly, to the following.  Mention one of the commonest types of child abuse in Uganda.
  • It is relatively rare for learning to be contextualised in Ugandan schools.  However, we were very taken by the following science question.  The graph below shows how the concentration of alcohol in Ssegamwenge’s blood changed after drinking warigi (Ugandan gin).  Use the graph to find out how long the concentration of alcohol in SSegamwenge’s blood was higher than 80mg/100 cm3. (followed by a further three questions on the effects of alcohol.)
  • The English questions were single sentences with missing words to be filled in or grammatical replacements to be made.  We were slightly bemused by the request to give the opposite of the underlined word in the following sentence.  Your brother is a legitimate child. 
Results are usually displayed in the headteacher's office.
Nevertheless, more seriously, pupils who succeed at PLE have done extremely well.  The newspapers have been full of individual success stories, particularly of those who had achieved an aggregate score of 4 or 5, the best scores within Division I.  The lower the number, the better the result, and you cannot do better than a score of 4, as there are 4 papers.   PLE results are divided into 6 divisions:  Divisions I-IV for those who pass, with Divisions U and X for those who do not make the grade.  Pupils who achieve aggregate scores of 4 or 5, the very best within the very highest division, may be accepted by the most prestigious private secondary schools or allocated by the Ministry to their first choice of government schools –  if their parents can afford it, or if they receive sponsorship.  Although Uganda has introduced Universal Secondary Education (USE), which means that the government will pay your fees if you pass the PLE with an aggregate score of 28 or above, these ‘free’ places tend to be in overcrowded schools with few facilities and resources.  Many government (and, of course, private) schools do not take USE pupils as the fees paid by the government are not as high as those paid by the rest of their pupils. So the pressure is on for all pupils in P7 to do as well as possible in order to obtain a place at a good secondary school.

The District has provided this summary of results.
Yet there are many obstacles in their way.  Across the country, only 60% of pupils who enrol at P1 manage to progress to P7.  In several areas, particularly in the north, it is worse than this, with as many as 70% dropping out between P1 and P7.  Mayuge District is one of those areas.  Out of the 23,000 pupils who enrolled in P1, only 7,000 actually sat the PLE in P7.  Across Uganda, more than half a million children who registered at P1 in 2004 did not sit PLE in 2010.  And it is worse for girls for whom the drop-out rate is 43% compared to 35% for boys.

  • In 2010, 512,057 candidates registered for PLE, although 20,000 of these didn’t manage to sit it after all, probably because of adverse family circumstances.  84% of candidates came from UPE schools (schools which provide ‘free’ education under the Universal Primary Education scheme, the fees being paid by the government), the rest from private schools.
  • Results were withheld from more than 60 schools in 32 districts over suspected examination malpractice, almost all in high performing areas.
  • The PLE success rate was 88% compared with 85.6% in 2009, so some improvement.
  • 12% received Grade U, a reduction on 2009 when it was 14%.
  • 269 pupils achieved an aggregate score of 4 and 751 a score of 5.
  • Over half of all primary schools did not have a single pupil passing in Division 1 (aggregates of 4, 5 and 6).
  • Most Division 1s came from urban areas.  The range was from Masaka (west) at 48.5% to Bukwo (north) at 0.8%.  Interestingly, Masaka also had one of the highest failure rates.
  • Pupils performed better in social studies and religious education than in science, English and mathematics.
  • In Divisions 1 and II, the gap between the achievement of boys and that of girls has increased since 2009 and was present in both urban and rural schools, although worse in the latter.  As a result, fewer girls are eligible to join secondary education, with an inevitable impact on Uganda’s ability to meet the Millennium Development Goal on reducing gender disparity. 

If you don’t pass PLE, then your education stops at P7.  In Uganda, that means that this year 58,668 pupils (as well as the 40% who did not get as far as sitting the exam) have no future within the education system and little chance of anything but the most basic jobs, or none at all.  They may be slightly more literate and numerate than those who did not even reach P7, but they have nothing to show for it.  So those pupils who actually managed to sit and pass the PLE are very fortunate.

A song for the visitors.
So, what are the reasons for poor performance?  The District Education Officer of Kabale District told the Sunday Monitor (23/01/11) that performance had improved but that even so ‘child labour, feeding, early marriages and defilement (rape) continued to affect the education of most children.’

The leader in the Sunday Vision of the same date pointed to the 27 districts with less than 100 pupils in Division 1 and the worst 16 districts with less than 2% achieving Division 1, mainly in the north or north east.  The leader calls for an inquiry into this poor performance.  ‘An inquiry will reveal that schools in these districts lack qualified teachers and libraries.  Most qualified teachers are looking for reemployment in major urban areas or even in other trades.  The lack of reading materials is also a hindrance to good performance.’  It concludes, ‘The point is that Uganda cannot afford two levels of education – where parts of the country have good performers and others poor.'

Checking pupils' work in a rural primary school.
No, you're not looking through the door
A 2009 report by the World Bank said that teacher absenteeism was a ‘major form of corruption’ that resulted in ‘major setbacks to education’.   A report published this month by Transparency International – Uganda, African Education Watch, noted that in the 20 schools in northern Uganda on which the survey was based, pupils missed more than a quarter of their lessons due to teacher absenteeism.  During the sample week, teachers in two of the northern districts (Lira and Apac) taught less than half the lessons they are supposed to.   The report puts the overall rate of teacher absenteeism in primary schools at 30% and headteacher absenteeism at 20%.

‘Most of the pupils sit PLE when their ability is at Primary Four level because they are given a ‘half dose’,’ concludes the report.  It attributes the absenteeism to ‘incompetent headteachers, drunkenness, frequent sickness and teachers engaging in other economic activities during class time’.   It also mentions ‘weak supervision by the government and local authorities and weak school management committees’ as among the causes.  

A similar report by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), Primary School Absenteeism in the Iganga District of Uganda (March 2010), found the rate of teacher absenteeism to be 50%, and headteacher absenteeism to be just under 20%.  ‘Sickness, active teacher  involvement in other income generating activities, inadequacies in inspection, weak monitoring mechanisms at schools level, lack of teachers’ houses, low pay coupled with a high family dependence ratio and distances to banks were correlated with absenteeism.’  Lack of transport and long distances from home were also cited.  Today’s (25th January) Daily Monitor stated, ‘Several reports have pointed at high teacher absenteeism in most UPE schools as one of the factors stagnating academic excellence and pupil retention in schools’.  Lira District (in the north) has just dismissed 60 primary teachers for ‘allegedly abandoning their workstations’.

New Vision (18/11/2010) stated, ‘The reality is that inspectors rarely visit the schools.  Regular impromptu inspection of schools will help check absenteeism’.

Just a note of caution, though.  Many of those absent teachers have second jobs or spend time growing food because they haven’t been paid.  In many districts, teachers have not been paid for several months, the result of inefficient or corrupt administration at district level.  This is a familiar story in Uganda.  Dysfunction at national and/or local government level ends up destroying the life chances of thousands, if not millions, of vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

School monitors on left and right.
The climate for learning is also a key factor in children’s attendance and performance.  A Save the Children Fund study in 2005 found that 60% of Ugandan school children said that they were routinely beaten and humiliated at school.  Research published this month by ANPPCAN found that corporal punishment in the 90 primary schools featured in their study led to poor school attendance, poor performance, poor behaviour, dropping out and child abuse.  Two thirds of the victims were girls.

The conditions in rural primary schools can be pretty grim.  The District Education Officer stated that at least half of pupils in Amuru District (north) sit on the floor due to lack of desks.  Only 49% (mostly in P5-P7) have desks while those in the lower classes ‘sit on logs and stones or on the floor’.  Floors are made of mud, rainfall is heavy and they get jiggers (fleas which lay eggs in your feet which become ulcerous.  If untreated, the infection can travel to your brain). No wonder so many drop out. 

At least they have a door...and windows.
Rural schools frequently have insufficient and, sometimes, no latrines, a significant factor in the drop-out rate among girls.  Statistics from the Gulu District education department (ex-conflict area in the north) show that 80% of girls drop out or absent themselves from school once they start menstruating.  An imaginative project run by Living Hope, a church-based charity, has started the production and supply of sanitary pads made of papyrus reed and paper waste to keep girls in school, also providing employment for women in the area.

The best performing schools, as you might expect, are mainly in the vicinity of Kampala and the central and western areas.  They tend to be traditional mission schools and private schools, recruiting from the comfortably-off middle classes.  Many children from these families travel a good distance to school, staying in boarding hostels even in their early primary years to ensure that they receive a high quality education.

And yet, as New Vision points out (24/11/2011), there is no reason why pupils in rural schools should not do as well as those in urban schools, just as, in Scotland, the low performance of pupils in city schools relative to suburban and rural schools should not be inevitable.  As the paper states, ‘it is an injustice to condemn the majority of Uganda’s population to “third-world” schools’.

A fairly typical rural primary school.
So, how do the high achieving pupils explain their success in PLE?  Virtually every pupil quoted in the newspapers referred to God.  In church-going Uganda, people are taught that if they pray hard enough, they will receive what they wish.  Page after page of the two main newspapers ascribed academic success to God, who had listened to the young people’s prayers.  Strong-minded mothers came next, insisting on hard work and revision timetables.   Several were single mothers who had struggled hard to support their children. Other testimonies mentioned high family aspirations and sibling rivalry and also, fortunately, sibling support.

‘I would wake up at 3.30 am to revise and …sipped coffee to stay awake,’ said one boy.

 It was also good to hear that their teachers received some of the credit. 

‘This good performance is a result of strict teachers.  They would cane us when we performed poorly,’ recalled one pupil.

In fact ‘Canes made my happiness’ was the headline on one page.  The pupil referred to ‘stressed that his teachers used to beat him whenever he made careless mistakes or failed to perform’.   Somewhat to our amusement, one of the pupils recommending caning is the son of one of our colleagues!

But whereas caning is claimed to have motivated these high achieving middle class pupils, there is little doubt that it deters others. 

As one would hope, not all the high achievers came from the richest areas, despite all the obstacles the poorer pupils have had to surmount. Some were orphans and some lived in ex-conflict areas, including a few who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Many had been brought up by their extended family after their parents had died and some had been supported at school by sponsors.  One boy had had to leave school and cut sugarcane to raise money for school fees.  He said ‘he could not join a Universal Primary Education school as he knew he had no future there’.  It was good to read about a young deaf woman who had been abandoned by her parents and brought up by an aunt being described as ‘the most brilliant and disciplined in the school’.  Several of these highly successful candidates were, however, concerned that despite their achievements, they would not be able to pay fees for secondary school.

And what reasons do the teachers give for their pupils' successes?  God, of course, repetition of past papers, lots of tests and pinning pupils’ noses to the grindstone (the latter phrase, of course, mine).  Our hearts sank as we read the newspapers until we came to one wonderful science teacher who said that he ‘uses group work, discovery and field study as teaching methods’ and an English teacher who said, ‘We always groom self-motivated pupils and they do a lot of research.’

So, in summary, this has been an eventful week in Ugandan education.  On Thursday the Ministry will decide the destinations of all those who received the requisite grades, and allocate them to schools, and no doubt a few parents will try to influence the results.

We are very glad that God has answered so many prayers.  With the sheep having been separated, will God now look after the goats?


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