Monday, June 13, 2011

Learning skills for work: new hope for Ugandan youth

Wednesday was a good day.  We didn’t go far – just south of Kampala to the outskirts of Entebbe.  What were we doing?  Inspecting technical institutions (business, technical and vocational educational training – BTVET). 

We hadn’t expected much.  In a selective and, arguably, elitist system of secondary education such as Uganda’s, establishments which cater for the ‘less academic’ (note the language of deficit) have traditionally occupied a relatively lowly status in the education hierarchy.  This is a pity – more than a pity, a disaster – as it is on the young people studying in BTVET institutions that Uganda’s future depends.

However, the government is beginning to wake up to the situation for a number of reasons.  Firstly, Uganda’s extraordinarily high birthrate (3rd in the world) means that there will never be enough jobs for all its people.  Secondly, even now, only 5% of all Ugandans have permanent jobs (in the western use of the term) and most university graduates are unemployed.  Thirdly, the world is changing and Uganda with it.  New businesses are developing, including the country’s own oil industry.  These new industries need completely different skills from those currently nurtured in the country’s secondary schools.  Indeed, secondary schools in Uganda are looking more and more like an irrelevance.  The theoretical and ostensibly ‘academic’ education they promote, largely based on rote-learning, teaching for examinations and an absence of practical application, looks increasingly ill-suited for a developing modern economy.

However, enough negatives, we had a very positive day on Wednesday.  We visited three technical institutions, all quite different.  We would have visited a fourth as well, except that it didn’t seem to exist (probably one of Uganda’s many ghost schools).  The aim of our visits was to follow up the experiences and successes of a particular group of students.  The government has recently started funding short-term three month 'non-formal' placements for young people who have missed out on secondary or further education for a whole range of reasons, but principally related to poverty and poor experiences earlier in their educational careers.  Some students had never been to school.  Others had dropped out after the first 3 or 4 years of primary school, at the end of primary school or part way through secondary school, or had left after completing S4.  This free three-month opportunity to learn skills for employment was a fantastic opportunity for all of them.  None of these students would have been able to afford vocational training without the financial support provided by the government.  The head of one of the institutes told us that well over a hundred young people from a wide area had applied for their course on metal work, for which they only had 20 places.  So it was first come, first served.  We asked how they advertised their courses.  After all, some of their prospective students were illiterate or semi-literate and few would have been able to afford a newspaper anyway.  The principals had used a range of practical means: announcements at church, contacting the chairman of the local council and even using loudspeakers to broadcast the availability of places on the various courses.

We were really impressed by the sense of purpose, the positive atmosphere in the training centres and the sheer enthusiasm of all the young people we met.  The instructors were paid quite low salaries but were highly committed, believed strongly in the worth of what they were doing and were delighted by the positive responses from the students. We were very pleased when our DES colleague spoke to each group of young people about the importance of the training they were doing: a real morale booster.

The technical institutions we visited were quite different from each other.  One of them was a large church foundation, now government aided, which had been founded in 1911.  Another was a much smaller institution founded only five years ago and priding itself on its ‘innovative’ approaches.  Across the three institutes, the non-formal courses we viewed included metal fabrication, tile-fixing, electrical installation, cooking and catering, tailoring, hairdressing, entrepreneurship and, in one institution, computer training.  The government paid for twenty students in each group, though actual numbers were a good bit higher.  All institutions had benefited from the drive, commitment and enthusiasm of their leaders.

Courses and learning approaches differed significantly from those normally seen in primary and secondary schools.  Groups were smaller, for example, 10 in the tile-fixing course and 20 or so in the metal fabrication and electrical installation courses.  They contained students with a range of backgrounds and very different prior educational experience and achievements.  Teaching approaches were practical and ‘hands on’, with theory being kept to the bare minimum.  Attendance on the whole was very high.  There was some evidence of positive approaches to dealing with gender stereotypes, with a few young women following electrical installation and metal fabrication courses.  There was less evidence of young men enrolling for courses which are traditionally female-dominated, for example hairdressing and catering.  Continuous assessment was carried out by observation, feedback, discussion and planning of next steps (though not called these!).  And, of course, self assessment is built into such courses.  There is nothing like learning from your mistakes and improving your work when you have measured and made a real chair, or cooked a real meal.  End-of-course assessment was carried out by the Directorate of Industrial Training. 

Our discussions with course and institution leaders, and the responses of the students themselves, gave us some food for thought about education more generally.

Firstly, although students were clearly committed and interested, some communities still needed to be persuaded of the value and esteem of vocational courses.  On occasion, some young women still suffered from being expected to interrupt their studies and provide domestic support to their families. 

Secondly, we were told that many students ‘feared’ examinations, having had negative experiences earlier in their school careers.  Sadly, in one institution, some competent students just did not turn up for the end of course assessment because they were so convinced that they would not be able to perform.  This was despite the fact that the assessment was skills-based and practical rather than paper-based and theoretical as in school.  It is sad that such bad experiences earlier in their educational careers can still blight young people’s lives years later.

Thirdly, many students had not mastered basic skills at primary school.  Instructors in courses such as tile-fixing, metal fabrication and tailoring often had to teach essential mathematical skills from scratch, for example, measuring and calculating quantities.  What this suggests is that many primary school teachers do not deploy practical approaches such as the use of rulers and tape measures, but simply give abstract sums in exercise books. Active learning approaches are not dependent on small classes or the purchase of expensive resources.  Rulers can be made out of scrap wood or cardboard by teachers or pupils themselves.  Children can be asked to measure the length, height and width of their desks and chairs, the area of the classroom, the windows, the compound and each other’s vital statistics.  Such practical activities are suggested in national curriculum guidelines.   The issue here is implementation of recommended teaching approaches.  Contextualised approaches are essential when teaching measurement in tile-fixing and tailoring.  No one learns well in a vacuum.

Fourthly, students’ language skills were limited.  All teaching was carried out through the local language (in this case, Luganda), which is perfectly appropriate.  However, students’ understanding and use of English, the official language, was very limited.  In some groups, only one or two students were able to communicate with us or to respond to simple printed questions in English.  This matters, not because of visitors like us (after all, we are strangers in their land), but because of the future employment prospects of these young people in a country with an increasing number of international firms and where those few job opportunities that exist might require them to be geographically mobile.  Even working elsewhere within Uganda might require the use of English if the local language of that area was different from one's own.  When these students were at primary school, teaching was carried out in English from Year 1.  Immersion in English in a class of 100 has its limitations.  Many learners must have dropped out of school, discouraged because they could not understand their lessons.  Only those few students we met who had completed S4 were fluent in English.  The implication is that in many cases, despite seven years or so of being taught English in primary school and, crucially, using English for learning in other subjects, students lack basic linguistic competence and the language in which to study a range of other subjects. 

The conclusion has to be that the government is right to introduce the use of the local language in the first three years of primary school.  Only once learners have achieved basic competence in their own language should they then move on to learn a new language: English. This does not mean that use of the local language as a medium of instruction is without its problems.  Even in those local languages which have a written version, like Luganda, resources such as text books and personal reading books are in short supply.  These resourcing problems affect other subjects as well, for example, the limited availability of books on mathematics and social subjects written in the local language.  Some languages do not yet have a written version.  There are more than sixty languages in Uganda.  Some teachers may have a different mother tongue from that of the area in which they work and hence, limited fluency in the language which their pupils bring to school.  Those teachers who move from north to south or vice versa have a particular challenge as the Bantu languages and Nilotic languages have as much similarity as English and Finnish.  Nevertheless, successful early conceptual development requires learning in the language in which one is most skilled and confident.

The continuing weaknesses in literacy and numeracy are reported in a number of surveys.  The National Assessment of Progress in Education report (2009) indicated that literacy proficiency in P3 and P6 remains below 50%.  The UWEZO report of 2010 indicated that 98% P3 pupils sampled could not read and understand a text of P2 level of difficulty and 80% could not solve P2 division sums.  28% of P7 pupils could not understand a story text of P2 level. 19% of all P3 children sampled could not recognise the letters of the alphabet.  And so on.

The new three month 'non-formal' courses in BTVET institutions cannot solve all the short- and long-term problems of employability in Uganda.  That requires a root and branch review and transformation of the curriculum and examination system across all primary and secondary schools.  It also requires substantial support from development partners such as USAID which is currently planning significant investment in developing literacy skills in local language and English over the next five years. 

What BTVET institutions can do, however, is to support the current cohort of unemployed young people and give them some hope, a degree of self-belief and a few skills which may enable them to gain a toehold in the job market.  These ‘graduates’ may not all gain employment as such.  It is unlikely that Uganda’s budding oil industry will take on employees with such modest academic and technical skills.  Such students are much more likely to join the crowds of self-employed small-scale entrepreneurs who form the bulk of the earning population in Uganda.  They will start up hairdressing businesses, cook and sell fast food by the side of the road and carry out short-term contracts for building firms.  These may be precarious jobs but they are a step on the ladder to full employment for those with sufficient self belief and a modicum of entrepreneurial skills.  The positive ethos and climate for learning within the vocational institutions we visited gave us some hope for this previously neglected group of Ugandan young people.

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