Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Teaching the teachers

It is worrying that some learners reach P7 and can't write their names. It is the fault of the teachers. (The Commissioner for Planning, Ministry of Education and Sports, quoted in The Daily Monitor)

We're what it's all about.
This year's National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) report has just concluded that pupil performance in Uganda is declining. Proficiency in core subjects has fallen from 36.7% in 2008 to 19.6% in 2011: potentially humiliating in international terms, bad for the national economy and tragic for individual children.

NAPE reported on levels of literacy and numeracy in P3 and P6; performance in English language, mathematics and biology in S2; and (this year for the first time) teachers' performance in the same subjects. It showed that teachers with higher qualifications such as A level performed better than those with lower qualifications. As a result, the Ugandan National Examinations Board (UNEB) has asked the government to raise minimum requirements for students wishing to train as primary teachers from O Level to A Level.

How do you become a primary teacher in the first place?

There are 45 government-aided primary teachers' colleges (PTCs) in Uganda, of which 22 provide only pre-service training and 23 (the 'core' PTCs) provide both pre-service and post-service training. In addition, there are private establishments, many of which are of poor quality. Some government PTCs have demonstration schools attached to them.

Demonstration school at a core PTC
Most young people go to PTC after O levels, aged 16 or so, and stay for two years. Some may go to PTC after A levels and a few post-graduates follow a year-long course. Primary training is the only 'free' tertiary education in Uganda. As with all forms of apparently free education, parents still have to pay hefty fees to cover all sorts of materials and services, for example access to computers (if there are any and, sometimes, even if there aren't).

Most PTCs are in rural areas, far from any distractions. Students wear uniform, follow rules just like those in schools and can be expelled for returning late at night or getting drunk. They eat 'school food': posho (maize flour pudding) and beans. Boarding hostels may consist of crowded dormitories with bunk beds, little privacy and, often, outside pit latrines and washing facilities. When students go on teaching practice they may travel on the backs of lorries, carrying their mattresses and bedding, bags of dried beans and bundles of firewood; all ready to camp out on the floors of the classrooms where they are going to be teaching.

And how are prospective teachers themselves taught during their training?

As intermittently as they were taught in schools, some of them. Like school teachers, PTC staff often have homes in other parts of the country. As a result, many spend Mondays and Fridays travelling, leaving only three days in which to do their paid work. Although PTCs may provide some accommodation, it may not be good enough for their families. So, just like pupils in schools, student teachers may often receive only about half of the training they are due: not a great work ethic on which to model one's future teaching career. Such a situation also has implications for the range and depth of the knowledge and skills they acquire.

Lessons in PTCs may often be like those in school, mostly direct teaching. Nothing wrong with direct teaching, of course, particularly if you are going to be working with large classes, though other methods of learning are also possible. However, we get the impression that many PTCs may not be at the forefront of educational development. I was astonished to see examples of elaborate and time-consuming 'scheming' and planning which would significantly reduce the time available for essential teaching activities like assessment and reporting. PTCs do try to introduce their students, however, to the idea of making their own resources, for example posters, an essential teaching skill.

And the PTCs' own resources?

In one core PTC I visited the science lab was an ordinary classroom and all the chemicals sent by government suppliers were two years out of date, piled higgledy piggledy in an unsecured cupboard. The ICT suite had a dozen donated computers but virtually none were working and they all had different, incompatible, software. There was no internet access. One of the key uses of the computers would have been to access the revised curriculum guidelines on the website of the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC), as print copies are scarce. We know hardly anybody who has copies of curriculum guidelines and we certainly don't. Alas, there is no online access to such an essential resource because NCDC apparently wants to sell, rather than give away, the materials they have. Are there any copies for sale? Not as far as we know. So, difficult for anyone working in education to keep up to date with curriculum development then, though, to be fair, schools do receive copies at dissemination workshops.

Stuart and I haven't had much to do with pre-service training in PTCs. However, we have been involved in accompanying our colleagues in the Directorate of Education Standards (DES) when they were monitoring the work of coordinating centre tutors (CCTs).

Visiting the coordinating centre - the official DES car
The DES team attracts considerable interest in the school
attached to this coordinating centre. The nursery teacher hadn't turned up.
So what about post-service training?

CCTs are outreach tutors responsible for providing continuous professional development (CPD) for headteachers and teaching staff in about 50 primary schools linked with the coordinating centres which act as their base. Each core PTC has a number of coordinating centres, each with its own CCT and located within a school compound. CCTs may have a house on site, together with an office and a hall to use for training teachers. The centres we have seen have been well built and attractive and are usually covered in handmade posters illustrating topical educational issues or exemplifying the kinds of displays which teachers could replicate.

Coordinating centre with CCT's house beyond

There is nothing special about the schools in which CCTs are based
CCTs carry out training sessions for school staff, for example, on leadership and management or aspects of the revised curriculum. Creative, aesthetic and physical education (CAPE) is one of their current concerns as pupils in P6/P7 will now be expected to broaden their learning beyond English, maths, social studies and science - and quite right too.

Classroom for teachers in a coordinating centre
At the time we were making our visits, the CCTs were running sessions on Safe Schools, a national policy which deals with aspects of violence in schools, gender issues and health, sanitation and safety. Promoting positive approaches to managing pupil behaviour and eliminating corporal punishment are important aspects of their work.

'I have a question...How does beating teach me anything?
Violence-free childhood is everyone's right.'
CCTs are particularly responsible for disseminating government policies to teachers, such as those on HIV/AIDS. PIASCY is a worthy but particularly time-consuming aspect of their work. (PIASCY is the acronym for the catchy initiative: The Presidential Initiative on Aids Strategy for Communication to Youth.) PIASCY is behind the hilarious 'talking compounds' you see in most schools: exhortatory notices on avoiding sexual behaviour scattered across school compounds, which nobody ever reads - except us, of course.

The sign says 'Beautiful queen say no to sex'
CCTs are expected to monitor the quality of education in individual schools, including observing teaching and learning in classrooms. This is an advisory, not an inspectorial role and largely relates to the implementation of Uganda's Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards. Inspection of primary schools is the responsibility of local district, municipal and county inspectors who submit their reports to DES for which we work.

A pretty good poster. Pity there's no mention of children.
CCTs receive an allowance for each in-service session they conduct, an allowance which is paid to their PTC by the government or by funding agencies. And yes, in the age-old tradition of Uganda, the amount they receive may be unofficially 'top-sliced', a certain proportion allegedly disappearing into the capacious pockets of the bursar, principal or deputy principal outreach before it ever gets to them. It is also said, with what truth we don't know, that some CCTs themselves manage to sift out a bit for themselves, 5 million shillings given for training becoming only 3 million by the time it reaches the in-service session.

Another age-old Ugandan tradition is the provision of 'facilitation' above and beyond travel and subsistence simply for turning up to meetings. So, when CCTs themselves undertake training by government departments, donor organisations and NGOs, they are actually paid money (as are district officials, bizarrely). And the same happens with the teachers who come to their own sessions. In fact, many teachers make a living through attending courses, because they are often several months in arrears with their salaries. 'Facilitation' is an astonishing system which drains the country and individual charities of resources which could otherwise be used to improve the education of children in schools. However, be that as it may, CCTs are at least kept reasonably up to date with current policies and approaches and they appear to do their best to cascade their training to teachers in schools with minimal resources at their disposal, just chalk and talk and the occasional flip chart.  Coordinating centres are no more likely to have electricity than the schools in which they are sited, so forget the Powerpoint presentations.

I can almost feel the ache in the wrist...
Another task of CCTs is to support schools in improvement planning. We have seen little enough evidence of school improvement planning in Uganda, except in those primary schools supported by our own organisation Link Community Development (LCD), so they still have quite a lot of work to do here. Fortunately a number of CCTs have been trained by LCD to carry out the evaluation exercises which form part of the review process.

Unfortunately, CCTs may also end up responding to every whim by every NGO which ever set foot in Uganda. NGOs are always trying to get CCTs to train school staff on whatever bright ideas they are currently running with, As a result, it is extremely difficult for CCTs to spend the time they should on their substantive jobs. Honourable exceptions are, of course, the VSO/UNICEF volunteers who work in partnership with PTCs, within national policy and in support of the Education Sector Plan.

Looks as if the CCTs' hearts are in the right place.
How on earth do CCTs manage to carry out all these tasks across so many schools spread out across their 'patch'?

Some schools may be 50 or 60 kilometres away from the CCT's base. CCTs are given motorbikes on which they bump along the rutted and muddy country roads and footpaths leading to individual establishments. These machines are not always in the best of condition and lack of fuel is common problem. As a result CCTs are sometimes accused of making fewer school visits than they should.

So, that is the life of a coordinating centre tutor. In our experience, most CCTs do conscientious jobs and a few of them do very good jobs indeed. Yes, we have also found a few who have gone AWOL and are rarely seen in schools, but they are in the minority. Whether, of course, CCTs have the influence to compensate for the chaos and corruption which dogs local and national government and damages the provision of education in countless schools by countless teachers is another issue.

It is easy to say that low educational standards are the 'fault' of teachers, as the Commissioner said. However, there is at least one group of professionals which is trying to do something about it.

You may also be interested in the following posts about nursery/primary education.

Learning at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains

Visiting schools in north-western Uganda


  1. Iam an O'level drop out, do i get a chance to join a PTC? and is it possible to get a sponsor? Thanks Irene Ruth

  2. You must try to catch up with your education and at least get your O levels. Contact your district office to see if they can advise you. There may be some distance learning courses. I cannot advise about sponsorship.