Saturday, August 18, 2012

Are our children learning? Dark educational clouds with a hint of a silver lining

So it's official. When you compare primary performance in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Ugandan children perform by far the worst.

The publication this week of the Uwezo East Africa 2012 report spells even more gloom and doom for educationists here. Uwezo measures children's practical literacy and numeracy skills as demonstrated within a household, rather than school, setting.

Uwezo's main findings

  • The top ten districts across the three countries were in Kenya's central region, with combined pass rates of 85% to 92%. 'Combined' means literacy and numeracy for children aged 10-16. The top ten pass rates in Tanzania ranged from 66% to 80%. The top ten districts in Uganda were in the centre and west of the country. Pass rates ranged from 47% (Nakasongola) to 69% (Kampala). 
  • The lowest ten districts across the three countries were in Uganda's northern regions, with combined pass rates of 9.7% (Kotido in Karamoja) to 25% (Amuru). In Tanzania, the lowest ten ranged from 25% to 32% and in Kenya from 26% to 41%.
  • The median pass rates indicate that 50% of all districts in Kenya achieved an average pass rate of at least 68%; in Uganda, however, 50% of districts achieved a pass rate of 34% or less. Almost half of Kenyan districts outperform the best district in Uganda.

In Uganda, children perform worst during the early years of primary school, but, by the end of primary, make faster progress and do slightly better that pupils in Tanzania. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that so few Ugandan pupils complete primary school (32% compared with 83% in Tanzania and 84% in Kenya - UNICEF 2011 figures) we don't know. UNESCO's data is that 75% of Ugandan pupils either repeat or drop out.

Researchers also looked as some basic measures of socio-economic difference between households, for example durable assets owned, access to electricity and/or clean water, and mother's educational level. Sad news is that, as in the rest of the world, relatively good performance is related to affluence and poor performance to poverty.

  • There are huge differences in performance between the best and poorest performing children within the same countries. The gap between the poor and non-poor is 18 percentage points. The gap between the ultra-poor and the non-poor is 27 percentage points. This means that twice as many children (around 6 out of 10 children aged 10-16) from non-poor households are able to pass both tests compared to children from ultra-poor households (around 3 in 10 children). Put in another way, the gap in performance between a child from a poor and a non-poor household is two years.
  • The older the child (especially after 14 years) the wider the gap in performance between poor and non-poor. By this age, of course, many children will have dropped out of primary school and very few will have transferred to secondary school.
  • The gap between those in government-aided schools and those in private schools is significant across all countries, although you have to be careful. You must compare like with like. Private schools, for obvious reasons, do not take a cross-section of the population. The difference in scores could also be related to the benefits to children of being brought up in a relatively prosperous household, with access to books and scholastic materials, rather than a 'better' quality of education in private schools. In Tanzania the difference between public and private is 28 percentage points, in Uganda it is 17 and in Kenya it is 12. 
We know from our own experience in Uganda, that private schools do not necessarily provide a better standard of education. However, parents think they do, so if they can afford it, they often transfer their children. We were told by a colleague that parents in Bundibugyo, the poorest part of western Uganda, enrol their children in private schools when the harvest comes in and in public schools when food and money are short - so it is a shifting picture.
  • Uwezo found that on average, pupils in lower performing government schools in Kenya still outperform pupils from the better performing private schools in Uganda.
Good news is that across the three countries, gender differences were minimal, with girls slightly outperforming boys.

Key messages

But what are the really big messages of Uwezo 2?

Much the same as Uwezo 1, actually. Despite important gains in access to primary schooling throughout the region, evidenced by generally high enrolment rates, large numbers of children are simply not learning. In all three countries, more than two thirds of children in Standard 3 do not have the basic literacy and numeracy skills set at the Standard 2 level. Moreover, these basic skills are acquired only slowly, and many children only achieve them after five or more years of completed education (instead of just two).

Other studies

Of course, none of this depressing news comes as a surprise. Uganda's National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) report 2011 found that:
  • P6 numeracy levels rose steadily from 41% in 2007 to 55% in 2010 and then fell to 45% in 2011. 
  • P6 literacy levels rose minimally from 49% in 2007 to 50% in 2010 and then fell to 41% in 2011.
  • P3 numeracy rose steadily from 45% in 2007 to 73% in 2010 and then fell to 63% in 2011. 
  • P3 literacy rose steadily from 45% in 2007 to 57% in 2010 and then fell to 48% in 2011.
Possible causes of poor and declining performance

Among the possible causes of the current situation are issues such as:
  • teacher and headteacher absenteeism;
  • use of corporal punishment (90% of P3 children have been beaten in school according to a recent study); 
  • a primary curriculum crammed with esoteric knowledge, complex jargon and theoretical scientific and mathematical concepts, which in the UK would not be taught until the senior years of secondary school and, in some cases, not until the first years of university; and
  • teacher-centred classrooms, rote-learning and lack of active and practical approaches.
Everybody knows what the problems are. However, is anybody going to do anything about it?

What are Uwezo's recommendations?
  • Don't do more of the same.
  • Base choice of interventions on rigorous evidence as to which are most effective. 
  • Focus on learning outcomes instead of educational inputs.
  • Learn from what works, for example in the more successful schools and districts. 
  • Experiment and test out new ideas. Innovation is needed, not more of the same old rote learning, dictation and copying out.
There is nothing here with which we would disagree. All perfectly sensible.

What do we think?

Inspectors should observe learning in classrooms not just count numbers of classrooms, desks, books, latrines, qualified teachers, lesson plans and pupils enrolled. They should focus on how well children understand, on their progress and overall attainment.

The trouble is, however, that the curriculum and examination system are so out of date that they actually damage children's learning, particularly at the primary stages but also at secondary level as well. The Primary Leaving Examination, in particular, is only suitable for the minority of children who find it easy to learn decontextualised theory and factual information off by heart and have parents who can afford to pay for cramming. Its purpose is to sift and discard the vast majority of children so that they leave the education system, not to assess what skills they have actually developed during the course of their schooling so that their continuing years of education can build on them. The children who survive the system come out with superb memories but also with major weaknesses in critical thinking, virtually no practical skills and absolutely no enjoyment in learning.

Other views?

And what do other education professionals say?

Here there are at last some glimmers of hope.

Firstly, Makerere University decided to set its own entrance examination. Pupils with the best results in A level and who had attended the 'best', most prestigious schools came out with the poorest performance. Cramming? Cheating in exams? Who knows. However, the results have, rightly, set hares running. The outcomes of the national examination system are clearly not entirely to be trusted. Apart from everything else, they may measure the wrong things.

Secondly, last week the recently appointed chairman of the Uganda National Examinations Board, Fajil Mandy, made the following points in an interview with the Sunday Monitor one month after he took up post.

He wants:
  • to crack down on corruption and improve examination security;
  • to make examinations test a broader range of skills;
  • to stop cramming and constant testing, particularly with past papers, which cut down the time available for learning;
  • to encourage children to learn outside the classroom and make use of all their senses ( the time they finish A level, they actually know nothing...);
  • to persuade district education officers and boards of governors to see what is actually happening in classrooms;
  • to push for the curriculum to be redesigned (using phrases like vocationalise education, ... link what we teach in schools with what is taking place in the community);
  • to improve teacher training; and
  • to urge the Ministry of Education and Sports to take action and to use the media to educate people about education.
So, some thinking is going on in some influential quarters, at last. And if the chairman of the examination board - usually the most conservative educational body in the country - wants to shake things up, then perhaps there is some hope at last.

You may also be interested in these other posts about primary education

I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road
Letting children down: PLE results 2011
Visiting schools in northern Uganda

Please note: all sections in italics are direct quotations: either from the Uwezo East Africa 2012 report or from Fajil Mandy.


The Education For All (EFA) goals set in 2000 and to be met by 2015 sit alongside the Millennium Development Goals. EFA includes the following commitments,

Goal 2: Ensure that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances, and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Goal 6: Improve all aspects of the quality of education and ensure excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential lifeskills.


  1. Forgive me intruding here with questions that have little relation to this post, but I've just stumbled across your fascinating blog and am due to be coming to Kampala for 4 months from early Sept (as a technical expert advising on tourism development as it happens, on which I see that you have some useful comments).

    I'm in search of some first-hand tips, preferably from expats, relating to everyday life in Kampala, beginning with where to stay - supposedly the ministry is going to recommend a hotel at a special rate, but official taste doesn't always coincide with my own (I've worked in a number of exotic places around the world, including Rwanda/Kigali - which turned out to be delightful). If you happen to know of a comfortable, value-for-money place to stay, preferably with a bit of character, at well under 100 USD per night if possible, I'd be grateful to hear from you.

    I'm also keen to play a bit of golf - I was thinking of bringing only my golf shoes, and a ball (or two): is it easy to rent a reasonable set of clubs?

    Any essential tips you may have on things to bring or not bother with would also be much appreciated, if you can spare a moment. I have the Bradt guide.

    One final question: a rabies inoculation is suggested "if you're likely to get close to wild animals" - do you happen to know if this is really advisable? it wasn't mentioned in Rwanda.

    Thank you.

    Roger Goodacre

    1. Try the Fairway Hotel, which is opposite the Kampala golf course (which, by the way, is extortionately expensive - better to go to Entebbe or elsewhere). We only know a handful of hotels in our own part of Kampala - Ntinda. You might want to contact Charlotte Beauvoisin at Pearl of Africa tours for more information. Yes, you can hire golf clubs. If you play at Palm Valley, you will need more than a couple of balls! As far as what to bring is concerned - you can buy just about everything you need in Kampala. The only things we bring in are 'luxuries' like shortbread, tinned haggis and single malt whiskies! Most people don't get rabies inoculations. We did, but then we're out here for 2 years or more and I was nervous. In the event, we have never come within biting distance of chimps etc. Are you going to be exploring bat caves?! . Again, Charlotte might be able to advise.

    2. Helpful comments, many thanks

  2. Well, not looking for bats or golf but just saying that I shall plunder this exceedingly well written piece for the workshop that we are having in the second week of September

    Everything said and well said.


  3. Plunder away! (Thanks for the compliments)

    1. Hi Elisabeth, my husband moved to work in Uganda 4 yrs ago. He left me in Kenya with our children. After reading your blog, do you advise that I continue to stay and educate the kids from here? I want my children to have quality education for e wonderful future as adults.

  4. Sorry I have only just picked up this comment. Of course there are good schools in Uganda. It is a question of asking around and receiving recommendations. Also find out how well pupils do and how high or low the drop out rate is. If you have a reasonable amount of money for private fees or state top-up fees you should be able to find a Ugandan school which reaches your standards.