Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
Twenty-two years ago, Uganda followed Malawi’s 1994 lead in rolling-out tuition-free primary education. Today, both countries are stuck in an inferior equilibrium of low-quality education with high grade repetition and early dropouts. To address this grim reality, a paradigm shift is needed—call it a second-generation (2G) reform, after the 1997 Universal Primary Education (UPE) reform.
By removing the cost barrier to schooling, the UPE policy registered great success in getting children into schools irrespective of their economic status. However, Ugandans now understand that going to school was never meant to be an end in itself. Children attend school to acquire knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes for future successful living and nation building. Today, Ugandans’ views about their education system make for frustrating reading. The President publicly voices his frustration with the excessive leaking of students who exit without completing Grade 7. One question needs to be posed: do we know what must be done to reverse the learning crisis? Drawing from emerging frontier research on education quality, I propose four actions for the Ugandan government.
First, bring parents into the picture by clarifying their role as partners with local schools. While it appears redundant to belabor this obvious point, many parents have bought into a rhetoric that suggests UPE means free education. Consequently, schools have found it difficult to mobilize them to jointly address the challenges they face. Thankfully, the ministry of education has begun to clarify this issue; for example, it has emphasized parents’ responsibility for providing food for children. In the past, schools were frustrated by local politicians’ obstruction of their efforts at mobilizing parents to contribute to feeding and other quality-enhancing arrangements. A recent Sauti za Wananchi survey by Twaweza East Africa revealed that many parents are making financial contributions for remedial classes, feeding programs, and extra teachers. Increased parental involvement in children’s education will lighten the burden.
Second, align the objectives of key players in the education system to guarantee coherence for achieving learning. This, too, appears obvious, but it is where we score the lowest. Consider the role played by schools in educating children, as compared to that played by the national examiner, UNEB. While the schools would like to prioritize the objective of ensuring all children learn, they cannot help but recognize that passing the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) is all that matters at end-of-cycle. This forces many schools to adopt negative practices, like focusing teaching on the children who are at the top of the class, sieving to ensure children least likely to pass PLE are held back in Grade 5 and 6, de-emphasizing importance of non-examined subjects, and worst of all, cheating the exams. These practices can be explained by the fact that PLE results are used to make critical life decisions for children—who continues to secondary, in which school? Detach these high stakes from the PLE and the dropout rates will plunge, teachers will teach to the median of the class, and there will be no incentive to cheat exams. To achieve this alignment, enough secondary schools are required for all children to transit from primary. Other players whose objectives need to be coherent for learning include politicians and bureaucrats at all levels, policy technocrats, aid agencies, the teachers’ union, private entities such as textbook publishers, and all school-level actors.
Third, comprehensively address teacher issues. The teaching profession plays a critical role in shaping the development path of any country. In this regard, therefore, the ministry of education is commended for tightening entry requirements into Primary Teachers’ Colleges. An accompanying intervention would be to restructure pre-service teacher training by increasing the time student teachers spend on teaching practice under college supervision. Another teacher quality-enhancement initiative is to introduce regular peer-led school-based teacher development sessions to provide low-cost teacher support at school. Teachers need to be well facilitated, motivated, and incentivized through a performance management framework, and headteachers must be held accountable for learning achievements.
Fourth, increase education funding. The 2019/2020 budget has a 10 percent allocation to education, which is commendable yet insufficient to effectively deal with Uganda’s education quality challenge. In rural areas, lower primary classes are extremely overcrowded and pupil-teacher ratios are high, creating a difficult classroom environment. To be clear, addressing the first three points is a prerequisite for increased funding to yield quality education.
The 2G approach demands more of everyone. However, failure to make the shift risks our future as the education system continues to produce ill-prepared workers for a fast-changing 21st-century workplace.
This blog was originally posted on the Daily Monitor website on 5 August 2019 under the title, “Do We Know What Must be Done to Reverse the Learning Crisis?”
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