By Ronald Musoke
Reality check for government’s quest for sciences
As the Uganda National Examinations Board released the 2013 A-level results on March 27, the first insight into whether the government’s recent policy to force students pursue Science subjects was a wise move came to the fore. A total of 116,190 candidates registered for the examination in 2013 at 1,710 centres compared to 111,456 candidates from 1,334 centres in 2012. And out of these, a total of 115,380 candidates sat for the examination, compared to 109,974 in 2012 – a 4% increase.
While releasing the results in Kampala, Mathew Bukenya, the executive secretary of UNEB, noted that 32,829 (28.7%) of the candidates had got three principal passes, 28,650 (25.1%) got two principal passes while 27, 496 (24%) and 22,296 (19.5%) got one principal pass and subsidiary pass respectively. About 3,000 candidates failed completely.
“The overall performance of candidates in the 2013 UACE exams shows that a very high percentage of candidates (97.3%), qualified for the award of the UACE, about the same percentage as in 2012,” he said.
Bukenya said 61,479 candidates—those who scored at least two principal passes— will qualify for admission to various public and private chartered universities in Uganda.
In terms of performance, female candidates performed better than males, a development that shows that the girls are edging closer to bridging the gender gap.
But the girls got better grades mostly in the humanities (History, Economics, Islamic Religious Education, Christian Religious Education, Geography, Literature in English), and Mathematics.
The boys performed better in Science subjects—a trend that the technocrats in the education sector will need to arrest quickly considering that the government is not turning back on its recent move to have students do more science and technology courses.
However, Bukenya said although the core science subjects, including Mathematics, are compulsory at ‘O’ Level, the transition to ‘A’ level in the same subjects has remained low.
For instance, in 2013, about 25% of candidates offered Mathematics, 17.4% did Physics, while those who offered Chemistry and Biology were 8.2% and 8% respectively. UNEB said students who registered for Chemistry dropped to 10.5%, while those who preferred to take Biology also declined to 10% when compared to the 2012 registration.
With more emphasis given to sciences, in 2012, the government announced that ‘A’ Level students would start offering either Computer Studies [for those doing science combinations] or subsidiary Mathematics for those who had opted for Arts combinations with Economics among the chosen subjects.
The government hopes this recent policy will help in fast-tracking Uganda’s quest to achieve middle income status spelt out in its development blue-print dubbed, Vision 2040.
According to Vision 2040, Uganda should have a transformed society from a peasant to a modern and prosperous one within the next 26 years and to achieve that feat, Uganda must get the fundamentals right. These include; putting up the necessary physical and ICT infrastructure, promoting science, technology, innovation and engineering as well as upgrading its human resources.
The document further notes that Uganda’s quest to achieve faster economic transformation would be dependent upon her capacity to strengthen the fundamentals for harmonizing the opportunities such as the country’s abundant labour force, minerals, oil and gas, agriculture, ICT and industrialization among others.
The government is thus banking on its youthful population to lead the country into the future as the youth are more innovative if imparted with the right skills.
Yet, if the recent ‘A’ Level results are to be believed, the number of students pursuing science is not increasing at the right pace. Apart from the fact that the numbers are not satisfactory, UNEB further reported that nearly half of the science candidates who sat for the 2013 exams were unable to obtain a principal pass – the minimum mark for admission to a university.
Bukenya said examiners had noted that the candidates’ ability to understand and apply knowledge, as well as analyse and carry out scientific experiments, interpret and draw conclusions from those experiments is still a challenge for many.
When UNEB released the 2012 ‘O’ Level results last year, the issue of poor performance in science subjects came to the forefront. Bukenya blamed the schools for not having well-equipped laboratories.
He noted that in cases where schools actually had laboratories and equipment, the facilities had not been utilized properly in the course of the students’ studies. As a result, many students did the scientific experiments for the first time during the national examinations.
“Although most schools especially those under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme schools have adequate laboratory chemicals and apparatus, the laboratories are more of stores than rooms for science practical work,” Bukenya said, adding that, “The non-use of these laboratories results in lack of practice by the candidates.” Some of the reasons for non-use of the labs are lack of teachers and lack of equipment caused by shortage of funds.
At the release of the 2013 ‘A’-Level results, Bukenya said the poor performance in Science subjects coupled with the low preference for Science subjects would negatively impact on the country’s manpower needs in science, technology and the Skilling Uganda programme.
But Jessica Alupo, the minister of education and sports, said the 2013 results showed several encouraging trends especially in terms of enrollment figures and candidates qualifying for the award of the UACE certificate. Alupo said the government would continue with equipping the government sponsored schools across the country with computers.
She said, so far 952 government sponsored schools have computer laboratories with each equipped with 30 computers. According to Alupo, 55 more schools will have their computer laboratories running by June, this year.
“The importance of [students doing] ICT and sub-Maths cannot be re-emphasized…Uganda is landlocked geographically but with ICT, Uganda will soon be land linked,” Alupo said in reference to the government sticking to its policy of encouraging students to do these subjects.
She said the Skilling Uganda programme leans heavily on science subjects and the government is going to ask private schools to seriously invest in teaching of science subjects also.
Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the country coordinator for Uwezo—an East African initiative that aims at improving learning across East Africa— told The Independent that Uganda’s focus on science subjects is not a bad idea because countries that have rapidly developed in the past have had deliberate policies to promote science, technology and innovation. However, she says Uganda’s policy must be quickly followed up by actual public investment in learning.
Nakabugo says, what facilitates the learning of sciences is a strong foundation and at the moment, learning outcomes are still very low at primary school level.
She says the government needs to shift from quantity to quality education; and from inputs such as school buildings and supplies to a focus on the outcomes or learning levels of Uganda’s children.
“In many schools across the country, including government-sponsored schools, laboratories are not yet there, and many of them do not have science teachers,” she said.
Nakabugo further noted that, at the moment, private schools far outnumber government-sponsored schools and it is not strategic enough for the government to ignore them if the policy is going to register tangible results.
She says often times when proprietors of these private schools start, they do so with minimal investment (a few teachers, classrooms and textbooks) and they thus find teaching Arts subjects more appropriate for their conditions.
“Much as they would like to teach Science subjects, laboratories may sometimes be too expensive for them to invest in. This is an area where government can come in and help bridge the gap,” Nakabugo noted.
However, at the release of the examinations, Alupo said the government was considering pulling out of the partnership with the private schools because the government has developed the capacity of government aided schools in 1,000 sub counties to cope with the increasing numbers of learners.
She said the government was going to switch the Shs 53b it has been giving private schools to the building of more schools in the remaining sub-counties as well as teachers’ houses.