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Born to fail PLE

By Rukiya Makuma and Miriam Mukama

Why Busoga, Gulu children fail and Masaka, Fort Portal excel

Over the years, the eastern and northern regions have always performed poorly at the first major evaluation of a Ugandan child’s education cycle, the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE). Over the same period, central and western regions have always performed best. The 2011 PLE results released in January 2012 were not any different.

Kween and Luuka,  two  new districts that were carved out of Kapchorwa and Iganga in the eastern respectively in 2010 had the worst performance while Masaka district in central Uganda was the best followed by four districts in western Uganda;  Mbarara, Fort Portal,  Rukungiri,  and Kabale.

The results released on Jan. 18 by the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) showed that 36.6% of pupils who sat PLE in Kween failed while Luuka had 32.9 percent failures and the pupils in the first grade.  Fort Portal had over 43.6% in first grade and no failures.

The PLE results match earlier findings like the UWEZO Uganda 2011 report that posed the question: “Are our children learning” and assessed the competence of pupils in literacy and numeracy skills. The report that was conducted in 2,400 schools in 79 districts to determine the competency levels of pupils in the two subjects of English and Mathematics. They showed that pupils in the Central and Western regions were more competent that those in the North and the East.

Statistics from the UWEZO survey showed that among the first five category of the  best performers from the four regions, the best performing district in the Eastern and Northern region score below the worst performing districts in the Central and Western regions. Whereas Mbale tops the Eastern region with 29.6 percent competent levels and 31.8 percent for Moyo (Northern region); the percentage mark is way below the 35.2 percent for Rakai and 36.8 for Luweero.

In Uganda, as elsewhere, the goal of primary education is to give pupils basic literacy and numeracy skills over a seven year period from primary one to primary seven when they sit PLE. The skills acquired in primary are the foundations for the science, mathematics, geography, history and other subjects they study in secondary school and beyond. Most parents and educationists are concerned because failure at primary level is a major indicator of failure later in life.

Why failures?

Since most of the teachers in primary schools across the country are trained in the same institutions, one would expect pupils to either excel or fail at the same time but it does not happen like that.

Most of the blame for the failures, according to a 2009 research by the Makerere University Institute of Social Research, the critical interventions required to ensure a child’s success in PLE lie with the government and the school and not the parent.

The research established that head teacher and teacher absenteeism were the major cause for poor performance in PLE. This indicator is significant because a 2003 report by the World Bank on global teacher absenteeism showed Uganda with the highest rate of 27%. Its nearest rival in Africa was Zambia with 17%. India had 25% teacher absenteeism.

Several reports conducted to ascertain the poor performances have arrived at almost the same conclusions but add the poor quality of available teachers, lack of scholastic materials, and the overwhelming teacher to pupil ratios as major contributors to poor performance.

A 2008 report presented to the Ministry of Education and Sports on Education Needs Assessment for Northern Uganda, for example, established that the northern region had shortage of teachers and of the available teachers some were untrained.

The Civil Society Organisation for Peace in Northern Uganda 2006 report also established that it is common for a teacher to handle over 300 pupils at a time because of the shortages in the region.

In such instances, the pupils do not get the desired attention from the teachers unlike in urban schools where at most a teacher handles between 40-50 pupils in a class.

UNEB sets exams according to a set national curriculum. Schools that fail to complete the curriculum due to teacher absenteeism or other interruptions are usually disadvantaged because they will have to sit for the same exams as those who are able to complete the curriculum.

But John Bagoole, the Member of Parliament for the county, says pupils in Luuka cannot complete the curriculum because they have to learn under trees and temporary shades. As a result, there are always interruptions during class hours. The slightest sign of weather changes will see the children scampering for shelter.

He says lack of infrastructure in Luuka district contributes most to the poor performance. He says out of the 88 government-aided primary schools and 140 private ones in the district, none has a permanent school building.

Information from UNEB on pupil’s performance across the districts shows that the districts with the majority of pupils in Division one was those concentrated in municipalities that have better infrastructure and less absenteeism.

Bagoole says in rural areas like Luuka, some teachers first tend to their farms and other chores before reporting to school. In such cases children miss some lessons and fail to complete the curriculum.

Connie Kateeba, the Director of National Curriculum Development Centre, says the poor curriculum coverage accounts for the majority failures because pupils need to know and understand what is on the curriculum before they sit for their final examinations.

Speaking specifically about northern Uganda, Joyce Khatundi Othieno, the Commissioner Pre-primary and Primary Standards, says the poor performance is mainly because the region, especially Gulu, is emerging from a 20-year long war and trying to fit into a normal life. Pupils in the region have to adjust psychologically to a new learning environment.

Khatundi says that some of the head teachers do not give support in terms of motivation and cash allowances to their teachers leading the teachers to give less attention to the pupils hence the poor performances.

Kateeba also agrees with Bagoole that pupils fail because the schools lack materials and do not have facilities like the libraries where children would explore new things which the teachers may not teach in class.

She says lack of exposure in terms of the education outside class has also led to the different rates of performances in the regions of Uganda. “Pupils lack the books to use in order to widen their knowledge besides what the teacher provides in class,” she says.

She says children living in the central region have an easy reach to the city and they live in an area of affluent people who can afford the costs of textbooks other than  those  provided  in school, this combined with  a conducive environment to read books gives them an edge over children in other regions.

Alex Ruhanda is the Municipality Member of Parliament for Fort Portal, one of the better performing areas. He is not shy about the pampering pupils and teachers in Fort Portal get. He says unlike schools in the rural areas, the rate of absenteeism in municipals and urban areas is very low.  He says there is a committed team at the municipality which inspects schools regularly, encourages teachers to work hard, and ensure the pupils are given an opportunity to study and prepare for the exams in time. He says in addition, pupils are given homework on a daily basis which enables them revise and the teachers are trained constantly.

“By doing this, both the pupils and teachers are prepared psychologically for the exams hence the good results at the end of the day,” he says.

There has also developed a healthy competition between schools which propels each school to work better.


However, Aramazan Madanda, a researcher with Centre for Basic Research at Makerere University says poor performance in some regions is an indictment of the government popular but controversial Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme.  UPE, which offers relatively free education in government and government-aided primary schools, has allowed more children that could previously not afford to attend school but is criticised for failure to match the increase in numbers with an increase in resources.

Out of the 535,933 who sat for the exams, 83 percent were UPE beneficiaries while 17 percent were from non-UPE schools. Madanda says UPE resources have not been equitably distributed throughout the country and most money meant for UPE is concentrated in the central region depriving the other regions. He says schools in regions like the central perform better than others because of the highest concentration of money and educated people also gives pupils in the central region a higher chance of success. Poor pay of teachers across the country is one of the biggest hindrances to better grades.  But urban-based teachers fare better because most schools top-up their meager salaries with allowances.

As the policy makers battle the challenge of poor results from rural districts of northern and eastern Uganda and how to make UPE quality better, Jessica Alupo the Minister of Education and Sports says there is need for more parental involvement. “Parents should recognise that the children need school materials,” she says.

She says her ministry plans to work with the local leaders to ensure improvement.

In Luuka’s case, the government has given it Shs 227 million for the construction of classroom blocks under the School Facility Grant in 2011. Hopefully, having new classrooms and not having to scamper from the rain and sun will improve Luuka’s grades. For now, however, poor pay for teachers, and lack of infrastructure appear determined to keep pupils in rural areas lagging behind.

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