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First Grades: The myth and the reality

By Rukiya Makuma

Education experts, students, parents, and schools disagree on excitement around top students in national exams

When heads of government-owned schools met in Kampala on Feb.16 to select the next batch of senior five students, fate was not on Robert Ayesiza’s side. Though he passed in Second Grade with 32 aggregates and qualifies to join senior five, he will not join his wish-list schools; Kings College Budo and Uganda Martyrs Secondary School Namugongo.

Like most dream schools for senior four leavers, these admitted only the candidates with the best grades. They took in only students with aggregate between 10 and 12 and slightly lower for girls. Matters were made worse for students who did not score highly this year because there was improved performance in the Uganda Certificate Examination (UCE) and most sought after schools set their entry cut off points a notch higher.

“I hoped that I would join those schools and stand better chances of government scholarship when I finished my senior six examination,” lamented Ayesiza, “ but now that dream is no more.”

Issues of education quality in Uganda have been central to Uganda’s human development agenda with the introduction of Universal Primary and Secondary education (UPE and USE) and now advanced education.

Though there has been effort to improve the quality of education, it has not yet translated into improved performance in most schools across the country and low grades have continuously been registered at every release of the results.

Government starts free education for senior five students this year, but if the ills of Universal Primary education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) persist, the quality of students entering university after two years of higher secondary education is likely to drop dramatically.

Out of the 254,024 students who passed exams; only 101,160 students will be admitted to government-aided schools.

Francis Agula, the Commissioner of Education at the Ministry of Education and Sports, says students who will access government free A’ level education are those who scored between division one and three in UCE.

Though the failure rates had dropped from 6.5 percent in 2010 to 4.2 percent in 2011, going by the percentage performance of candidates in different grades, the overall performance in the country still remains poor.

Out of the 267,024 candidates who sat for the 2011 UCE, only a paltry 8.5 percent managed to get a first grade. Though only 4.2 percent failed the exams, the majority 43.5 percent, passed in division four.

The performance raises the question of the quality of education generally, which educationists like James Nkata, the director of the Uganda Management Institute, say should be the focus. Questions should be asked about why students from certain schools and regions consistently fail.

Wrong focus

The best schools, both government-owned and private, always admit only students in first grade.

Now Ayesiza is on a look out for a school which will accommodate him with his second grade. Asked why he does not go back to his former secondary school, he says with a frown that the school had only seven candidates in first grade and that to him is not acceptable.

Like Ayesiza, education officials and most of the best performing schools have come to associate good grades with first grade performance.

When announcing the release of the results on Feb 8. Mathew Bukenya, the executive secretary of the Uganda Examination Board, appeared excited that there was an improvement this year compared to the 2010 results. Statistics show that 8.5 percent of the candidates passed in Division One compared to 7.2 percent in 2010.

But this focus on first grade results irks some educationists who argue that it sacrifices many students.

James Nkata says it is wrong to measure good performance based only on the number of candidates who have passed in division one. He says what is important is the number of students who qualify for the award of the Uganda Certificate of Education whether in division one or not.  After all, although 254, 220 candidates qualified for the award of UCE certificates, only 21,608 passed in grade one.

John Chrysestom Muyingo, the minister of state for Higher Education, says the tendency to focus on first grades has been brought about by the media, parents and institutions.

“At the release of the results, the ministry announces and gives figures of the overall performance but the media will devote a lot of space to profiling candidates in first grades, parents will also seek space to congratulate their children and schools will also book space to advertise and also profile their best,” he says.

Muyingo says there are factors that enable one to pass highly such as the presence and quality of teachers in the school, the learning conditions at school, small student to teacher ratios, and facilities like library.

“It does not mean that only people who get first grades are geniuses because some students studying in unfavourable conditions may have the potential to perform better but they are constrained by such factors,” he says.

Like Muyingo, Nkata says there is nothing magical about first grades because experience has shown that at times candidates who perform poorly at a certain level go on to perform better at the next stage whereas some candidates who get first grades sometimes perform poorer at other levels.

Muyingo says such tendencies lead people to believe that only people who get first grades have performed well yet not everyone who is successful got a first grade in their school.  He says this tendency has to change.

Beyond Grade One

However, Commissioner Francis Agula says it will be very difficult to change this because for a very long period good performance has always been measured by the number of candidates in the first grade. He says when schools set cut off points to the next level, they want to take on candidates who will fit in their environment and candidates who will help the schools maintain their academic positions.

A peek at the list of selection cut off points reveals that most of the candidates who passed in grade one will be taken on by the best performing schools.

He says if performance was determined by the number of certificate holders, then grading the candidates in first, second and third grades would not be necessary. Performances would then be graded by either a “pass” or a “failure” and cut off entry points would be invalid since all those who get a pass would have direct access to the next level of education which is not the case.

“When candidates are sitting for exams, they aim to get better grades and by better grades they want to get first grade or second. Parents also will only want to take their children to schools with the most performing number of candidates in the first grade,” Agula says.

Hamis Kaheru the Public relations officer of UNEB also disagrees with Nkata and says performance should not be determined by the number of certificate holders because UNEB grades candidates in Division Four as “failures” though they get certificates and can be admitted to senior five depending on the school.  Students in division four get between 53 to 62 points meaning they get between credits 6 and pass 7 in each exam paper.

“Usually such candidates are not taken on by government aided schools but they can access private secondary schools depending on the schools they apply to,” Kaheru says.


Jessica Alupo, the Minister of Education and Sports, says evidence received by the ministry shows that at many schools, a lot of time is wasted through late starts and early closure of the term, loss of contact time between teachers and their students and failure to accomplish the curriculum on time. Other factors include teacher/student absenteeism, overwhelming teacher to student ratios, and lack of resources in most schools. All these affect the way students perform.

In 2007 when the 2011 UCE candidates sat their Primary Leaving Examinations only 7.6 percent passed in division one and the majority, 46 percent, passed in division two out of the 443, 554 pupils who sat for the exams. 13.5 percent got division U and did not qualify for secondary education while 11.4 percent got division 4 and could not qualify for free secondary education but could access secondary education at some private schools.

Alupo is happy, however, that according World Bank figures, the number of students in primary increased by 150,000 from 2007 to 2009, and secondary enrolment rates also went up from 160,000 in 2007 to more than 452,000 in 2009, according to the Ministry of Education.

She boasts that the increment in enrolment rates is a result of the USE policy, which has helped increase transition rates between primary and secondary school from 51 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2007.

She says such increments put government on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Education by 2015.

However, a researcher on Uganda’s education system, Ibrahim Kasirye, points out that though policy makers and researchers have worried about low education quality in the era of increased education spending, the recognition of the problem has not resulted into the development of more effective actions to improve education quality.

In an essay entitled: “Determinants of learning achievement in Uganda” published in 2009, the Research Fellow with Economic Policy Research Centre shows how low learning achievement at one stage of the education cycle limits one’s progression further in school and also negatively affects an individual’s future income and productivity.

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