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Success not just passing exams – Fagil Mandy

By Peter Nyanzi

Renowned educationist Fagil Mandy was recently appointed chairman of the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB). A former commissioner in the Ministry of Education and Sports, he told The Independent’s Peter Nyanzi that his vision is for Uganda’s education and examination system to produce a productive and well-rounded citizen. It will not be easy, but he seems like just the man for the job:

What are the main issues in Uganda’s education system?


I think we need to contextualize our education system in several ways. One, Uganda is a third world country, but must we remain that way? Where do developed countries beat us? They have trained their people differently – to be all-round individuals, equipped with knowledge that matters. They have sharpened the brain, fitted their people with positive success emotions, and trained and skilled their bodies. Our education must focus on how we can skill our population holistically. Our second problem is longevity. On average our life expectancy is about 48 years, yet the Japanese live 90 years. This means our potential is not fully exploited because we don’t live long enough. Our bodies are unfit because we feed poorly even if we have lots of food, and we think badly.  Thirdly, we have low productivity levels and use our time poorly. For instance, the Japanese use 18.5 hours out of 24 in a day working. It is estimated that in the third world, including Uganda, we work for 2.5 hours, which means 21.5 hours are simply wasted away. Our education system must do something about this. Recently, as a consultant, I met 15,000 candidate students around the country talking about how to prepare mentally, physically and spiritually for final exams. Only 170 of them were wearing watches. The message there is that a child completes S.6 without knowing the value of time in terms of productivity. That is why a World Bank study has ranked Uganda’s productivity levels the lowest in East Africa.

How do we change this?

The most important thing is to re-examine the skill, attitudes, emotional state of our teachers.  I think we have a teacher crisis in Uganda. There are many missing gaps in the teacher today. Recently, I conducted a survey and asked over 3,000 teachers what they think a good teacher should be. Only 60 teachers out of 3,800 read books to expand their knowledge. Only 30 indicated that they love their country. In short, our teachers lack a lot of critical knowledge.

Isn’t it a question of motivation and survival?

Well, self-motivation starts with the self – it does not come from outside. When as a teacher you look for money without knowledge, you are using the wrong means. That is why they are coaching pupils.  It is said that ‘need is the mother of creativity.’ They should be sharpening their brains. Most teachers don’t have any practical skills – they don’t know how to do anything else apart from writing on the blackboard. Every time I talk about this I get scared. Imagine the teacher standing before your child – what does he/she know? The teacher lacks entrepreneurial skills, curiosity, adventure, and has a deficient understanding of international affairs, leave alone Ugandan affairs. Little wonder we are getting products that are empty and uninspired.

It appears to be a vicious cycle going back to the education those teachers got …

That is why I said it is a crisis. How is the teacher being trained in the colleges, at the university? It is simply the tutor standing there and lecturing. What sort of skills are they acquiring? What kind of on-the-job capacity building are they getting? The teacher cannot give what they have not acquired. A country cannot have citizens who are better than their teachers, they can only be worse. So we need to handle the teacher issue as critical. It is not entirely the fault of the teacher, but teachers must know they have a responsibility to develop and empower themselves so as to produce empowered citizens.

But the government has the greater responsibility …

The fact is that the teacher does not know as much as the public thinks. That means we need to equip them with more skills. We need a national teacher re-skilling campaign that will change teaches from the old self-pitying thinking to an adventurous self-building person. As a consultant I have been doing this, helping them to figure out what new skills they can build to earn more. The government needs to take a closer look at teacher training colleges and restructure the whole system. For example, how can a teacher teach co-curricular activities when they did not learn them at the training college?

Research shows that our education system is wasting too much time on tests and preparing for examinations. That is why students come out of school empty, and grow to be book-hating adults. There is too much theory. Let the children be involved in the doing. Let’s relate what they study in class to real life outside the classroom. How many times have you seen pupils walking around to learn from their environment and their community? We must reverse our education system to focus on productivity.

But schools say they have to prepare them to pass examinations because that is what counts eventually …

That is why I stated in my inaugural speech that UNEB needs to devise new ways of examining students. It can no longer afford to be predictable. It must work out surprises, within the framework of the curriculum. UNEB must set the tune to get teachers to dance differently. For now, teachers think students will pass by revising UNEB past papers. But the goal should be producing citizens who are multi-skilled and analytical. This means putting more focus on how the teaching process takes place. But who supervises the teaching and learning process as it takes place in the classroom? What methods are being used? Are they effective? Are the learners participating?

How do we get the school inspection system to work?

The ministry is supposed to do that at the national level. But also every district has an inspector of schools and a district education officer. Why are they not working? When I first joined the ministry years ago, people were giving excuses such as lack of transport or funds. But what about nearby schools that do not require transport to reach? Even at the school level, head teachers and directors of studies should watch over the teaching process inside the classroom on a regular basis. This is not happening. As a result there is no consistency or coordination among stakeholders – including school management, teachers, parents, policy makers and civic leaders.  The common goal or vision, which is to ensure that we get the right products out of the learning process, has been lost.

What is the right ‘product’?

What sort of citizen does Uganda want? That should be the beginning point so throughout the various levels we know what kind of product we want to end up with. The whole chain of learning should be tuned to the end-product. But because we have not defined the Ugandan we want, we have not devised the right methods and raw materials to be used to produce this individual. The National Planning Authority must help in this process. Prof. Senteza Kajubi tried to do that in his White Paper with his six national goals of education, including unity, wealth-generation, dependence, inter-dependence, humanitarianism and ability to exploit the environment. Unfortunately these have not been properly articulated.

Finally, we need to define what education is. It is not passing examinations. We should produce someone who is bright mentally, who has the right emotions, is physically fit and skilled. What most people are interested in is how many points a student got. They don’t ask whether the child can work, debate, sing, think, play, design, etc.

Finally, we need to understand that education takes place in three schools – home, the community and finally the classroom. The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development should come out with guidelines on how to educate the child at home and in the community. Of the three schools, only the school system has an organized curriculum, which should not be the case if we are to have a total person who will fit in the global system.

Where do you see Uganda in the next five years as far as the education sector is concerned?

Millions of students will have completed school without the essential attitude and skills to get employment. We are sitting on a volcano, which could erupt in the near future. Unless we act now, we are going to have millions of jobless graduates, who be outcompeted by our regional counterparts under our current common market. This will make them increasingly frustrated and disillusioned and will force them onto the streets to riot. So, the time to act is now, not tomorrow.

What is the role of UNEB in all this?

UNEB must set the tune schools dance to. Examinations should target practical ability, not theoretical knowledge. I know it is not something to be done in one month but as examiners we must plan to examine for productivity rather than theory. That was the intention of the plan to introduce continuous assessment. As chairman, I will have a keen interest in that as well.

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