Out of the 348,384 pupils of standard three interviewed across East Africa, only 15 percent can understand standard two reading and maths tests according to the latest UWEZO report released on August 15 in Kenya.
The report states that though children's understanding peaks as they progress to upper classes, at least 29 percent of children in standard seven still face challenges in reading and understanding an English test of standard two.
The findings confirm that the basic numeracy and literacy skills of primary school children are lacking across the region and just like the findings in the earlier UWEZO report released in 2011, nothing has improved.
In Uganda, the 2011 UWEZO report indicated that children in primary six could not comprehend material meant for primary three levels. The report also discovered that out of the 2, 400 schools visited across the country, 9 of 10 an equivalent of 92% of the children in P3 could not read a P2 English level story text and that 1 of 5 of the children in P3 could not even recognise letters of the English Alphabet. The report also discovered that only 17 % of the children in class P7 could not read and understand an English story text of class level P2.
The findings show that though the numbers of children going to school has increased in the three countries, the rate at which they comprehend is still low and this poses a great risk to the nation.
Aisha Nantongo, a primary five pupil of St. Joseph Catholic School in Wakiso district, cannot speak English, the medium of examination for her level. She mumbles a few words timidly. In class she has a challenge grasping what is being taught and, inevitably, her end of term reports are not something to look forward to. She scores below average in most of the subjects. Nantongo is the embodiment of the new breed of educated students that Uganda will churn out in the next years to come.
The situation is much worse in rural areas, according to the UWEZO findings. Pupils in rural schools and government aided schools face a bigger challenge than their counterparts in urban areas and those in private founded schools.
Studying from a Universal Primary Education founded school, Nantongo will automatically be promoted to primary six whether she makes an effort to understand what is being taught or not. Born to peasant parents, she does not expect any academic advice from them and the teachers who are supposed to help her are not doing much because of the overwhelming numbers of pupils per class. With the introduction of free education in higher school, Nantongo may only strive to attain 28 points, at least a pass 7 in each subject and she will qualify for O'level.
The worrying trend had already been bemoaned by a coalition of activists from Uganda Joint Christian Council, Uganda Muslim Education Association, Action Aid International Uganda, Uganda National NGO Forum and Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda who mobilized and came together under their body citizen's action for quality education in Uganda led by Rev Fr Silvestre Alinaitwe to stage a two day strike on July 16 and 17 to call upon government to come to the rescue and change the direction the education system was taking.
Among other things, the activists petitioned parliament to intervene and find a solution to the deteriorating standards and performance in schools especially in lower primary schools, amend the Pre-Primary, Primary and Post-Primary Act 2008, to push for construction of adequate classrooms, and recruitment of more teachers to match with the increasing number of pupils or else we face a bigger challenge in future.
Teopista Birungi Mayanja, the General Secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union, says the conditions the under which the pupils are studying are appalling. Increased cases of pupil and teacher absenteeism especially in cases where school enrollment is determined by weather patterns, coupled with the automatic promotion of children from one class to another irrespective of the grades and performance only worsens the situation.
The activists argued that though the government boosts of increased enrolment rates from 2.5 million learners to over 8 million today with the introduction of Universal Primary Education, there is need to look at the quality of education that these children are getting.
Arthur Larok, Action Aid's director, laments that the remarkable difference between the products of the education system today and those of years before shows that things are changing for the worst.
Richard Ssewakiryanga, the Executive Director of Uganda NGO Forum, says we cannot achieve quality education unless teacher and child welfare is put into consideration, and we have established infrastructures. He says a country like Uganda that is faced with a young population most of them who will access "free education" shows the challenges ahead.
Sewakiryanga says it is the government's responsibility to solve the crisis at hand before the situation becomes worse.
The report recommends that in order to change this situation government and stakeholders should identify the real problem before rushing to invest more resources. It recommends work on factors that will see children acquire skills like motivating teachers and holding them accountable, and creating an environment for children that is engaging and interactive.