Primary school teachers abandon classrooms for boda boda riding
Sunday James is a primary six pupil at the government aided St Anatoli Karama primary school in Kabwoya sub-county, Hoima district. A Primary Leaving Examinations candidate this year, James still finds it difficult to express himself in English, the medium of instruction and the language in which he is supposed to write the exams. He says he understands the language but has difficulties speaking it.
In his mother tongue, Runyoro, James is powerfully eloquent. Asked why it is difficult for him to ably speak English, James replies - in Runyoro: "Even at school, we speak Runyoro, even when we are communicating with our teachers."
Asked, how he plans to pass English in PLE, he simply says: "I will try".
But for 11-year-old William Rwebembera, a primary six pupil, at Golden Treasure primary school, a private school in Hoima town, English is not a problem.
"I have been speaking English ever since I was in nursery," a beaming Rwebembera confidently says. Indeed, he can read a passage and explain what it means and also narrate stories in near-flawless English. He also answers questions in Mathematics, Science or Social studies with ease.
James and Rwebembera clearly demonstrate the crisis of the two worlds of Uganda's primary education - a story of fairly good standards in private schools and mediocrity in UPE schools. Several reports by Uwezo, an education NGO, show that children in Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools are not learning. For instance, Uwezo's 2011 report revealed that children in primary six could not comprehend material meant for primary-three level.
Two languages, two worlds
Yuda Kato, a primary five teacher at Kiswaza primary school, Hoima district, explains that the disparity between the two pupils can be partly attributed to thematic curriculum policy in most UPE schools, a policy that requires P.1-P.3 pupils to be taught and examined in their mother tongue. Whereas UPE schools have been implementing the policy, private and town schools have either refused or - those in urban areas - are allowed to teach in English.
"In private schools, English is taught from nursery..." Kato says, stressing that this has created two different worlds of education yet they all sit for the same papers at primary seven.
Primary four, he explains, is a transitional class, in which teachers use 60% English and 40% local language.
"Pupils begin to study in English in P.5," he says. "Even when schools are buying end-of-term or year exams, UPE schools buy examinations in vernacular for P.1-P.3, while private schools buy exams in English," he says.
Due to the thematic curriculum, most UPE pupils in P.5 or P.6 have a lot of difficulty speaking the language, which is also key to mastering other subjects.
Besides, Kato says, teachers in government-aided UPE schools face a lot of challenges, which undermine the quality of education, giving the example of the high teacher-to-pupil ratio.
"I teach in P.5 at my school, I have a class of 70 pupils where I teach all the subjects [Math, SST, Science and English]. So, where can I get time to mark all the pupils and give and mark homework?" he wondered.
Indeed, pupils like James don't take homework. In private schools, at least everyday a child goes back home with homework. Kato says when he started teaching, he was very enthusiastic; but whenever he gave homework, pupils returned to school without answering it.
"I used to get a lot of excuses. Some would say there was no paraffin at home, others say they did not get time because of home errands... so I stopped giving homework," he says.
Kiswaza primary school is a primary seven school with a staff ceiling of eight teachers including the head teacher; meaning each teacher teaches one class, the high teacher-to-pupil ratio notwithstanding. While in UPE schools a teacher is supposed to teach the entire class alone, in private schools it is different. For instance, Golden Treasure primary school has five teachers in primary five, each teaching one subject, while mathematics in some classes is taught by two teachers.
The policy of 'one teacher, one class', Kato says, is overburdening the teacher. Besides the meagre salaries, teachers in UPE schools have limited incentives to teach.
"As a teacher, you must be very creative to have lunch at school," he says. Quite often, teachers contribute money from their meagre earnings, buy food and cook.
"Even when you want to teach and uplift the standard, as a teacher, you are let down by countless challenges," he says. Such challenges, compounded by the meagre pay - of less than Shs 300,000 - have forced teachers like Richard Kugonza, a former teacher at Kigorobya primary school, to abandon teaching.
"When I bought a motorcycle, I started riding boda boda after school in the evening and I would make Shs 15,000 daily. So, I decided to quit teaching and concentrate on boda boda riding and I think I'm now better off than a primary school teacher," Kugonza says.
Kato is also a part-time boda boda cyclist, and makes between Shs 300,000 and Shs 400,000 monthly from boda boda riding.
"After school, on public holidays and weekends, I ride boda boda from 5pm-9pm to supplement my salary," he says. "You cannot rely on the teacher's salary and support a family with today's cost of living."
Deogratius Byabagambi, the Hoima district inspector of schools, blames the problem of quality on absenteeism.
"It is shocking to find a school of 800 pupils with only 300 present," he says. "With automatic promotion, pupils no longer mind about studies, because he/she knows whether he/she fails, promotion is guaranteed. Some pupils are promoted with an average of 20 marks out of the 400 marks [in four subjects]," Byabagambi says.
Indeed, in her speech at the ministry's sector review last year, Education Minister Jessica Alupo noted that teacher and pupil absenteeism, high teacher-to-pupil ratio, low completion rates, and low parent participation were hurting quality in public schools.
A key problem is the failure at parenting. In rural areas like Kabwoya in Hoima district, parents are to blame for absenteeism and failure to give their children necessities. For instance, since there is no electricity, many parents don't buy paraffin for their children to revise and do homework at night.
Pascal Asaba, one of the parents with children in UPE schools, says what is important is for a child to be at school. He does not seem to understand the fuss about quality.
"I think all schools teach the same things," he says, apparently meaning a similar curriculum. Asaba says that while parents are blamed for absenteeism of their children, it is also important that children help their parents with work.
Section 13 of the Education Act provides that primary education shall be universal and compulsory for pupils aged six years and above. The Act also states that all children of school-going age shall enter and complete the primary education cycle of seven years. With these and many other challenges that have plagued public education in Uganda, one wonders what can be done to uplift the quality of education.
James, to make his education better, needs good teachers and paraffin at home so that he can revise at night.
"We have two classroom blocks at school, two of which are grass-thatched. Government should help us and construct the school," he says.
According to Kato, the key is motivating and improving the welfare of teachers, especially their pay.
"Yes, government can construct schools and procure desks, which is good, but it is not the desks that are very important, it is the teachers, parents and the pupils themselves," Kato says.
Byabagambi notes the need to reduce the teacher-to-pupil ratio. "Government should lift the staff ceiling for teachers so that more teachers can be recruited," he explained.
UNEB recommended to government to implement the Education Act which makes at least primary education compulsory and also enact by-laws to give the Act effect and also compel parents to play their roles effectively. Alupo told the Education sector review last October that government would continue to improve the welfare of teachers.
Already, she said, teachers' salaries have been increased by 15 per cent in the 2012/2013 financial year.
"In the financial years 2013/14 and 2014/15, government will increase teachers' salary by 20% and 15% respectively, bringing the overall increase to 50% in three years," she said.
That would probably sort out the teachers, but it would make little impact on the two-world gap between James and Rwebembera's schools, a gulf between quality and poverty. It would also do little to change parents like Asaba. For these latter challenges, Alupo must dig deeper.
This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union's Media For Democratic Governance and Accountability Project.