Should government apologise to pupils that fail?
By 5:30 am, a typical pupil in a school in Kampala is up for the uphill task to score aggregate four or any single digit result in first division of the Primary Leaving Exams.
Parents, teachers, and the school administrations mount pressure on the pupil to excel. So when, as happened on Jan.21, the results are to be released, the pupils, teachers, and school managers are tensed up, not knowing whether their struggle was worthwhile.
Daphine Kato, who has been the principal of one of the top private primary schools, the elite Kampala Parents School, understands this feeling.
For years, she has ensured that all her primary seven pupils are in class by 7am. They start the day with prayers, hygiene checkups, homework review, and then a good meal at lunch.
"These are lacking in the government school," she says, "private schools have better facilities and involvement of parents in the learning process."
Daphine Kato is right. Although the government has emphasized the provision of free universal primary education (UPE), the performance of poor districts far away from towns and without private schools continues to decline every year as shown in the national examination results.
For those in the worst performing category in 2011 such as Buvuma, Amudat, Kyankwanzi, it was the same story when Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) results were released on Jan. 21.
Although pupils performed better this year than those in 2011, John Bagoole, the Member of Parliament for Luuka County in Eastern Uganda, says he is bitter but not surprised that his district topped the list of the poor performers.
He says the poor studying conditions such as tree shade learning, poor facilitation and few teachers of which most of them are untrained and not qualified leads to the unchanging poor performance.
UP to 32% of all pupils that sat PLE in Luuka failed compared to the national cumulative failure rate of 12%. The ten best districts had an average failure rate of less than 1%. Only 1.8% of pupils in Luuka district managed a First Grade compared to 56% in the best performer, Masaka Municipality.
The worst performed subject was mathematics, same as 2011 while the best performed subject was English.
Girls had the worst performance nationally and absenteeism was blamed. Out of the 565,663 registered candidates, only 543,071 sat for the examinations. Although 20,989(3.7%) pupils were absent for the exam, only 9,637 were boys and 11,352 were girls. That, however, was a 0.2% drop in absenteeism. Nationally, the number of PLE entrants has been increasing by 4.0% per annum.
In Kaabong, 37 pupils got first grade, Amudat had two, while Nwoya had eleven. These four districts had no girl in the first division.
Jessica Alupo, the minister of Education and Sports said that absenteeism amongst the girls was due to early marriages, elopement and pregnancy. She noted that there will be no meaningful development if girls are not educated.
Joseph Ssewungu, a former teacher in a UPE school who is now an MP, stirred controversy in the period just before the results were released when he demanded a special audit of the performance of UPE schools. He said UPE schools were performing exceptionally badly and wanted the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB)to release UPE results separately to show the extent of its failure.
In an interview with The Independent after the release of results, Ssewungu said pupils in UPE schools perform poorly because the government does not facilitate them.
"Poor input results into poor output," he said, "one cannot expect very good results from where he has invested less."
He said teachers in UPE schools are paid far less than teachers in private schools and that UPE schools attract less competent staff.
He said, in such cases, pupils do not get the desired attention from teachers unlike in urban schools where most of the privately owned schools are.
Statistics from the National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) show that poor performances were more in rural districts. But it attributed the poor performance to insufficient understanding of the UPE policy by parents.
According to NAPE, by the time UPE was introduced, some parents believed that scholastic materials such as pencils, pens and books and meals for pupils would be provided free of charge by the government. As a result most parents in rural areas send their children without books and lunch.
Regionally, northern Uganda is one of the most exam-failure prone.
A "Needs Assessment for Northern Uganda 2008 report" presented to the Ministry of Education and Sports on Education concluded that the northern region had shortage of teachers and of the available teachers; some were untrained just like Luuka.
Surveys that have been conducted by NAPE indicate that under the UPE programme, pupils are not supposed to repeat a class. However when P.6 pupils were asked whether they had repeated a class, 79% of the pupils reported they had repeated at least one class.
The rural pupils tend to have a higher probability of repeating a class than the pupils in urban schools: 82% of the rural pupils had repeated a class compared to 69% in the urban areas.
The NAPE report noted that if a pupil fails a class, they are automatically promoted due to the UPE policy. This does not give them room to understand what they have been taught.
The NAPE report of 2010 assessed that the "No repeating class" policy noted that most pupils who move on to the next level even without understanding what they learnt in the previous one, reach primary six without knowing how to write their own names and English words hence making them fail PLE.
"The government should apologise to the pupils for contributing to their failure of pupils in the 2012 examinations," Ssewungu says, "UPE was just a campaigning tool."
He also agrees with Bagoole that the ministry should segregate UPE schools from private schools when releasing results so that it can be assessed whether pupils under the UPE scheme are improving or not.
Various reports conducted to ascertain proficiency and quality of education have arrived at the same conclusion that planning for rural schools is given least consideration by the government.
"We kept reminding the government of our situation in Luuka district but they kept a deaf ear", Bagoole says.
Although the government gave Luuka district Shs 227 million to cater for the construction of classroom blocks under the School Facility Grant in 2011, Bagoole claims it was given late, after the pupils had done their examinations.
Minister Alupo says it is very difficult to segregate UPE beneficiaries at PLE since some incompetent teachers tend to register private candidates as UPE beneficiaries though they are the majority.
She says the Education ministry and the government are working hard to improve the quality and study conditions of those under UPE and wants parents to get involved in the education of their children.
Meanwhile the newly appointed UNEB Chairman, Fagil Mandy, says the teaching approach needs to be overhauled. There is too much teacher centered teaching and less contribution by pupils, he says, as he launches into his pet topic; physical education, which he says should be emphasized to train the brains and minds of children positively.