When the results of the 2013 Primary Leaving Exams were released on Jan.31, Moses Edibu, a 13-year old pupil of VH Public School in Lira Municipality was devastated. He had hoped to score aggregate 4; the highest grade, but instead scored 5. He spent the whole day in tears, despite the efforts of his grandmother, Evasta Omara, to comfort him.
Obviously Edibu does not know how lucky he is to have passed his exams in the first grade which stretches from Aggregate 4 to 12. Only 52,786 or 9% of the 581,586 pupils that sat PLE passed in first grade.
According to the national exams body, UNEB, up to 85% of the candidates passed. But this number can be misleading. It is common to find even pupils with aggregate 5 failing to be admitted in the best secondary schools. Yet UNEB figures includes pupils in grade two and three among those who have "passed".
Edibu might also not have been aware of an even grimmer statistic. He is lucky to be among the 581,586 pupils who completed the first cycle of education. Up to 1,185458 are recorded to have started the 7-year journey in 2007. That means 53% fell off along the way, effectively ending any hope of them attaining even the most basic level of education.
In the same week the PLE results were released, UNESCO released the Education for All Global Monitoring report 2013/14, entitled, "Teaching and Learning Quality for All" which highlighted some of the issues brought under the spotlight by this year's PLE results.
Of the pupils that failed to attain the top grades, over 78.5% were from the so-called UPE schools where the government started offering free universal primary education in 1997. The 2013 lot marked the 10th batch of UPE graduates.
Since UPE was introduced, it has attracted the highest pupil enrolment in the country from about 3 million pupils in 1996 to 7.6 million by 2003 and statistics from the education ministry show that current enrolment is estimated at 8 million pupils. But, as the PLE results show, the scheme has registered mixed results over the years.
Over the period, the quality of literacy and numeracy in Uganda's primary schools, especially in rural Uganda, has dropped.
A 2012 report by UWEZO--an East African initiative that aims at improving competencies in literacy and numeracy amongst pupils-- noted that though children's understanding peaks as they progress to upper classes, at least 29% of children in P7 still face challenges in reading and understanding an English test of P2.
The programme has been plagued by challenges like overcrowding, inadequate teaching materials, absenteeism by both teachers and pupils and chronic delays in government disbursements of financial resources to schools participating in the programme.
According to the UNESCO report, assessing whether UPE has been achieved should be judged not by participation alone, but also by whether children complete primary education.
According to the report, 57 million children around the world are still failing to learn, simply because they are not in school, while a third of primary school age children are not learning the basics, whether they have been to school or not. It notes that access is not the only crisis--poor quality too is holding back learning even for those who make it to school.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of those starting school who reached the last grade worsened from 58% in 1999 to 56% in 2010. By contrast, the UNESCO report says the countries in the Arab sub-region improved from 79% in 1999 to 87% in 2010.
According to UNESCO, basic education globally is currently under funded by US$26 billion a year, while aid has been declining over the years.
The report says governments simply cannot afford to reduce investment in education nor should donors step back from their funding promises.
This calls for exploring new ways to fund urgent needs, said Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO.
"We must ensure that all children and young people are learning the basics and that they have the opportunity to acquire the transferable skills needed to become global citizens," Bokova said.
"We must also set goals that are clear and measurable, to allow for the tracking and monitoring that is so essential for governments and donors alike, and to bridge the gaps that remain."
Increase domestic funding
UNESCO says there is urgent need to change the way resources are distributed, which according to the report, are skewed towards the most privileged.
"To achieve 'education for all,' it is necessary not only to increase domestic resources for education but also to redistribute these resources so that a fair share reaches those most in need," the report says.
In order to shift education spending in favour of the marginalized, some governments have introduced funding mechanisms that allocate more resources to parts of the country or groups of schools that need greater support to overcome educational deprivation and inequality.
For instance, the Brazilian government has guaranteed a certain minimum spending level per pupil, giving priority to schools in rural areas. This has led to improvement in enrolment and learning in those areas.
In Kenya, the capitation grant is distributed on the basis of number of students enrolled, which has become a disadvantage for Kenya's hard to reach 12 counties in the arid and semi-arid areas that are home to 46% of the out-of-school population. Uganda uses a similar system.
The report notes that in poorer countries, it is always a challenge for policy makers to identify and target the groups most in need. As a result, many of those countries, including Uganda, base allocations on enrolment figures, to the detriment of areas where large numbers of children are out of school.
In the PLE results, urban districts performed better than the rural districts with Fort Portal, Mbarara, Entebbe, Kabale, NtungamoMasaka, Jinja, Rukungiri and Gulu posting the lowest failure rates ranging from 0% to 1.8%.
In comparison, rural districts like Kween had failure rates of 34.6%, Bulambuli (30.3%), Bukwo (29.6%), Kaliro (28.1%), Luuka (27.3%), Iganga (26.7%), Buyende (25.5%), Bugiri (24.5%), Bududa (24.6%) and Namutumba (24.6%). All are from eastern Uganda.
Dr. CleophusMugenyi, the Commissioner, Teacher Education Standards at the Ministry of Education and Sports told The Independent that high poverty levels in the sub-region are to blame.
According to the Spatial Trends of Poverty and Inequality released in 2009 by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, eastern Uganda had the highest concentration of poor people with poverty rates ranging between 27% and 62%.
"Let's be honest," Dr Mugenyi said, "Busoga is largely rural and one of the poorest regions in Uganda. So when support is expected from parents and is not forth coming, what do you expect?"
"Teachers can only do so much," he added
The Minister of Education, Jessica Alupo attributed the poor grades to high absenteeism by both pupils and teachers in the rural districts and the poor monitoring mechanism.
She said the pupils shun schools in favour of activities like fishing, work on sugar plantations, cattle keeping and fishing.
Invest more in teachers
According to UNESCO, a country's education system is only as good as its teachers and therefore unlocking their potential is essential to enhancing the quality of learning.
Teachers also need good quality learning materials to be effective but many do not have access to text books. In Tanzania for instance, only 3.5% of P6 pupils had sole use of a reading textbook.
In sub-Saharan Africa, teacher recruitment is lagging behind growth in enrolment; ratios stagnated and are now the highest in the world at the primary levels.
UNESCO recommends that the right teachers must be selected to reflect the diversity of the children they will be teaching. In addition, teachers must be trained to support the weakest learners, starting from the early grades.
The third strategy aims to overcome inequalities in learning by allocating the best teachers to the most challenging parts of the country. Yet on the contrary, remote rural schools are mostly staffed with newly recruited, inexperienced teachers and teachers with low qualifications.
In other countries, teachers' pay is extremely low while in other countries, working conditions are poor contributing to absenteeism, a case which is so common in Uganda's rural primary schools. For the better part of the last decade teacher absenteeism was as high as 27% in Uganda.
More education means more earnings
The report argues that globally, one year of school increases earnings by 10%, on average.
For instance, in neighbouring Tanzania, 82% of workers who had less than primary education were below the poverty line. But working adults with primary education were 20% less likely to be poor, while secondary education reduced the chances of being poor by almost 60%.
And even though many of the poorest are involved in informal sector work, running small businesses, the report adds that educated people are more likely to start a business, and their businesses are likely to be more profitable.
In Uganda, owners of household enterprises with a primary education earned 36% more than those with no education; those with a lower secondary education earned 56% more. In rural areas, farmers with good literacy and numeracy skills can interpret and respond to new information, making better use of modern inputs and technologies to increase the productivity of traditional crops and diversify into higher value crops.