Sylvia Karungi, a blind teacher based in Ggaba, helping blind children in a reading session. The need for early reading is now recognised as critical
Two weeks ago, Education Minister Jessica Alupo reported that the sector was involved in wide-ranging efforts to revive literacy levels in lower primary school.
While for most this was the first time they were hearing about this, the education sector had for long fretted about the low learning outcomes, largely blamed on the poor foundation children were getting between P1 and P3.
"The sector has broadly dedicated itself to increasing access to basic education to improve learning outcomes," Alupo said.
The low reading outcomes were most pointedly cited in the recent Uwezo report on numeracy and literacy, which put Uganda behind Kenya and Tanzania. The fallout from that report had some education experts accusing teachers of doing a poor job, while the instructors argued that the problem was with the government, which had undermined the teaching profession through poor remuneration and facilitation of instructional materials.
Similar concerns about poor learning outcomes had been raised by the World Bank the previous year, following several reports, published in The Observer. Consequently, the World Bank decided to support initiatives to reverse the situation.
The World Bank signed a $100m (almost Shs 360bn) loan to support the early grade reading programme (EGP), to raising the abilities of some 2,700 teachers to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills to pupils in lower primary schools in 27 districts.
According to the World Bank senior education specialist for Uganda, Dr Innocent Mulindwa, the initiative has three components. She explained that the first component will see the World Bank train some 2,700 teachers in literacy skills.
The second component will see the World Bank pay for the provision of reading materials to 297 schools (in the 27 districts) at the rate of one pupil per book. The third component will see the Uganda Management Institute train head teachers from the 297 schools in management skills.
The programme was formally launched at Nakaseke core Primary Teachers' College last month. Launching the training for an initial tranche of 36 trainers of trainers, Dr Mulindwa explained that the initiative would aim for excellence.
"We are aiming to get a one-track training scheme - so, every child learns the same way ... we need to ensure that after seven years of learning, a child can do well. Children should go beyond talking, reading notes and start developing soft study skills," she said.
She later confirmed why the World Bank was keen on this initiative - following reports of poor learning outcomes.
"Our research into the [reports on poor learning outcomes] showed that teacher competencies are very low." she said.
The early grade reading programme was started by the Research Training International (RTI) in 2011 and earlier experiences showed it to be effective, although there were calls for a more specialized approach to training more teachers.
Dr Mulindwa would not be drawn to explain the costs of each component of the programme; however, she conceded the teacher training component would be handled by the ministry's teacher education department. On the other hand, the management skills component would be held at the UMI during some weekends, and during the holidays, for a combined period of three months. The head teachers would obtain certificates.
There is a lack of deliberate programmes to enhance leadership programmes of head teachers in schools, so this should support that crucial element of the programme. Some 2,000 schools already performing below the basic minimum are the targeted beneficiaries of this initiative. Addressing the trainers, the commissioner for teacher education, Margaret Nsereko, urged teachers to become competent in the local languages taught in their areas of operation.
"Reading materials in 10 languages are being prepared, but the teachers should improve their competencies in these areas so we can achieve our targets," she said.
She urged the teachers to revert to the taught skills by preparing lesson schemes in time and adopting them to the learner's abilities.
"Avoid torturing the children's brains. Teach [pupils] using alphabetical sounds, so they appreciate reading and writing ... as for head teachers you should stop emphasizing exams at the expense of the continuous assessment. The two must go together," she said.
In assessing the EGP, Rev Dr Grace Lubaale, who is the head of Teacher Education programme at Kyambogo University, argues that the sector is moving in the right direction, but the government should pay more attention to teachers' welfare.
"Ugandans are still the best in the region. What is affecting us is the poor attitude of the teachers, due to frustrations caused by inadequate remuneration and working conditions. We need to prioritise education and pay the teachers even more," Dr Lubaale said. "Education is supposed to create the country's human resource, which would lead to economic development."
The primary education sub-sector already consumes the largest chunk of funding; it is hard to see how more funds will be made available. The primary education sub-sector enjoys 52.92 per cent of the sector funding, followed by secondary at 23.09 per cent and tertiary at 12.04 per cent, with vocational bringing up the rear at 8.35 per cent.
However, ministry officials argue that due to the large numbers of learners in the primary sector, it is now necessary to increase allocation in this area.
"As you know this is the foundation of all learning, so we cannot take it for granted, we will extend more support there," said Godfrey Dhatemwa, commissioner for Education Planning at the ministry.
However, Wilson Asiimwe of the Centre for Social Research, an education consultancy, argues that the focus should also extend to pre-primary education institutions.
"All learning attitudes are built at nursery level, and if left unattended to usually lead to poor outcomes in the long run," Asiimwe says. "Any damage caused at this stage [nursery school], can be life long, or very difficult to reverse."
Asiimwe, who is organising a marathon to raise funds to support lifting the standards of learning outcomes, supervision and curricula development in Early Childhood Centres (ECDs) later this month, argues that unless nursery schools get the support they need, the sector will continue in damage repair mode.
"We will continue with interventions [like EPG] until we can nolonger afford them. We ought to learn from our situations and make learning better for the next generation of learners," he said.