Wednesday May 21 2014

Address teachers’ challenges to improve the quality of education

By Henry Edison Okurut

As indicated in various media reports, the 2013 Uwezo East Africa findings reveal marked inter and intra-national disparities in rates at which primary school pupils acquire basic skills of writing, reading and arithmetic. These are the skills one must have in order to be able to continue learning anything in perpetuity!

While six out of every 10 Kenyan 10-16-year-olds will have attained the desirable literacy and numeracy competency levels at Primary Two, only 50 per cent and 38 per cent of their counterparts in Tanzania and Uganda respectively can boast of a comparable learning achievement.

These performance differentials are also mirrored in the disparity in the extent of subject matter mastery amongst the Kenyan and Ugandan teachers. According to the 2013 Uganda Service Delivery Indicator (SDI) survey report, the proportion of teachers who have attained “the minimum knowledge threshold” in Kenya was more than double that of the Ugandan teachers! Only one in every five teachers in Uganda showed mastery of the curriculum taught! And teacher absenteeism rates in Uganda are among the highest in the world.

At the time of the SDI survey, roughly one in every four teachers in UPE schools was absent from school, and of those present in school, one in every three were not teaching. At any given time, therefore, approximately 40 per cent of public school classrooms are likely to be lacking a teacher.

The situation gets a lot worse in the rural areas, especially those in the northern region. From the SDI findings, a Primary Four pupil in northern Uganda receives about 90 days of teaching time less in a school year than his/her Kampala counterpart.

This highlights the centrality of a teacher’s role in the success or failure of any educational quality enhancement initiative. A statement made by the late Onek, a former senior official in the Education ministry in the 1990s, remains very instructive when he said: “You can build schools and stock them with books, scholastic materials, and equipment but if teachers who are the frontline service providers in education are not motivated, are professionally wanting and chronically absent, these investments will be wasted. Therefore, addressing the ‘teacher’s question’ ought to be “the first step” in any reform programme aimed at improving the quality of education.

The Ministry of Education and Sports appears to have taken heed of Onek’s call because it is already implementing some measures to strengthen teachers’ skills and stem absenteeism through:
The engagement of ‘associate assessors’ to enhance school supervision at the district level; remitting funds earmarked for school inspection directly to the district inspectors of schools to reduce delays in funds disbursements; various teacher capacity-building initiatives; and mandatory endorsement of the teachers’ attendance book, among others.

In addition to these measures, however, the ministry must also consider:
Increasing teacher motivation using a non-monetary performance-based incentive scheme; empowering the pupils to view their education as a right and to therefore demand for accountability from their teachers; focusing more on the provision of ‘support supervision’ as opposed to witch-hunting of teachers; making teacher absenteeism costly by punishing the absentees; making the teaching-learning environment more teacher-friendly, partly through provision of teacher housing and employment of participatory leadership styles; revisiting the power hierarchy in the decentralised administration model to increase the powers of local officials like district education officers to hire and fire teachers.

Mr Okurut is a consultant on education.