Thursday April 3 2014

The govt should keep vocational training out of primary schools

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

On March 22 at the golden jubilee celebrations of Mbarara Municipal Primary School (which I am proud to have attended), President Museveni reportedly announced that, in recognition of the school’s consistently outstanding performance, the government would construct a technical workshop at the school, equip it and avail professional instructors. On March 27, it was reported in the Daily Monitor that vice chancellors under their umbrella body, Vice Chancellor’s Forum, had urged the government to refocus Uganda’s primary school syllabi to include an aspect of vocational training.

It’s good that vocational training is becoming one of the national priority areas. Such training is the means by which we can overcome youth unemployment and several other socio-economic challenges. The Skilling Uganda programme, which government recently launched, is one of the most brilliant programmes unveiled in the country in recent times. But while the drive for skills is laudable, introduction of vocational training at primary school level would be a mistake.

Primary school education should lay the foundations of cognition and imagination that must prove essential whatever choices of career and education one subsequently makes. And if the current primary school curriculum is effectively delivered, it achieves this end. In Mathematics classes, pupils gain a sense of logic; in Social Studies classes, they gain basic awareness of geography, history and divinity; in Science classes, they acquire the basic sense of the forces and patterns of nature; and in English classes, they gain basic competence in the national language. Whether they will subsequently become carpenters or cardiologists, they need this cross-cutting foundation.

The trouble with our primary school education isn’t the curriculum, but the delivery. In many of our rural schools, men and women who can hardly construct a grammatically sound sentence in English stand before pupils to teach them that very language. It’s because teachers are sometimes absent, some other times incompetent, and some other times unmotivated, that the learning outcomes that would be realised through appropriate teaching are seldom realised. Instead of moving to introduce vocational training in primary schools, the government should work at increasing and improving teacher training institutions and at bettering the salaries of teachers.

At primary school level, pupils are in formative years and should get enough time to play and independently explore life. We should in fact be discouraging urban schools from subjecting pupils to heavy loads that deny them time to sleep and play. Will we instead introduce vocational training, which will further congest timetables and, therefore, strip away our children’s already meagre opportunities to discover self and surroundings?

The existing vocational education system in the country is underutilised. What’s needed isn’t to extend it to primary schools, but to sensitise the population about its merits. Most people have a negative perception of vocational education; they think it’s for academic failures. This perception is so widely held that it has become a reality – it’s generally those who post poor grades who branch into vocational education. There is need to correct this impression, to instill the knowledge that vocational training is the more reliable key to employment.

There are three classes of technical institutions: technical schools, which one may join after P7; technical institutes, which one may join after O-Level; and colleges, which one may join after A-Level. A P7 leaver can join a technical school, then proceed to a technical institute, then to a technical college and finally to a university, becoming an engineer without ever sitting UCE and UACE exams.

The government and educationists should direct their energies to making the current primary school and vocational school systems reach their full potential, instead of mixing up two currently dysfunctional systems.

Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist.