Tuesday February 19 2013

Aren’t P7, S4, S6 ‘stars’ carrying a huge burden?

By David Sseppuuya

I am proud of the kids who appear in the newspapers every January and February, having excelled in national examinations. But I also pity them.

It is exam results season, and the excitement is quite palpable in the schools and in families. Thus far, the P7 (Primary Leaving Examination) and S4 (Ordinary Level’s UCE) results have been released, and the season will hit a climax when the UACE is out, any time now, showing how the S6 leavers would have fared.

It is every parent’s pride when their child performs well; the candidate’s joy when their hope of academic excellence is fulfilled; the teacher’s reward when her charges excel (shame on us as we, the media, also cash in as this is peak newspaper sales time). It gives an all-round good-feel effect. But that is just the emotion. What is the hard reality surrounding this annual bout of congratulations? The first concerns the mode of our education. The biggest shortcoming of school learning in Uganda is that it is very exam-oriented.

Children are drilled to pass examinations, at the expense of developing the whole person. Once a few (examinable) subjects are identified, then effort will be put in excelling in those subjects, not even on an on-going basis, but in the final exam. Anything outside of the subjects – be it intellectual stimulation, physical exercise, moral upbringing, or social norming – is cast aside.

Secondly, the pressure of exams is now increasingly being compounded by the glaring publicity in the national media, a phenomenon that has been running for 14 or so years now. The ‘stars’ speak out with recognition of those who made it possible, and also pronounce their lofty ambition for the future to all and sundry.

It would be interesting to track what the top P7 pupils in 1998 (who, then, sat for S4 in 2002, S6 in 2004, and would have finished university in 2008) have been up to all these years, and where they are now. If, as a minor, you’ve been cited in the media as a high achiever, things had better work out well in the future.

The pressure, by parents, school administrators and Old Boys and Old Girls, to appear in the media as having excelled, has led to people bribing (Robert Kabushenga, Vision Group CEO, has made an announcement that the public does not have to pay for editorial material to be printed/broadcast/telecast in his media. That is absolutely right, and also true of Monitor Publications).

Fourthly, what are the psychological scars on those (the vast majority) who do not get a mention in the media? Maybe there is value in the argument that the individuals and the schools will be motivated, but I also think we have created sufficient latitude for them to feel that they are failures.

Fifth, it has contributed to the skewing of our education away from the vital imperative of developing skills. At the launch of the World Bank’s ‘Uganda Economic Update’ report last week, government economy guru Keith Muhakanizi said that Uganda has thus far had sufficient extensive education (‘bonna basome’), but now it is time to focus on quality education if we are to meet our economic growth aspirations.

Columnist Muniini Mulera posed the question: “Are we to accept basic literacy without excellence?”
I agree with Muhakanizi and Muniini, as many times you just have to look at the (lack of) productivity and imagination in many paper-qualified public servants, and you cannot help but wonder how much the drill and rote of passing examinations is responsible for removing the creative spark from Ugandan minds.
I say, let us do away with this exam ‘stars’ nonsense and focus on producing unencumbered well-rounded Ugandans.

For me, Valentine’s Day passed last week with a whimper. No flowers, no frills from my wife to me, let alone from me to her (the only Valentine’s Day message I got was from AAR, the health provider! They said something like “Health and Love are related”. Well!?). It is just like that, that our view of the day is that little bit unconventional. The one big thrill for me of February 14 is that a great buddy, Masadde, got married that day to Goretti all of 15 years ago and their love still holds and grows. I happen to have been their bestman, but that was just a happening.

And so last week I watched in bemused silence all the comings and goings as people scurried back and forth, in scarlet and red. I just about let the day pass, but could not forget the story, told by a florist of a guy who on Valentine’s Day ordered for 17 individual roses, all sent to different women, with a note attached to each one reading “from your secret admirer”. What a guy!