Tuesday February 4 2014

Rural schools: Take teachers and the students to class!

By Nicholas Sengoba

With the release of the 2013 Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) results, we are still, as expected, grappling with the problem of poor performance by students in schools situated in rural areas.

Considering that at the primary schooling stage, teaching and learning is heavily dependent on the instruction, supervision and close guidance of teachers, the interaction time between teachers and students becomes of great importance. The major challenges in the rural areas rotate mainly around the fact that students have less time to interact with teachers in the classroom.

Then there is also the problem of the quality of the teachers who accept to teach in the rural setting.
In most schools in the rural areas, students first take part in the major economic activity in the home and that is agriculture and fetching water plus fire wood for domestic use.

For instance, in eastern Uganda which has one of the highest failure rates, students at times have reportedly been used as scarecrows to ensure a good rice and maize harvest. This cuts down on their schooling hours.

Then, many of the teachers in the rural setting, because of poor infrastructure, live long distances away from the school. By the time a teacher gets to school after probably tending to his own garden to supplement his income, teaching time has been lost.

Secondly, fatigue may also mean that he is less effective in class. Even he needs to get home before darkness sets in, which means less time in the classroom.

If we are to formulate a Marshal Plan to save children from rural schools in the short-run, we would need to have solutions that increase the time a teacher spends in class with his students.

First, the easiest way to sort out the question of distance is that there should be a policy (where possible) that a teacher comes from within the community. This also serves the purpose of teaching in the local language, which is part of the education reforms that have been proposed.

Then there should be a policy that provides every teacher in a rural area with at least a bicycle to ease their transport, at the least cost, for one does not need fuel to run a bicycle.

Thirdly, there should be a rural teacher’s allowance to act as an incentive for teacher to teach in rural areas. It should be based on number of hours that a teacher actually spends in the classroom with at least a copy of the recommended text book and the syllabus. An inducement of further training and promotion or transfer to an urban school should follow after a set period of service.

A policy should be formulated to reward parents for keeping their children at school for longer hours, which means cutting back on the time spent on the farm and domestic chores. The incentive should be greater in the case of girl children because they are the ones who in the cultural setting are targeted for domestic work to prepare them for future roles as ‘house wives!’
All this means that supervision and inspection of rural schools must be high up on the agenda.

All that would be the easiest part in the short run. The hardest part would be facing the reality that requires a holistic approach to the problem of underdevelopment.

This, for instance, would require that the energy and water problem in the rural areas is attended to so that students do not need to fetch water and firewood, which saps their energy and reduces the time they have to attend classes. The same applies to health, specifically the problem of malaria.
In Uganda today, the budgetary allocation for education has gone beyond the trillion shilling mark. The problem for education is not necessarily a problem of lack of funds.

The challenge now is to direct the money at the human resource problem. In the rural areas, especially, the quality of teachers and time they spend on the job plus ensuring that the students attend classes should be the priority.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. nicholassengoba@yahoo.com