Do we know what must be done to reverse the learning crisis?
What you need to know:
The best approach. The 2G approach demands more of everyone. However, failure to make the shift risks our future as the education system continues to produce ill-prepared workers.
Twenty-two years ago, Uganda followed Malawi’s 1994 lead in rolling-out tuition-free primary education. Today, both countries are stuck in an inferior equilibrium of low-quality education with high grade repetition and early dropouts. To address this grim reality, a paradigm shift is needed – call it a second generation (2G) reform, after the 1997 Universal Primary Education (UPE) reform.
By removing the cost barrier to schooling, the UPE policy registered great success in getting children into schools irrespective of their economic status. Today, Ugandans understand that going to school was never meant to be an end in itself. Children attend school to acquire knowledge, skills, values and attitudes for future successful living and nation building. Today, Ugandans views about their education system make for frustrating reading.
The President publicly voices his frustration with the excessive leaking of students who exit without completing Primary Seven. One question needs to be posed: Do we know what must be done to reverse the learning crisis? Drawing from emerging frontier research on education quality, I propose four actions.
First, bring parents into the picture by clarifying their role as partners with local schools. While it appears redundant to belabour this obvious point, many parents have bought into a rhetoric that suggests that UPE means free education. Consequently, schools have found it difficult to mobilise them to jointly address the challenges they face. Thankfully, the Ministry of Education has begun to clarify on this issue by, for example, emphasising the parental responsibility to provide food for children.
In the past, schools have been frustrated by local politicians obstructing their efforts at mobilising parents to contribute to feeding and other quality-enhancing arrangements. A recent Sauti za Wananchi survey by Twaweza East Africa revealed that parents are making financial contributions for remedial classes, feeding programmes and extra teachers. Increased parental involvement in children’s education will lighten the burden.
Second, align the objectives of key players in the education system to guarantee coherence for achieving the learning goal. This too appears obvious, however it is where we score lowest. Consider the role played by schools in educating children, as compared to that played by the national examiner, Uganda National Examination Board (Uneb).
While the schools would like to prioritise the objective of ensuring all children learn, they cannot help, but recognise that passing the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) is all that matters at end-of-cycle. This forces many schools to adopt negative practices like focusing teaching on the children who are at the top of the class, sieving to ensure children least likely to pass PLE are held back in P5 and P6, de-emphasising importance of non-examined subjects, and worst of all, cheating the exams.
These practices can be explained by the fact that PLE results are used to make critical life decisions for children – who continues to secondary, in which school? Detach these high stakes from the PLE and the dropout rates will plunge, teachers will teach to the median of the class, and there will be no incentive to cheat exams. To achieve this alignment, enough secondary schools are required for all children to transit from primary.
The 2G approach demands more of everyone. However, failure to make the shift risks our future as the education system continues to produce ill-prepared workers for a fast-changing 21st Century.