In its editorial on Monday, October 14, the Daily Monitor addressed itself to the low grades in science subjects. They argued the reason for poor grades are known and the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) has perennially echoed these as the inadequate number of science teachers to cover the whole country, lack of science laboratories in some schools, failure of some teachers to use laboratory equipment, teacher absenteeism and so on. They noted that to reverse this trend and successfully implement the policy of promoting sciences, the problem must be addressed from foundational level through proper planning, commitment and sufficient resources.
Ironically, it appears that the first two have been part of the education system for a long time, maybe not effective. Reading the education sector plans suggest so. These plans also show commitment to the promotion of sciences. Sufficient resources, we could never say is the case, but we have seen some improvement over the years.
The deeper question is, why is there such repeated failure in spite of government planning and commitment?
Perhaps, there are problems with the way science is prioritised and the assumptions underlying the policy. There is need to establish the real causes of failure beyond what Uneb regurgitates every year. Most of the problems sighted in the editorial, largely taking from Uneb’s pages, are structural, and by all means need to be addressed. But addressing these structural problems per se is not enough to guarantee improved performance in sciences.
Imagine government plans and increases resources for science education that goes into paying higher salaries for teachers, but does not address the mind-set of teachers or retooling their poor skills in handling laboratory equipment. Consider that government demonstrates its commitment to science by making science subjects compulsory without addressing the lack of laboratories in schools.
Then it makes available enough resources to train science teachers and fix laboratories without addressing corruption which might lead to leakages of funds.
Let us say government formulates an excellent policy for promoting science, but does not acknowledge the glaring inequalities in access. We can assume more technical schools are built to create a critical mass of technically-sound professionals not steeped into theory but good practice without addressing the mind-set of the labour market that needs degrees upon degrees in order to make a basic living.
Or, that we release scores of scientists without fixing the inability of the economy to create jobs that absorb skills. Finally, that in order to address some of the challenges of performance, only people with bachelors’ degrees will teach at primary and secondary schools without addressing the problems that current teachers face or the quality of the degrees themselves.
I cannot imagine addressing educational problems without thinking beyond the sector for solutions. We have created this problem by largely jumping onto band wagon in education policy and advise from without, dismissing our context and aspirations.
This subject of science education is close to my heart. I was typically a science student. My good grades in sciences were the only key that opened the door to Muni Girls SS mid-year in Senior Three when I needed a transfer from a previous school. I was given that term to perform well or go home. Then I got six per cent in mathematics.
The headmistress summoned me to explain since I had done so well in everything else. I said the school was ahead in mathematics. She requested the Math teacher to bring me up to speed for no additional pay. I paid her well by completing as the best student in Uneb, and also in Mathematics in particular, my year.
I had been among top students in both Chemistry and Physics, until Uneb. I can count the number of times I saw the inside of a laboratory. So, I understood that while my school was celebrating a credit four in Mathematics, there were scores celebrating distinctions. I, therefore, opted for arts and have no regrets.
I think about children of poor parents today without access to the ‘good schools’ gifted in sciences but ending up in arts, making the best of what is possible. And government is limiting their chances by making sciences compulsory and demonising arts subjects.
As long as we are unable to deal with the structural issues in offering sciences, the best we should do, from policy perspective, is to encourage students and give incentives, but not force everyone to study the whole range of sciences at O-Level. There has to be regulation to ensure every school has the basic minimum to offer sciences before we can make them compulsory.
I had great science teachers. I would go to a chemistry, math or physics class and have fun. But they taught with incredible odds.
Addressing these problems will require casting a wider net for solutions but starting with the policy, its assumptions and attitude of government and development partners. A good policy should be inclusive in its delivery mechanism and the objectives tied to its implementation capacity. Anything less than that is disingenuous.
Dr Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media studies at UCU.