Automatic promotion policy sparks huge debate

EFFECTIVE: Nansana SDA students read Daily Monitor. Students should not be told to repeat a class against their will. FILE PHOTO

One of government’s most controversial education policies is automatic promotion in the universal education system. Critics of the policy say it denies students who are slow to learn a chance to grasp facts better, but government is adamant repeating classes is a waste of time and resources. But several students become ‘cleverer’ after repeating one or two classes, raising questions about the pros and cons of government’s automatic promotion policy.

Local surveys
A Baseline Survey Quality Enhancement Initiative (QEI) carried out in more than 10 districts blamed automatic promotion for poor grades among UPE graduates. “The policy is said to have retarded education standards because pupils are simply promoted to next levels without having the basic competencies in literacy and numeracy,” one of the report says. The QEI report recommends that the education ministry scraps the policy so that weak performing learners are given a chance to improve. The report says giving more time to slow learners would increase their chances to attain better grades.
The automatic promotion policy, which was introduced four years ago, is also questioned by most district officials, teachers and schools, saying it undermines the general performance of government’s free education programme.

According to a survey carried out in 2008 in Kabale and Soroti districts, automatic promotion is not popular with most local leaders and teachers who say pupils are simply promoted without having the necessary literacy and numeracy competencies. “Under the automatic promotion policy, children will complete primary levels when they are half-baked,” the survey noted.

Government view
However, Dr Daniel Nkadda, Commissioner for Pre-primary and Primary Education, says repeating classes is a waste of resources. He says when teachers or parents make students repeat classes, they would be denying others chance of benefiting from free education.“It was discovered that in some schools, teachers cause up to 50 percent repeat classes with no genuine reasons. With this case, we always encourage teachers to give all children equal attention and try to complete the syllabus. Our children are intelligent and we have confidence that they can make it,” Mr Nkadda says.

He says students with significant specific difficulties can sometimes be forced to repeat but again still struggle academically and still stay at the bottom of the class. Education analyst and university lecturer, Mr Charles Makanga Ssendegeya, says a decision to make a student repeat a year because he/she is weak in math, reading or any other subject may not help the child. “The best option should be allowing the student to move on as teachers and parents find a way of solving his/her weakness. When a student is weak in a particular subject, it doesn’t mean that he/she can not improve,” Mr Ssendegeya says.
“What such a student needs is special attention from the teacher in that particular subject.”

Low completion
The automatic promotion policy was partly introduced to assuage the low completion rates among universal education students. Ministry of Education statistics indicate that out of 1,712,420 pupils who started Primary One in 2003, only 516,890 pupils sat Primary Leaving Examinations in 2009, representing a 30.1 per cent completion rate. In the previous two years, the completion rate was even lower; with just 27 per cent completing primary education in 2007 and 26 per cent hitting the target in 2008.

Repeating justified
Ms Rose Izizinga, the chairperson of Uganda Teachers Association says they consider a number of things before promoting students. “These are simply guides, not a policy. Do you think a child can fall sick or dodge classes and we just promote him? No! We are also parents who want to see our children have a decent education,” she says. She says there are many things that make a child not ready for the next class but pupils shouldn’t feel stupid because they ‘flunked’.

“I think the biggest problem is the unwillingness of parents to hold their child back a year. If a child is found to be lagging in a class, it is better to let him feel like he would benefit by repeating the class at an early age when their peers are less likely to accuse them of flunking. “And before a decision is made to have a child repeat a class, one need to first do that child’s study skills inventory to make sure he doesn’t go in with the same old habits,” she told Education Guide. Ms Izizinga says tracking individual performance of the student right from the start is the key to helping weak students improve.

Kings College Budo Career Guidance Teacher, Mr Erisam Kanyerezi says students who join the school with low marks often top national examinations. “We have witnessed it here and such students from low standard schools who repeat classes sometime emerge as one of our best candidates,” he says. Some parents feel that by making their children repeat a class, will help the child to excel, while others may feel that they will be held back in development. Those against the practice fear that repeating a class would injure a child’s self- esteem. Ms Florence Higaye, a long serving primary seven teacher at Masajja UMEA, says a decision to make a child repeat a class should be made basing on his or her needs in relation to other surrounding factors.

She says the child should be asked to repeat a class only when his difficulties are well identified and there is evidence that they would be solved in the repeated year.“Sometimes children end up in a class when they are not mature enough to handle all the curriculum and social skills to perform well. So, this slow learner holds the entire class back, causing the achievers to get bored and unable to enjoy school as well,” she says. A student/pupil should be stopped from proceeding to the next class when there is room to gain academic and social confidence in the same class.

The teacher notes that repeating a class can also be suggested for a student who would fit in the new age group easily. If the child is one of the oldest in the current class or it is seen that he will be able to cope with the curriculum next year, Ms Higaye says he/she should be promoted.“Sometimes we promote a child because he has overstayed in a class or will be very distressed by social stigma of repeating,” she adds. However, a 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study done in Germany indicates that making a student repeat a school class amplifies the inefficient management of a child’s ability. A separate US study shows that negative effects of repeating a class could be felt as early as in kindergarten.

When student can repeat class
• Student’s difficulties are well understood and appropriate arrangements are in place to deal with those difficulties.
• Student is immature for their chronological age and there are plans to help develop maturity during the repeated year.
• Student will have the opportunity to gain academic confidence by being in a class where they can succeed with their school work.
• Student will have the opportunity to gain social confidence by being in a class where they can succeed with friendships and leadership.
• School culture is supportive of students who repeat a class.
•Student generally socializes well with younger children and is physically immature.
• Student is chronologically young for the current class .