The cutthroat competition that comes with national examinations has put schools to a resilience test. With two shortened terms, it is clear that schools and candidates may have to re-adjust if they are to score highly in the national examinations.
The Ministry of Education’s decision to reopen schools for candidates on October 15 was met with stiff resistance from a large section of the public. Apart from health safety concerns, the question of whether schools would complete the remaining syllabus hovered around like a dark cloud.
In September, the Minister of Education, Janet Museveni gave a response to a number of questions raised on the reopening of schools on her Facebook page.
Denis Natukunda, a Facebook user, tasked the minister to explain whether the Ministry of Education had put in place other considerations to address the gaps in syllabus coverage caused by Covid-19 since late March to date.
Natukunda reasoned that there would not be much benefit to candidates due to the missed Education Calender during the pandemic. In response, Ms Museveni reassured Natukunda saying the second and third terms were enough cover the remaining syllabus.
A similar question was raised by Doreen Nakayiza, another Facebook user, who felt the Ministry of Education was treating the concern casually.
“What is the pressure to sit exams for when they are half-baked and syllabuses are not finished? Can’t it be cancelled to a dead year countrywide?” she asked.
Recently, new reports circulated alleging that candidate class’ syllabus had been cut, with some topics eliminated to create enough time to complete. However, Ms Grace Baguma, the director at the National Curriculum Development Centre brushed off the allegations as merely unfounded rumours.
Is time enough?
A Daily Monitor analysis of the revised school calendar for candidates indicates that at closure of schools on March 20, students had spent 48 days in school, almost half of the term with an additional 41 days to close.
However, when candidate classes resumed on October 15, the government announced that under the Covid- 19 circumstances, schools start with a second term.
This meant that the lockdown had robbed schools of 41 days that had not been completed in the first term. It also meant that schools would operate under ‘abnormal circumstances’ to cover the syllabus.
Under normal circumstances, a school term is supposed to run for 89 days, but due to Covid-19, the second term has been reduced to 65 days, weekends inclusive.
The third term, which begins on January 10 after a three week holiday, will also be much shorter at 44 days for O-Level students, and for A-Level students 47 days. Their counterparts in Primary Seven, will have 78 days.
The shortened terms show that schools will have to work within such a time period to complete their syllabi and create room for revision. To put this into perspective, Biology is one of the widest subjects at A-Level. The subject has three distinct papers, practicals inclusive.
According to the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC), Biology has 14 topics, which must be covered in six terms. For each term, a teacher must cover at least three topics.
Christopher Muganga, the NCDC curriculum specialist says with reference to the Biology syllabus, they are developed in such a way to allow room for students to conceptualise what has been taught.
With shortened terms, this means time could be insufficient to cover the remaining topics. It is a long tradition that schools rarely follow the NCDC script of completing the syllabus in a third term of a candidate class. In fact, most complete their syllabus in the second or first term.
Devising new strategies
At Immaculate Heart Girls Secondary School in Rukungiri District, no time is being spared. The school which has for long been a top performer in national examinations looks forward to maintaining its coveted position.
According Sister Gladyce Kachope, the head teacher, the academic journey did not stop even during lockdown.
“We try our level best to cover enough before the last term of Uneb. At least every third term is for revision. Currently, we are not badly off but the pressure is there. As of now, the candidates have forgotten what they had been taught and it is like we are beginning afresh,” she says.
She says during the lockdown, students were engaged in a lot of e-learning by sharing notes via Whatsapp and currently, teachers are simply explaining the notes that were shared.
Another strategy that the school has developed is utilising weekends and conducting seminars where students gather in small groups and teachers meet them for discussions.
Sr Kachope says schools which did not use e-learning during the lockdown could face a hard time to finish, which, ultimately, will affect their results.
Bridget Kabugho, a Senior Six student at Immaculate Heart admits that the time is limited but also has hope that she will manage. She says some students are still lagging behind, especially those who did not have access to learning materials during the lockdown.
For St Joseph’s College, Ombachi in Arua town, the situation is different. Mr Charles Ondoga says their main target is always to finish the syllabus for any given subject in the first month of second term.
However, under the given circumstances, new means have been devised. He notes that at least for each subject, there is a team of three to four teachers utilising night lessons and weekend hours to beat the deadline.
However, adhering to Covid-19 SOPs has also created a new set of challenges which is affecting academic work.
“Covid-19 has brought a new lifestyle, and the SOPs are leading us to a situation where we have limited use of laboratories because of social distancing. We have to carry apparatus to classes to move with the learners,” he explains.
A different experience
At Greenfield Secondary School in Masindi District, the situation is rather worrying. One of the teachers who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity has fear the school may not complete the syllabus.
He says the interest for academics for learners has dropped. Payments and allowances for teachers have also been slashed by half, which has further demotivated teachers who no longer take teaching as a priority, but are also concentrating on their side ventures.
However, on a bright side, he notes the school prints out key topics per given subject, which are distributed to learners to read in advance, to reduce on backlog.
“I only take one week instead of three to teach about a given topic, and makes work easier,” he remarks. However, he says the costs remain high.
Another strategy the school is implementing are early lessons which begin at 5am and night lessons.
“It is worse in private schools because of competition,” he laments. With the need for social distancing, he says there is limited consultation by students.
Christine Nakazzi, a Senior Four student at the school identifies Biology, Chemistry, and History which she feels uncertain to complete, and also says reading time is limited.
Curriculum specialist weighs in
Christopher Muganga, a curriculum specialist at NCDC feels schools have enough time unless they had a backlog.
“Schools which were performing as per the syllabus have almost more than enough time but the schools that were not following the syllabus will face challenges,” he remarks.
He says much of the work set in final exams is from Senior Two and Senior Three classes, and therefore, notes that even if exam time was drawn closer to December, students would still pass.
He warns that schools which largely treat education as a business by ‘borrowing’ teachers from other schools without care for learners are likely to face the consequences.
“Schools which are hiring manpower are not serious. You cannot teach in four schools. Every school needs a full time teacher to attend to the needs of students,” he states.
The requirements for learning are also short in some schools, especially those with a tendency of purchasing or hiring them simply for examination purposes not teaching purposes.
Muganga warns schools against pushing students too hard in order to get them ready for exams. “Teachers must develop timetables which fit into learners’ time, they should understand that they are teaching human beings, not machines. These learners need time to relax and prepare themselves to learn,” he cautions.