Understanding Islamic Primary Leaving Exams

The number of pupils who sat for the exams decreased from 4,198 in 2019, to 2,657 pupils from 1,062 schools in 2020. PHOTO / COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • In the first week of April 2021, pupils in several Islamic-founded schools sat for their final exams in theology, for the protracted 2020 academic year. But to many, IPLE—the Islamic Primary Leaving Examination—is still an unfamiliar term despite having existed for over 20 years, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi.

Islamic Primary Leaving Examination (IPLE) started in 1998 as a brainchild of Uganda Quran Schools’ Association (UQSA) which was also founded the same year.
The goal, according to Sheikh Ahmed Yahya Lukwago, the UQSA chair, was to create a dual-curriculum that fuses Islamic theology and secular education, as opposed to the majority schools’ curriculums which are either exclusively secular or theological.
UQSA also became an autonomous body to promote Islamic education without being affected by the wrangles that marred Uganda Muslim Supreme Council then.
According to Sheik Lukwago, the dual-curriculum at Primary Level, which climaxes with IPLE and the conventional PLE, was designed to exclusively suit the socio-economic variables in Uganda.
The cardinal goal was to groom an ideal Muslim child, fully equipped with skills of sustenance and the best principles of Islam.
The curriculum was designed by several scholars such as the late Dr Anas Kaliisa, Shaban Ramathan Mubajje, the current Mufti of Uganda, Sheikh Muhammad Waiswa, the acting director of Sharia at Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, Sheikh Ismail Kezaala, Sheikh Haruna Jjemba, Twaib Mukuye and Sheikh Lukwago among others.
Most of these were schooled in different countries and realised that different Islam-practising countries designed curriculums according to their societal structures and needs.
In Egypt, for example, according to ask-aladdin.com, the education system is a combination of three cultural and religious heritages, namely Islamic (traditional) secular Egyptian (Westernised) and British (neo-colonial).
The entire course takes 12 years, with six for primary level, three for secondary level and three for senior secondary level.
 Meanwhile, the Al-Azhar University mosque, plays a key role in shaping Egypt’s educational, religious and cultural life.
The institution runs a parallel Islamic academic system, though similar to the normal public curriculum, but strongly emphasises learning the Quran and studying Islamic theology.
 The Uganda story
According to the UQSA website, there are 640 schools registered under the association, with an estimated total of 121,825 leaners (pupils and students).
There has been an increase in the number of schools and candidates that register for IPLE every year except for 2020, due to the effects of Covid-19. For instance, in 2017, only 61 schools were registered, with just 109 candidates. In 2019, the numbers rose to 4198 candidates.
While unveiling the IPLE 2020 results in June, Abdul-Hakim Lubega (RIP), the former UQSA legal advisor and spokesperson, said the number of pupils who sat for the exams decreased from 4,198 in 2019, to 2,657 pupils from 1,062 schools in 2020—which is a 63 per cent decrease.
But the 2020 performance was better than that of 2019.
The results show 1,686 pupils passed in First Grade, 551 in Second Grade, 189 in Third Grade, 160 Fourth Grade. 70 pupils failed, while 14 registered but did not sit for the exams.
Quran studies were the best performed subject, followed by Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Arabic Language.   
There was a decline in the performance of Siirah (Islamic History).
Like in conventional settings, the girl pupils outnumber the boys, but the boys once again outperformed the girls.
Sheikh Lukwago and Mugenyi say in the conventional PLE, dual-curriculum schools perform better than their single-curriculum counterparts.
And UQSA, according to Sheikh Lukwago, is planning to add vocational education to the curriculum.
The subjects
The theological curriculum teaches four subjects: Quran, Arabic Language, Sharia (Islamic law), Hadith (ways and teachings of the Prophet).
 These are simplified into: Arabic alphabet and orthography, performing prayers, making supplications, history of Islam, ethics like hygiene, respecting one’s parents, being trustworthy—as guided by Prophet Muhammad and his noble disciples, among others.
 By the end of Primary Seven, a learner gets an IPLE certificate for Islamic studies.
That pupil, Sheikh Lukwago says, has grasped at least 30 per cent of the Quran and is able to recite and translate it; can be an Imam (a mosque head if male) and is able to conduct sermons and lead congregational prayers; preside over marriage ceremonies, among other duties.
Sheikh Haruna Jjemba, the UQSA general secretary, says though girls cannot become Imams, they have played an important role in transforming Muslim societies thanks to their knowledge of Islam and Arabic.  
“Many have taken on teaching jobs, imparting their Islamic and Arabic knowledge to learners in schools and mosques,” Jjemba explains.
Others are resourceful social workers in communities and mosques, while others have used their fluency in Arabic to work as secretaries and interpreters at embassies and different organisations, acting as the link between Ugandans and other countries.
Higher levels
After IPLE, learners can advance their studies by joining institutions like Bilal Islamic Institute, Buziga Islamic Theological Institute, Bugema Islamic Institute, among others, where they undertake Idadi, the equivalent to Ordinary Level and Thanawi, the equivalent to Advanced Level, which run for three years apiece.
The learner can advance to a degree, Masters and doctorate at university levels.
But at secondary level, because of the higher demands from both curriculums, most students choose to pursue one after the other.
Few continue with both simultaneously, but Sheikh Lukwago says in most cases it affects their grades.
In fact, Sheikh Jjemba, says less than 50 per cent of primary leavers continue with the Islamic curriculum at O-Level, as this year’s Idadi results, to be released soon, shall show.
“Most parents get satisfied when their children can read and memorise the Quran, can deliver sermons and lead congregational prayers, among others, after primary school. So they advise them to concentrate on the secular studies,”  Jjemba says, adding, the numbers of Islamic students drop even further at Thanawi or A-Level, and very few sit the final exams.
Jjemba admits that the dual-curriculum is still wide, and UQSA is always devising means to make it more viable for the learner, parent and the educator.
“At primary level, we have already reduced on the depth of some topics which overlap in subjects,” Jjemba explains. “We are going to do the same at secondary levels.
“Because both the secular and Islamic studies are important to our learner. So we design the adjustments in careful way that won’t compromise theology, which needs full commitment.”
In most schools, learners write their IPLE exams in the last week of their Primary Six second-term, (usually late August) to allow them a full year to prepare for the secular PLE.
However, there’s a challenge for newcomers who join, say in Primary Three, but from single-curriculum schools. That creates a dilemma of being in an upper class in one curriculum and in a lower in another curriculum yet, both curriculums should be handled concurrently.
Swaleh Kintu Mugenyi, the deputy head teacher, Seeta Umea Primary School, says sustaining a dual-curriculum school is expensive because where a typically theological or secular school employs one teacher, a dual-curriculum school employees two.
Because, he explains, it is rare to find a teacher able to teach both secular and theological studies convincingly.
Pupils at Seeta Umea pay a generous Shs160,000 per term because, Mugenyi says, the government pays the salaries for the secular staff in addition to the Universal Primary Education Fund. But without such subsidies, he adds, the ideal tuition would have been Shs1.2m and Shs500,000 for boarding and day-scholars respectively.
“But it’s worth it because we groom a child fully equipped with the best principles of faith and life,” Mugenyi says. “It’s the best you can give to your child.”
Mugenyi, however, warns that both secular and theology should be treated with equal importance. “Otherwise, if there’s an imbalance, the cardinal goal will be lost.”
The protracted end of 2021 IPLE exams are scheduled for February 2022, but Jjemba says it will depend on the Ministry of Education’s programme of reopening schools amid Covid-19 disruptions.