A-level results test govt science policy wins

Students in a Biology practical class. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Questions linger at today’s release of UACE results on whether the bureaucrats report solutions or, as they have done for years, only reiterate reasons why performance in sciences is poorer than in Arts despite higher government attention on the former.

Results for candidates who took the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examinations last year have been released this morning, with performances in sciences set to test the wins of the government’s pivot 20 years ago to promote the subjects.

Mr John Chrysestom Muyingo, the State minister for Higher Education, represented line Cabinet minister Janet Museveni at the 11am event that was held at the conference hall of the President’s Office building in Kampala.

This annual exercise arrests national attention because UACE results determine which students progress to university, those that branch off to pursue diploma and other courses plus thousands to repeat or drop out altogether.

Individual families eagerly await the results either because they have members or relations who sat the final national exam papers and they want to know the score --- an anxiety that ends in jubilation, tears and indecision.

As the camera lights today beam on the minister and Education ministry and Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) top officials, questions will linger on whether the bureaucrats report solutions or, as they have done for eons, only reiterate reasons why performance in sciences is poorer than in Arts despite higher government attention on the former.

Our analysis of UACE results over the past decade, and focused on sciences, shows that one in every two science candidates fails to secure two principal passes in A-level, the minimum eligibility to enroll for undergraduate courses.

And the problems are known, both to Education and Uneb officials, but statements by their officials do not explain why what needs to be done is not being done.

In formal reports accompanying release of the results since 2013, leaders of the two entities have attributed poorer performance in sciences than arts to, among others, inadequate number of science teachers and laboratories particularly in private schools, making teaching and learnign of sciences more theoretical instead of hands-on.

Other reasons include candidates’ failure to understand question instructions due to less-than-satisfactory grasp of English language and associated inability by them to conduct experiments, correctly record and interpret results.

Biology is the worst done subject, with some students failing to carry out proper dissection during practical sessions, according to Uneb.

The government pivoted towards promoting sciences in 2003 when it made Chemistry, Biology and Physics in addition to Mathematics as compulsorily examinable at secondary schools.

Two years later, the Education ministry introduced the Secondary Science and Mathematics (SESEMAT) programme through which in-service primary and secondary school teachers and tutors underwent refresher training to hone their skills to better teach mathematics and sciences.

It, in addition, government promised to construct and equip 475 laboratories and 639 libraries for purposes of enhancing the teaching of sciences. The report card on implementation of this infrastructure development blueprint is pending, but not the verdict on students’ performance in sciences.

In an interview, the Secretary General of Uganda Professional Science Teachers Union, Mr Aaron Mugaiga, told this newspaper that whereas the government has invested in sciences, it is not adequate to improve performances.

“Sixty percent of students enter examination rooms when they are not prepared, because they do not have enough science teachers. Some schools also do not have laboratories and those who have do not have supplies which are very expensive,” he said by telephone.

It is not for the government doing nothing. Besides ramping up recruitment of science teachers and refresher training, it doubled their pay, and in some cases quadrupled salaries of other scientists, as of last financial year. However, jitters over delayed or non-payment of allowances persist, leading last week to doctors pursuing graduate studies while working going on strike.

Before these welfare and infrastructure-related sweeteners, the government revised its university sponsorship so that 70 percent benefits incoming undergraduates studying sciences.

Still, enrolment of science students has remained comparably low across different tiers of study and performance that appeared to pick up in 2018 has since dipped.

Education officials were unavailable last evening to explain the anomaly.

However, the Secretary General of Uganda Teachers Union, Mr Filbert Baguma, said that the major mistake the government made was to make science subjects compulsory without looking at the requirements needed for teaching the subjects.

“Even if we increase salaries of teachers, if there is no laboratory and equipment, we shall not achieve much,” he said, adding, “For us to address the issue of poor performance [in sciences], we need to tackle the root cause”.

That solution, he argued, is in the government asking itself and answering questions on whether all schools have adequate teachers, well-equipped laboratories, and whether the labs have attendants to guide students during practical classes.

Mr Baguma said these requirements needed to be addressed before the government made sciences compulsory in a policy shift that placed the cart before the horse.

President Museveni has over the years underscored the essential place of sciences in national life, citing the role of scientists in driving innovation to thrust socio-economic transformation of the country – a flagship promise of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party to citizens.

He has for instance praised the role of scientists in beating back Covid-19 pandemic and other epidemics, making environmentally friendly vehicles in Uganda under Kiira Motors, crushing weed on Lake Victoria that threatened two hydro-dams in Jinja and leading discoveries that solve real-life problems.

It is upon such considerations that the President in 2017 announced the urgent need to enhance the remuneration of particularly health workers amid enduring brain drain in the sector.

“The salary for science teachers will be competitive. We don’t want to hear that science teachers in Kenya are getting a better pay than those in our country,” he noted on his social media handles in a post that appeared intended to iron-clad retention of specialised skills.

Explaining why he was prioritising scientists, the President said “paying the medical workers, the government scientists and the academicians [higher] removes the temptation of double loyalty – to the public service and to the private interest of the employee”.

During the 17th graduation ceremony at Kyambogo University, he tasked Kyambogo University to train more science teachers so that the institution does not lose its original mandate that dates back 17 years ago.

“I was looking at your booklet, there are 179 graduates of science with education. They will be teachers in secondary schools teaching science subjects mainly. We need more of those as well as others in courses like engineering and technology,” the President said.

And in results released today, the nation will know whether or not the government’s efforts over the past two decades is working.

What they say

Jesca Alupo, then Education minister

"I wish to encourage private schools to consider investing in the teaching of sciences in their schools, especially in private ones."

"We plan to recruit 4,500 more teachers in the coming three years in a bid to address the acute shortage of science teachers in public schools.” 

"The government has been cleared to recruit over 5,000 science teachers."

"The government has about Shs12.8b to procure digital science content designed in line with the requirements of NCDC and expects that the performance in sciences will improve."

"We will continue supporting the teaching of sciences. The first cohort to be admitted to Lira, Soroti and Kabale universities will all be on Science programmes.” 

"I encourage private schools to consider investing in and encouraging the teaching of sciences because we are relying on them to give the opportunities of learning to the children,” Janet Museveni, Education minister

"There’s a disconnect in teaching of science subjects with teachers spending more time on theory at the expense of practical subjects,” John C Muyingo, State Minister for Higher Education .

"Government will recruit more teachers, the majority of which will be for sciences. Schools without laboratories will have their licences revoked,” John C Muyingo, State Minister for Higher Education 

"I am more concerned about the … low number of girls in the sciences…, this is happening despite the fact that the government has invested in provision of teaching and learning materials...,” Janet Museveni, Education minister

“I am more concerned about the low number of girls in the sciences…, this is happening despite the fact that the government has invested in provision of teaching and learning materials...” Janet Museveni, Education minister

"Entries for Physics, Agriculture, Chemistry and Biology have actually dropped, although slightly. In sciences, the problems were seen in graphical and data interpretation, manipulation of apparatus,” Mathew Bukenya, then Uneb Executive Secretary

"Candidates usually lack the ability to carry out scientific experiments, interpret and draw conclusions from them,” Mathew Bukenya, then Uneb Executive Secretary

"There is a severe shortage of science teachers, especially in rural areas. Schools in rural areas, fail to conduct practical due to lack of equipment,” Daniel Odongo, then Uneb deputy ED

"Although Mathematics and core sciences were made compulsory ... in lower secondary education, the numbers don’t translate into higher enrolment at the A-Level. A large portion of these did not obtain a principal pass,” Mathew Bukenya, then Uneb Executive Secretary

"Students’ weaknesses included misspellings of technical terms, writing unbalanced equations, lack of mathematical skills, failure to plot graphs, and generally misinterpreting a set of experimental readings recorded,” Daniel Odongo, Uneb ED

"Many students’ work proved they had no or few practical lessons before the exams with many schools concentrating on teaching the theory part of the syllabus, thus denying the students exposure to the apparatus.” Daniel Odongo, Uneb ED

The situation in Biology is worrying as the decline has been observed in the last three years. The board is also concerned that fewer candidates continue with science subjects to A-Level”. Daniel Odongo, Uneb ED

There is a problem developing in Biology practical papers where candidates do not carry out the dissection of specimens provided as required but proceed to make drawings crammed from textbooks,” Daniel Odongo, Uneb ED

“They (candidates) had difficulty in writing correct chemical symbols and balanced equations in Chemistry. Whereas the skill of dissection is essential in Biology… candidates did not carry out this task on the specimens provided,” Daniel Odongo, Uneb ED