Do you know when children stopped reciting their abcs?

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

It is time for those – even individual private citizens – who know their ABCs and 123s to get into education and help

“My name is Kabugo, and I am 8 years old. I am in Primary three, and my sister is a class below me. Our mother walks us to school everyday because it is far.” Back in 2017, a speaker at an education conference used that sentence as an example, to demonstrate the reading and literacy crisis Uganda was in.

Based on a Uwezo report, over 50 percent of children in Primary Three at the time would not have coherently read or comprehended that sentence.

The organisation had assessed the children on five levels – non-reader, ability to recognise letters, ability to read individual words, read an entire paragraph, entire story, and full competence. They also tested for comprehension, asking the children two questions from the story. Simply, this basically involves giving a child a story to read and then asking them questions – usually starting with “Why?” or “How?” – to check if they understood and aren’t simply repeating the facts.

The report writers were damning in their conclusion, noting that, “It is only by Primary Five that about half can read and understand a short Primary Two level story in English.” This was 2016! Going by our dropout rate, less than 30 percent of the children who were assessed then are still within the system – if at all.

In case you missed the story, this newspaper reported this week that 69 percent of Primary Three pupils in Northern Uganda cannot read the alphabet 69% of P3 pupils cannot read alphabet, says report. The English alphabet, people. As in ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ! Apparently, “even if one spends more than 30 minutes on a letter, more than half of Primary Three learners who are in the study districts of Lira, Oyam, Kole, and Arua cannot recognise it.”

Do you know how bad things have to be for children to move from not being able to read, to not even recognizing letters of the alphabet – which by the way are learnt in songs and rhymes? The report was silent on numeracy abilities but going by our general attitude towards mathematics, it would be a miracle if they can count.

Of course, it could be argued that those two years of Covid-19 enforced lockdowns did us in. These children were in Primary one or Two when the pandemic hit so perhaps they haven’t had much interaction with learning. But that should raise more questions about what was going on before the pandemic. It is the alphabet for crying out loud. Sometimes you have a sense that things are bad but you don’t have a good idea how far past rock-bottom you are sliding.

Take for example, World Bank data places our literacy rate – for people above 15 – at 76.5 percent. Juxtaposed against the reports such as the one we are referencing it is safe to assume that we shall likely not have many people who can read and write in a decade or two – unless something drastic happens. We already know from our social media feeds that among many adults, it is pointless to expect things like comprehension, analysis, grammar and spelling. Now, to that, add ABC and 123.

Which brings us to the gist of today’s column. As things stand, only those who are either benefiting from the rot or are unable to overcome the inadequacies of our education can continue to go on unbothered. It is clear that this maze is too big for the government to solve and it is going to take everyone to care – even selfishly – if we are going to get out of this rut.

I am talking to you, corporate companies that are adamant about funding education initiatives because you want quick returns. Soon, you will have a population whose purchasing power – of your products and services – is laughable. I am talking to you, development partners who sit in plush air conditioned offices and drive SUVs. You who continue to host conferences and draw per diems. Bad education breeds both petty and violent crime – and guess who will be targeted? Yeah, you too are vagabonds in power, wealthy bureaucrats and entrepreneurs.

It is time for those – even individual private citizens – who know their ABCs and 123s to get into education and help. Volunteer with a school. Donate money, books and equipment. Task your local and national leaders to do more and get involved. Whatever it takes, do it to stop this slide; because in a country where education has tanked, nobody is safe.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye