Mere curriculum reforms won’t fix Uganda’s education

For the past several years, educators and parents have criticized the current schooling system. They fault it for continuing to embrace an elitist education system the colonialists bequeathed to Uganda almost 60 years ago.

Following these concerns, in 2008, the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) started work on updating the O-Level curriculum. The NCDC recently indicated that the new curriculum will be rolled out in February 2020 starting with Senior One class. The current 43 O’Level subjects will be replaced with 20. The focus of the teaching and learning is shifting from a marks-based objective approach to one that emphasises competence.

However, according to the newly-suggested method of assessing the performance of O-Level students, the Uganda Certificate of Education results will still account for 80%. A continuous competence assessment based on skills attained in subjects taught from Senior One to Senior Four will account for the remaining 20% of the O’Level final score. It is unclear how this competence will be assessed. It is also noteworthy that the curriculum review has been done without teachers, who are the implementers.

The developers claim that the reforms would address the needs of Uganda – helping the country move towards an education system where all learners will access basic education.

Basic Education

While curriculum reforms are important, their proposed impact of improving Uganda’s education system will be impossible to track. This is because of three major unaddressed issues. These include the failure to protect and fulfil the right to education for every child because of the pyramid-shaped education system, the stark contrasts in learning environments between rich and poor schools, and the toxic, hyper-competitive nature of education that we have today.

The main charge levied against the Ugandan “basic” education system is that it is essentially devoted to creating an elite class of book crammers and superior exam cheats. Out of every 1,000 Ugandan children (five to seven-year-olds) that enrol in Primary One, only about 200 (20%) will complete Senior Six and only about 100 (10%) will make it to a university or tertiary level.

The mere 10% “cream of the cream” and un-idealistic heroes who emerge from Uganda’s elitist education system primarily consists of students who come from well-to-do families, studying in expensive schools. The children from low-income households usually fall through the cracks of the system without the basic skills they need for the 21st century workplace.

Examination-oriented

Our education system teaches students how to take a set of examination papers at the end of the cycle. So, what opportunities will underprivileged students who cannot afford the best schools, instructionand coaching on examination-taking skills have access? Aren’t the stark contrasts between the rich and poor schools in learning environments and the quality of teaching perpetuating poverty and disadvantage?  How do we proceed towards leveling the playing field for the Ugandan child?

It is now clear that the Uganda basic education system, built on the elitist pyramid model, cutthroat competition and successive brutal elimination of students is a big mistake. It is a big mistake on two grounds: It simply cannot deliver universal basic education when it mercilessly eliminates students at every successive stage. Secondly, because so much of the teaching effort in schools is now geared to the grim struggle to get students to pass by all means necessary, the Uganda education system doesn’t deliver basic education. Basic education, by definition, is non-selective and it should provide every child with the skills needed in life, most of which are just not captured by examinations.

A country with a decrepit education system that is not tailored to building human capital and a cohesive society bound together by universal ethics, work skills, principles, social values, norms and other values learnt in schools and practised at leisure. Such a country may not have a clear path.

What can be done?

As adults, constituents, educators, lawmakers, parents, and lifelong learners, we are responsible for the education our children are receiving. The children we are subjecting to a poorly designed education system will lead our country in the future. What do we want the future of the country to look like? What should our educational system look like to achieve this? We must ask these questions.

We can no longer ignore the political process that evidently has failed to see anything the matter with our country’s education system—even as the trend reveals a system that is leading our society into a hellish situation. One of a superlatively qualified elite and unemployable semi-educated masses. We must make our voice heard. As a society, we need to speak up and rebuild the education system for todays and future generations.

We have come to a crossroads, where we must make a bold decision as a society. Do we continue to blindly pursue an education system that does not serve the best interests of our children and society or we build up a system designed to benefit all the children of our nation?

A team of like-minded concerned Ugandans will thrash out ideas and come out with a more thorough treatise. This will examine the difficult issues our society needs to consider in deciding options for improving our education system.

If we can change how we approach education, we have the potential to decrease the achievement gap and change the future of socio-economic inequality. We are all human. All our children deserve an equal education and the skills needed to tackle the problems of the future despite gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class.

The writer is a researcher in geophysics and founder of Serve Uganda Initiative.

A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2019, on Page 23 of the New Vision.

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