By Conan Businge
It is lunch time at Enderu Primary School, 10km from Lira town in the West Nile and pupils are hovering over women selling pancakes and sugarcane at the roadside.
After eating their packed snacks and playing in the nearby heap of sugarcane husks, they saunter back to their classes and slouch on the bare floor for afternoon lessons. Luckily, for upper classes, they have desks.
But, in this class, Primary Seven sits a 13-year-old boy who will be sitting his Primary Leaving examinations this year. But, for all his education life in this school, he has never achieved the minimum acceptable competence level, for a school child of his age. He has always obtained 0 to 10% in almost each paper his sits for at the end of the term.
He would have repeated some of the lower classes to grasp the concepts well, but is deterred by a Government policy, which requires that all pupils who are going through free education, under Government funding, be promoted annually, no matter how they perform in class.
The education ministry and its funding agencies, in 1997 when Universal Primary Education was starting, agreed to automatically promote all pupils, to address the low completion rates in primary schools. This has serious ramifications for Uganda’s education system.
The ministry expects every pupil who has successfully completed the curriculum of their respective class to be promoted. To the ministry, successful completion means attainment of at least 40% in end-of-year exams.
But, this policy seems to be gradually eating into the success of free education in the country; since so many children drop out after losing interest in studies.
Are children learning?
Dropouts or repeaters
Records in the education ministry and the release of results last week, show that 69.2% of the pupils who joined Primary One in 2007 failed to make it to last year’s Primary Leaving Examination rooms.
Only 582,085 pupils sat PLE last year, out of the close to 1.8m pupils who enrolled in 2007; which forms a complete cohort. This implies that in the last seven years forming a primary school education’s cohort, over one million pupils were lost on the way.
Do these pupils really drop out, or they end up repeating classes?
New studies on policy?
Is the automatic policy really working? The latest investigation report, done by the Judicial Commission of inquiry and submitted last year, constituted by President Yoweri Museveni, shows that the country was massively losing billions of money through repetition of classes by pupils.
The report shows that the automatic promotion policy is not being adhered to. The commission noted that between 1998 to 2009; about 8,900,000 pupils repeated classes, “due to the education ministry’s failure to strictly enforce the policy of automatic promotion.”
This report indeed points to the fact that most pupils repeat classes, and few leave schools. But, when computation is done at the end of a cohort, such pupils are considered as drop-outs.
At the rate of sh6,000 as capitation grant per pupil annually, the Commission estimated that about sh53bn could have been lost due to repetition of classes by pupils.
But is it right?
There is contention on who or what is behind rampant repetition of classes by pupils.
Fagil Mandy, an education consultant, says automatic promotion is very good. “No one has the right to force a child to repeat. It can only be through agreement between a parent and the teachers, for a child to repeat,” he explains, adding: “It is psychologically devastating for a child to repeat a class.”
Peter Tusubira, a long-serving teacher for the last three decades, says: “This is bringing the quality of education down. UPE’s progress should not be determined by numbers only, but also the quality.”
However, other people think repeating is good for pupils. “When the ministry and donors now agree to abolish repeating, a large gate seems to be opening up for the majority of pupils considered as idiots,” says Richard Opio, a parent says. He says like cows, pupils will together enter the kraal, whether satisfied or not.
According to the 2006/7 Education and Sports Sector Annual Performance Report released recently, the repetition rate of pupils ranged between 10% and 13 %, in the last 13 years.
The current trends are also a clear reflection of the past. According to Uganda’s progress report on MDGs (2007), assuming that all pupils who joined P1 in 2000 progressed through all the grades, findings from the household survey of 2005/06 show that only 38% reached P7.
While enrollments have been rising in sub-Sahara Africa, the report notes that the school system continues to be wasteful. Many children drop out without completing the primary school cycle, while many repeat classes and take very long to go through the system.
“Repetition reflects poor conditions of teaching and learning. It also increases pressure on teachers and resources,” the report reads. It recommends that repetition of classes should be stopped, through automatic promotion.
The Department for International Development’s Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe note: “In both Uganda and Malawi, dramatic increases in enrolment led to a drop in the quality of education, with a consequent decline in average test scores. This in turn led to an increased proportion of students repeating school years.”
“To be successful, and to protect standards, the abolition of fees must be part of a comprehensive, long-term plan for universal primary school enrolment. This has to include complementary measures such as teacher recruitment and training, and the provision of teaching and learning materials,” explains the EU.
The monitoring reports made by the national Education For All (EFA) agency note that a recent case study of selected schools found that more boys than girls were repeating classes, contrary to what the education Monitoring Information System data has been reporting. However, both data sets agree that repetition is highest in the northern region.
The EFA report adds that the children who had repeated classes were interviewed and the findings indicated that more boys than girls were repeating as a result of failing end-of-year examinations.
While for boys the key factors for repetition were related to performance, 13.5% girls repeated because their parents decided so, compared to 6.7% boys for the same reason; according to the latest EFA report. The report adds that parents think through repetition, their children will improve their performance.
The EFA report adds: “Parents deciding to make their children repeat classes against their will can lead to low morale and lack of interest in school.”
A research by Joseph Terch at the Graduate School of Rowan University, USA, reveals that being retained in the same class increases drop-out rates by 30%. The research adds that students who repeated a class failed to catch up with their peers and had negative self-concept, which led to an overall negative school experience, hence forcing them to drop out.