By Caroline Ariba
“Class, what is this?” a teacher calls out to his pupils in Kizibu Junior School in Kiryandongo district during a lesson. “Dat is a cow!” the seemingly attentive pupils chorus. Outside, however, a few teachers can be seen rushing off for the next class.
For a rural school, this is almost unheard of, as a typical school day for them entails a handful of teachers lounging under the school trees, whilst the pupils devour the fruits in the compound.
Only last year, it was a different picture. “You would have found the teachers under the tree,” the head teacher Richard Sabiiti says.
Since the introduction of pupil-managed teacher attendance sheets, Sabiiti says, teachers take their work more seriously.
Teacher attendance sheets were introduced to this school late last year with assistance of a non government organisation called Build Africa.
The sheets are used by pupils to keep tabs on their teachers; marking the sheet with a cross against a teacher’s name whenever they come late, or miss school and using a tick whenever they come in time and teach well. These sheets are used from Primary Four to Primary Seven.
How system works
“At the beginning of the week, one pupil is randomly picked from Primary Four to Primary Seven and trained on how to handle the absenteeism sheet,” Chris Kugonza from Build Africa explains. The selected pupil administers the sheet discreetly to avoid intrusion.
“If a teacher comes late, or does not teach us at all, I put ‘X’ in that line,” one of the pupils says. Another pupils says to avoid being seen by anyone, he ticks or crosses during the morning or lunch breaks. Another tells of how she kept records every after a lesson and then fills in later on in the day.
“Before handing out the sheets to the pupils, we explain to them that it is not just enough for the teachers to walk in and out of class; they have to teach and work towards completing the syllabus,” says Stephen Wandira, the deputy head teacher of Kizibu Junior School.
“We are implementing this within the school governance structure involving the teachers and the school management committee. The pupils are also involved,” says Dr. Specioza Kiwanuka, the country director, Build Africa.
She explains that by randomly having all the children in a class participate in the monitoring, the risk of retribution from the teachers is significantly reduced.
The school timetable has been re-arranged to take care of teachers’ unique problems under this new system.
“As we look for means to build more staff houses, we have worked out a system where teachers that live closest to the school take the early morning lessons, while those that live far away take mid-morning lessons,” Kiwanuka explains.
To keep teachers at school, parents also contribute sh1,000 towards their feeding.
Teachers with the highest attendance will receive monetary rewards from the savings made on parents’ contribution at the end of the term.
Apart from checking teacher absenteeism, the system creates a meetings and dialogue with teachers.
“During these meetings, the offending teachers explain why they may have been absent on the days in question. They are also asked to promise to improve,” George Lwanga the organisation’s Bunyoro region area manager says.
Within a couple of months, this pupil-based teacher assessment is beginning to show results. “Today, teachers rarely miss class and when they are to miss, they communicate in good time,” Sabiiti boasts. The weekly teacher attendance, he says, has gone up by 25%.
He adds that the system has brought about hope for better syllabus coverage. The teachers themselves have found it a positive reinforcement.
“I know that if I am late, the concerned pupil will put X and I will consequently be called upon to answer,” says Richard Kisembo, a teacher at the school.
Jane Dayo, another teacher at the school, says as a result of the pupil-manned teacher attendance sheet, “Now I teach more. By the time the term ends, I hope to have completed all that I planned to teach just in time.”
She says even though she was initially scared, “after a week or two, I got used to being monitored by my own pupil.
Parents happy too
Lucia Asaba, a parent in the school, says since the introduction of this system, her once tardy little girl has been running to school early.
“When I ask her why she is in a hurry, she says the teachers no longer come late,” says Asaba.
Her husband, Oscar Murungi, says the days when his children would first go to the garden before running to school are over. “Now they will cry about being late. It seems those teachers are really teaching.”
This system comes at a time when teacher absenteeism is greatly affecting primary school education in the country.
According to a 2013 World Bank report on service delivery indicators in the primary education sector in Uganda, more than 60% of teachers in public primary schools miss classes for one reason or another.
Based on surveys of 400 primary schools and 5,300 teachers in different parts of the country, the report says teacher absenteeism is compromising quality education in the country.
“On average, 1 in 4 (24%) teachers were not in school and about the same share of schools (26 percent) had absenteeism rates higher than 40 percent,” states the report.
However, even for teachers who were at school, the report shows, one in three were not in the classroom teaching and, therefore, absent from class.
“For every 100 teachers, only 39 teachers were in class teaching, 29 were at school, but not in the classroom teaching, and 24 were nowhere to be found in the school,” it adds.
In corroborating the data on absenteeism with data on time use within classrooms, the report suggests that out of the official teaching day of seven hours 20 minutes, the average Primary Four student experiences only three hours 17 minutes of the expected class work time.
So, under such grim circumstances, could measures such as the pupil-managed teacher attendance sheets be one of the creative solutions to address teacher absenteeism?
Richard Odong, a retired head teacher and now consultant on education matters, is in agreement.
“One of the biggest causes of student’s failure, especially in the rural schools, is poor syllabus coverage, occasioned by teacher absenteeism and tardiness,” he says.
Therefore, he suggests, such a measure, where pupils monitor teacher’s attendance, is a cheap way to check absenteeism and subsequently boost performance of both teachers and pupils.
“The Ministry of Education and Sports ought to embrace this initiative.” Tony Mukasa Lusambu, the assistant commissioner in the education ministry is immensely impressed by the initiative.
He is particularly happy that instead of blaming the Government for not doing enough to address the problem, some people have, out of their own initiative, come up with a solution.
“We appreciate those who are behind such a measure. This is proof that the ministry should not do everything.”
Kiryandongo district education officer Edward Tirrya says this initiative will empower the students to demand for their right to be taught. “From the time I heard about this initiative in Kizibu Junior School, I have been encouraging many schools to adopt it.”
Caution is, however, being expressed about the smooth operation of this system. “What measures are in place to ensure that teachers under the spotlight do not threaten or even victimise the pupils who administer the attendance sheet?” wonders Nathan Kabichire, the Isingiro district education officer.
Sarah Amulo of Build Africa agrees that pupil intimidation has been one of their primary concerns. She, however, says seeing as the system has been endorsed by the district leaders and the school administration, such issues will easily be addressed in accordance with the school regulations.
She also notes, more importantly, that while the system ensures that teachers do not miss classes, it does not yet address the real problems that keep a typical primary school teacher away from school: lack of accommodation, food, poor emoluments and other basic needs.
In a region, where, according to a recent study by Build Africa, 23% of teachers reside more than 5km away from the schools, sustainability of a potentially good measure remains a big issue.
This system might well be the beginning of a new and creative approach to addressing teacher absenteeism. It, however, still begs a number of questions not least because it seems to target absenteeism from a very narrow perspective.
Without serious thought on addressing the causes of teacher’s absenteeism- such as lack of morale, poor accommodation, lack of meals, delayed salaries, serious problems abound.
And as implementers think about keeping the teachers in schools, so they should about doing the same for the pupils.