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Are the best performing schools ironically the worst?

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Added 31st July 2017 11:35 AM

A graduate of history with critical thinking skills can easily become a good journalist

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A graduate of history with critical thinking skills can easily become a good journalist

By Mwambutsya Ndebesa

It is 20 years since Universal Primary Education (UPE) started in Uganda.  It is also ten years since Universal Secondary Education (USE) was introduced. In fact UPE has become synonymous with the whole national education policy regardless of whether the students are in private or government schools or whether UPE is a programme or a policy. Twenty years is long enough for a public policy or programme to be evaluated. There are mainly three criteria that can be used to evaluate such a programme. These are; the purpose, the quality and quantity. Quite often the evaluators have tended to concentrate on the latter two at the expense of purpose. 

There is no unanimity about the performance of the UPE education programme in Uganda.  Different actors have used different criterion to measure the success or otherwise of this programme. Government has largely used the quantity measure.  It argues that enrollment to schools has had phenomenal growth.  Many classrooms have been built and many schools and universities have come up and therefore there is education success in Uganda today. 

On the other hand, critics of the UPE and USE programmes such as the NGOs h use the quality measure and conclude that the education programme in the last twenty years or so has largely underperformed. They argue that the products of this programme have not acquired the necessary knowledge, values and skills and in some respects quality has deteriorated. They are also concerned about dropout rates. For most of the parents, education is judged simply by grades attained. When students get high grades that enable them go to another elite school then that is success. In this regard parents nowadays prefer private schools and those with even better means international schools.  

The general public especially the media has been giving out the names of the best performing schools.  This has been determined by how the school performs in terms of high grades scored in a particular school and the number of students the school has managed say to send to the next level like the public University. And the public as well as the government seems to be happy with this performance and achievement and I guess think that such performance from these elite schools should be the model worthwhile celebrating and emulating in the country. 

However if one had to use a measure of the real purpose of education, you may find that some of the so called best performing schools in Uganda are in effect and ironically the worst performing schools. What then should ideally be the best measure or indicator of a successful education policy or programme? As mentioned before, purpose, quality and quantity can all be used as a measure of success. However, the most important measure for a successful education policy or programme is; purpose. This is because it measures the goal or outcome for which education is undertaken in any society or country. We should also observe that education is both a private and public good. Therefore a successful education policy should be measured by how it balances serving both the private and public good. In fact because education is both a public and private good, the cost of educating a child should be borne by both the parents and the state. 

There are many purposes of education which can be used to evaluate education in a given society or country. These purposes are preparing the learners for; the job market, living in the next decade or generation, living in the global world, collaborating living, living in an orderly society. The other purposes are cultivating a sense of active citizenship in the learner, giving the learner education for voice, living peaceful and harmonious life in the community and socializing the learner into positive culture.  Others are; developing physical and critical thinking skills of the learner, developing creative, innovating and independent minded persons.  Others are developing social skills of the learner and developing a person who is disposed to living in a democratic society and who appreciates and tolerates diversity of cultures, peoples and ideas.  In summary the purpose of education is to benefit the individual and society. 

Let us point out some examples in the education system in Uganda today to demonstrate the irony of good performing schools on account of good grades which may score the poorest on some indicators of a successful education. Take the example of the purpose of education to promote an independent and critical thinking mind.  Most of the ‘best’ performing schools simply coach pupils how to answer but not how to think. What is taking place in most of these so called good schools is rote learning which means memorization of information based on repetition. Most schools no longer go for sports or co-curricular activities. They no longer have holidays or even time to socialize.  A product of such teaching has neither an independent mind nor social skills. He is more less a biological robot. 

Another great if not the greatest purpose of education is to teach the learner how to learn.  The young ones are living in a fast changing world. It is impossible for a teacher to give a learner all the knowledge and skills for all the time. What is required of the teacher is to teach the student how to learn so that the learner will be able to continue learning, adapting and be able to apply the knowledge so acquired to real life situations and in different and always changing circumstances. 

But what is happening in our education system today? The best school is not measured by how many and relevant books there are in the library but by the hotel looking like buildings. Even inspectors and parents do not bother to go and see whether there are books in the library. All they want to see is that the teacher gives notes and students cram them. This rote learning educationists will tell you is not a reliable indicator of intelligence or learning. Learning should be continuous and therefore the role of the teacher should not be spoon feeding the learner but stimulating the desire of the learner to look for new knowledge and skills. A student who is given learning skills can always be adaptable.  A student with critical thinking skills can always transfer his knowledge from one subject to another profession.  For example, a graduate of history with critical thinking skills can easily become a good journalist. 

We have also pointed out that education is also a public good. Are these good performing schools educating for active citizenship? Are they graduating citizens with a national outlook? The challenge of our education system today is to churn out masses with no clear sense of nationhood. The teachers are so pre-occupied with teaching learners how to pass UNEB exams and not how to be good citizens and therefore failing in achieving the purpose of education which is to build a nation. I would recommend to UNEB that fifty percent of examination questions should be those requiring application and less of those requiring recall. 

Writer is a lecturer at Makerere University Kampala.  

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