Change, the adage goes, is a fact of life. As such, a handful of experts, members of the Cabinet, and the top two officers at the helm of our leadership took it upon themselves to make those changes, changes they thought were good enough in both a bare minimum and a maximum benefit kind of way, much to the shock and/or surprise, and, as a matter of course, to the disappointment of many who have attended the same system.
These changes, which are characterised by dropping six subjects – Agriculture, Home Economics, Technical Drawing, Metal/Wood Work and Music – were made not so long after the untimely closure of the oldest, biggest, and most iconic public University in the country and beyond. The subjects are, it was said, to be scrapped off and had in (nonexistent) tertiary institutions.
A lesson in history…
The education system we have in Uganda and across most of Africa today is the result of the “copy and paste” done by our colonial masters. Save for what were possibly new additions, such as what is the unfortunate subject that is History of Africa, they simply carried what they had in England and India and handed it down to us. The essence, really, was not to educate our forefathers (at least to the excellence of the colonial masters or teachers) but rather to eradicate as much of their ignorance as they could in order to prepare them for the most mundane positions in the levels of governance then. These positions were, in more than a few cases, with the word clerk not so distant when making their descriptions.
The schools which were constructed and resourced to offer the subjects of the day were aptly named as colleges – King’s College, St. Mary’s College, Namilyango College, St. Leo’s College – and meant for the urban populations of the time. Their graduates were immediately absorbed as clerks, with narrow minded responsibilities, those which did not extend beyond secretarial, translation and more of the same placements.
Save for the consistent addition of numerous subjects, the provision of universal primary and secondary education (which is a global, millennium development goal actually) and the enabling of privately owned schools, nothing much has changed since then. The only notable achieving has, perhaps, been the crystallizing of a curriculum which has churned out professionals who were previously alien to our ancient civilisation.
…and what we have today.
The same confusion has successfully co-existed with our contemporary civilisation, and, importantly without a need for any changes. The only clamour for change has, more often than not, been directed to the content, as it is with those cases where pupils have been directed to learning any and everything about the Canadian Prairies, or the Great Lakes, or the History of Europe et al but not about local equivalents. Never to, for example, the number of subjects, for a clear distinction has been made between those examinable and those optional.
As those who have successfully navigated the schools and their curriculums – AS DISCOMBOBULATED AS THEY ARE – have probably found, it is all about the individual pupil to identify for themselves, together with their sponsors, to seek the best of career guidance (which is, unfortunately, wanting) and pick and choose for themselves what they fancy concentrating on as they grow to narrow their options for a career. Never has the government systematically decided anything for the benefit of students.
What has the government ably done?
This particular government a.k.a the 1986 government a.k.a the NRM government a.ka. the Museveni government has made only one – really – notable achievement. One of the many promises made by Mr. Museveni, during his 1996 presidential elections campaigns, was the introduction of Universal Primary Education otherwise known as U.P.E.
In Tackling The Tasks Ahead, his 1996 election manifesto, Mr. Museveni proposed, in content number 14, an education for skills. He wrote that: education will be the main tool to abolish illiteracy and enable Ugandans to utilise the natural laws of science. In order to develop the skilled labour force that will help us improve productivity, our main channel is the new education policy which seeks to make primary education universal and vocational by 1997.
In further detail, he highlighted how it would help increase primary school enrolment from 2.2 million to 2.68 million, and secondary school enrolment from 196,000 to 250,000 in 1994. The 1994, I found, is a typographical error, one that should have been corrected to 1997 in order to align the secondary school enrolment with the primary school enrolment.
In 1996, not a word was mentioned with particular respect to either welfare of teachers or the content of the curriculum. Attention was paid solely to enrolment – quantity.
In Prosperity For All: Better Service Delivery And Job Creation, his 2011 election manifesto, Mr. Museveni noted in chapter four (which appeared on page 215, and not on the scheduled page 181), a chapter dedicated to what he termed as “Human Resource Development”, that “the NRM policy on education is education for all”. To achieve this, he added, that the NRM introduced Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997, followed by Universal Secondary Education (USE) and free Business Technical Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) in 2007 and liberalised university education which led to, among other things, the increase in the number of universities to 28.
His focus was still on enrolment. To him, more pupils attending school directly translated to more pupils learning, and hopefully well. A belief he noted when he wrote, or it was ghost written for him, that: before 1997, only 2.5 million children were going to school. But after the NRM launched UPE, the number shot up to 5 million children. Today (2010) there are about 8 million pupils registered under UPE. This shows that many children, especially from poor families, who could not afford school fees, were being left out of the education, without any hope of ever seeing the inside of a classroom. With the introduction of USE in 2007, enrolment in secondary schools from 412,367 to 1,194,000 in 2010. The focus, in 2011, was still on enrolment or quantity, just as it was before, in 1996, but never on quality.
The reality and/or the challenges
UPE and USE have not been, as claimed, a “tremendous success”. We have to, however painstakingly, admit that. We cannot have “the children who joined primary one in 1997 when NRM started UPE are now at university. Those who joined senior one in 2007 when NRM started USE are now in senior four” (page 216, Manifesto 2011) as a success worth any note.
NRM is neither the first, nor the last government to provide education. Pupils went to school before the NRM was conceived, and will continue doing so after its successful demise. The 1996 dream and promise of an “education for skills” was lost along the way when UPE and now USE were plagued by the challenges of poor maintenance and corruption. There are not as enough teachers or classrooms, or laboratories or libraries or sports fields or teaching and other materials as there are pupils.
Lest we forget, government schools have high drop-out rates and poor performance. The vocational schools to which parents are now being asked to send their children because the training offered there “prepares young people for the job market” do not exist and if they do, they are not sufficiently provided for.
The effect of this has been that the unimpressed teachers have found and harnessed all the available opportunities – thanks to the dissatisfied pupils and parents – and constructed their own privately run and funded schools. There are now more private and better performing schools (in their thousands) than there are public ones; evidence of both the NRM government’s influence and its limits.
We cannot, therefore, task the same government, one which has delivered as illustrated above to make any decisions for us as to the “tremendous change” of the existing education system, especially without any consultation with former and existing pupils, teachers, and administrators of both public and private schools, other stakeholders (like NCDC, the National Curriculum Development Centre) and the general public.
What shall we do?
To improve the quality, and not quantity, of Uganda’s education, we will, all of us, and not the government alone, have to see to it that we, amongst so many other things we must do, increase the number of teachers in order to better the pupil to teacher ratio which is currently at 1:57. We will have to ensure that teachers undertake refresher courses to help make sure that that those teachers are well trained, and not like some of the Primary Seven ones we have today whom researchers have found cannot answer Primary Four questions.
In addition to the above, we need to sufficiently motivate both the teachers and the pupils. The success of UPE was, in 1996, originally premised on the foundation that as long as parents provided uniforms and stationary, which, in 2011, later changed to uniforms, exercise books, pens, and packed lunch for their children, and the government concentrated, in 1996, on text books, building classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and the cost of training and paying teachers, and, in 2011, on paying teachers, building classrooms and buying scholastic requirements. However, teachers, at all levels, have through their unions (like UNITA) consistently held strikes over their poor pay. Parents cannot afford to pack lunch for their pupils because they are so poor that they cannot afford their own food at home. Both teachers and pupils are not motivated to either teach or learn. There is, truthfully, no sensible education going on, by any reasonable measure.
Agreed, everyone is clamouring for a change of “the system”. However, whenever the word system is mentioned, the word curriculum is never mentioned, well precisely. Any change made to or for “the system” should not be directed towards the curriculum as the reason for the challenges plaguing “the system”. That same curriculum has been relied upon by the same people who are trying to alter it. Why now?
There is a misconception that children are not learning or being productive at or, importantly, after it because of what consumes their time, but that is just it. I believe that the only issue with the content of the curriculum is that it has, since colonial times, not been tailored well enough to cater to or for the local realities. We are, for example, still studying more about the wonders of America and Europe than we are about the pearls of Uganda or Africa.
Also, our “copy and paste” curriculum is not designed well enough to cater to special needs students. Their pupil to teacher ratio is not defined but thought to be the same as that for their ordinary counterparts, which is appalling especially when you consider the dearth of opportunities and challenges that beset them.
The changes we need to make, therefore, are those which indirectly and directly, address our modern day realities, those that make the curriculum’s content more relatable, holistic, and useful to both the individual pupils (be they ordinary or special needs) and the general public.
The argument that the pupils are too young to appreciate the many subjects is just a lame excuse that encourages laziness. At twelve (12) years of age, my contemporaries and I were in O’ Level and appreciating up to about twenty (20) subjects, and creating time for an additional double figure of sports and other co-curricular activities, and still managed to flourish. The pupils of today do not even have playing fields, an illustration of the transitions from a holistic education to an interest in money, especially in private institutions – all thanks to the NRM government’s philosophy and concentration on increasing enrolment.
Been there, done that
Ishta, a wonderful pal of mine, opines that an education system for an entire country isn’t about exceptional cases, and that it is about the bare minimum for the maximum population. That is, definitely, true.
However, from my own experience (as a farmer) I have found that some of those trained in vocational schools, with the intent of working on farms, do not know how to read or write, cannot take stock of products, like milk, or, at the very least, their own farming equipment. How are we going to help those by doing away with agriculture? A subject I remember taught me a lot, like, amongst others, the botanical names of weeds, yes!, even though I went on to become a lawyer?
I have [as an investor in literature and the arts and culture, through Turn The Page (booksalextwino.com) and Something Ugandan (culture.alextwino.com)], some of the companies I founded) found that we cannot ably document our own societies if we do not pay particular attention to subjects like literature, the languages, art, music, dance and more of the same which are, hushedly, referred to as those meant for the unserious, unfocused people. Personally, for the two years I studied it, I loved reading and writing music, I participated in dance and drama and theatrical performances, and importantly, I read, read, AND read.
One could argue that I was privileged, but, see, that is the whole point, why wouldn’t I wish any other pupil the same? Why should we let the government decide for them what they are to savour while at school? Isn’t that why we go to school? To be trained? One of the things I recall my Father telling me, even after sending me to a good school (and not college), was that a school is like a training camp. I was not going to waste that opportunity to benefit the most from it – that training. I am convinced that any other pupil can.
What shall we do? Again.
We should, therefore, aim at exposing all our pupils to as many disciplines as possible, those which are well aligned with either public and/or private purposes. I am more for the wholesome or holistic approach towards obtaining those disciplines, towards achieving the purpose of life.
Two moments have captured these virtues quite well. The first is a Robert A. Heinlein quote, on specialisation, in which he said that; a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.
The other is the motto of the now defunct LIFE magazine. It read; to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.
This is, to me, the latest chapter in the story of the NRM government, who have extensively illustrated how to corrupt an already existing and functioning system, one set out to, at least, cure us of our ignorance.
The survival and hopes of most of today’s youth depend on either farming or expression through entertainment. Taking agriculture and music, for example, from them is a direct attack on them.
The preservation of a society and its culture is ably done through its documentation by way of, for example, writing, reading, and performing music. Art, which music belongs to, is the soul of society. It represents the very best things that society has achieved. To go after it – that art – and try to make potentially disastrous decisions about it, is an endeavour made only to hurt that society’s aggregate soul.
This article was originally written for Twino’s Account, a Bitala & Co. Advocates column.