At least 80 per cent of pupils in their second year of elementary school in Uganda cannot work out a two-digit subtraction sum.
And 61 per cent cannot read a simple sentence. It gets worse in rural areas. Here, up to 75 per cent of pupils in their third year cannot solve a two-digit subtraction sum. And after five years of education, two years before many leave school altogether because of the high dropout rates in the 7th year, 50 per cent cannot accomplish the same.
This is according to a World Bank development report on education covering several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The report, Learning to Realise Education’s Promise 2018, released in late September, is clear about what this implies for the future lives of the children concerned.
One is that many leave school without the most basic skill needed to run a business: calculating the correct change from a transaction. Equally serious is that they will grow into adults who cannot read a doctor’s instructions, let alone make sense of the promises politicians campaigning for public make.
Without an education, chances that they will find gainful employment are slim. Unable to do simple sums means they couldn’t possibly start and run their own businesses.
What remains for them in terms of chances of finding employment therefore, are unskilled jobs in agriculture and at the lower end of the informal sector, the same opportunities available to people who never set foot in a classroom.
Not being able to make sense of policy choices during election campaigns means that their capacity to positively influence electoral outcomes and processes of political evolution is also in doubt.
Elsewhere, there is the adage that when you “educate a woman, you educate the whole community.” It is also argued that women who have had some formal education are likely to bring up healthy children.
Formal education for women is therefore supposed to have a downward impact on infant mortality. But of course this can only happen when girls leave school with numeracy and literacy skills that are essential in interpreting information, including health-related information, and acting on it.
And so all the claims made about the importance of basic education fall flat where, as in Uganda, for many children education has minimal impact in terms of imparting skills.
Just as significant as the findings about children being in school but hardly learning, is the revelation that 59 per cent of teachers stay away from class even when they are at school, and 30 per cent simply stay away from work.
Uganda has come a long way since the days when, prior to the introduction of universal primary education, going to school was for a privileged few whose parents could afford to pay fees and other costs that schools used to load parents with.
The growth in enrolment from just over three million pupils before UPE to a little less than 10 million pupils today, is a great achievement for which the government deserves credit.
That said, it is 20 years since UPE was introduced, and since its failings became the subject of continuous public discussion and among the uncharitable, even ridicule.
Why UPE is failing
The reasons for UPE failing to achieve much beyond raising enrolment rates are a matter of public knowledge, having been recited over and over again, and been the subject of numerous academic and policy studies.
They include lack of facilities in schools such as books and other learning aids, low morale among teachers whose salaries are not adequate to enable them to make ends meet; who have to struggle to find housing outside school premises, and parents who, having been relieved of paying school fees, are reluctant to take on any financial responsibility.
While on a visit upcountry recently, I learnt of instances where children report to school without exercise books or with one exercise book for all the subjects they learn. It testifies to how much some parents have simply disengaged from issues to do with their children’s education, thanks to UPE.
There is, however, another side to all this, and that has to do with holding schools and school administrations to account. There is a time when parent teachers associations played critical roles in managing schools and ensuring that parents played their part.
UPE undermined all that, for parents who do not participate financially have no basis for making demands on school administrations or questioning their decisions.
And just as significant, the void left by activist parent teachers associations has remained largely unfilled in many schools. The reason is near absence of active supervision and inspection of schools by both national and local governments.
One consequence of the absence of active inspection, itself the product of weaknesses in public administration overall, has been the invasion of the education sector by unethical practices designed to benefit those who are in it to make money for themselves rather than to shape the minds and futures of the young people in their care.
While private schools perform better than government schools overall, as reflected in the findings of this same study, there are indications that, for some, that has nothing to do with higher teaching or ethical standards, again thanks to poor governance in the sector.
The key to sustainable improvement therefore lies in getting the sector’s governance right.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]