It has been 17 years of Universal Primary Education (UPE) and some of the products of the programme graduated from Kyambogo University last week.
The programme was a campaign pledge by President Museveni in the run-up to the 1996 elections, and Education minister Jessica Alupo appealed to Kyambogo graduands, some of whom were toddlers in 1996, to pay back by rallying behind the ruling party in 2016. It has also been reported in the media that plans are underway for a joint celebration of all graduates that have benefited from the programme. No doubt, the ruling party is set to milk the celebrations.
But if government officials, especially the Education minister, are keen about the quality of education, then statistics of the recently released Primary Leaving Examination results should punctuate their celebrations with pauses for pensive reflection.
Daily Monitor reported last week that, “only 5.6 per cent of the 457,808 pupils in UPE schools passed in Division One while their counterparts in private schools registered 27.7 per cent pass rate in the same category.”
According to the report, researchers and educationists have attributed the poor performance of UPE candidates to the policy of automatic promotion, which “encourages a laissez-faire attitude in the education system”.
Without a first grade, it’s doubtful that the 94.4 per cent of UPE leavers will be able to join a secondary school that can give them a realistic chance of accessing university education.
So the former UPE pupils who have now graduated from universities were probably within the top 5 per cent of their primary school classes in academic performance. As they celebrate, they should tell government officials about the 95 per cent they left behind.
My belief, informed by a fair amount of research, is that the statistics don’t show the full scale of the problem engendered by automatic promotion.
It would be interesting to find out what the Uneb pattern of the lowest distinction mark or the lowest credit mark has been over the UPE years. It’s possible that the credit 6 mark was 60 per cent in 1996 and has gradually been lowered to 40 per cent by the assessment body in order to accommodate the poor performance of candidates that sit PLE when they should be sitting P3 promotional exams.
If the vast majority of candidates perform poorly, you can even find someone with 55 per cent being awarded a distinction. The fact that marks corresponding to the grades are not fixed means a candidate’s grade measures his performance relative to that of the other candidates, instead of measuring it relative to a fixed standard. It also means the comparisons often made of candidates’ performances in successive years are largely meaningless.
The automatic promotion policy means a P6 teacher can find that his charges include those that really should be learning P3 work. He is enjoined by professional ethics to ensure that even the weakest student learns, but the only way he can do this is by dumbing down the lessons and, subsequently, the examinations.
The pressure is then transferred to Uneb and, through Uneb, to tertiary institutions. I once knew of a don in one of our public universities who was put under immense pressure by administration because students were failing his examinations.
He challenged the administrators to check the standard of his papers, or to get someone else to remark the scripts, but all that administrators wanted was for a ‘sufficient’ percentage of students to pass. Universities end up passing on the problem to institutions such as the Law Development Centre or to the workplace.
Therefore, as we celebrate 17 years of UPE, we should reflect hard on how automatic promotion has affected the quality of education.
Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist. firstname.lastname@example.org