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Syllabus sells Uganda short

Luke Reilly explains that teaching content, not language, is the challenge in Ugandan primary education, with the main culprit being the curriculum

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Uganda is a country with an extremely young population. Almost half of its people are under fifteen years old. Of this demographic, around 86 per cent in rural areas attend primary schools but only 14 per cent then go on to secondary education.

According to the data from the Uwezo initiative, Ugandan literacy and numeracy are lagging far behind its east African neighbours Tanzania and Kenya.

The medium of education in Uganda is English. Schools discourage pupils communicating in ‘vernacular’ languages, and the government seems to expect children to be fluent around Year 3. But, as I have found out from first-hand experience, the reality is very different.

For the last year I have been working as a teacher in a Ugandan primary school, giving me exposure to some of the challenges within the primary education system. Hope for Youth is a charitable school which provides free education to children from poor backgrounds who dropped out of school or didn’t attend school in the first place.

The school is staffed by committed volunteer teachers who contributed to some excellent results in primary leaving examinations. Fourteen out of our fifteen candidates scored first or second grades, gaining admission to prestigious secondary schools. But this was only achieved through a massive effort and, during my time at the school, I could not help but witness the gaping shortcomings in the learning standards of primary children. I now believe it is content, not English, that is the challenge.

Of course, the familiar failings of English medium were apparent at Hope for Youth. For example, there was a seventeen-year-old pupil who never spoke a word of English during my time. When pupils did have the confidence to speak English, their written English was comparatively poor. But, if teaching in English exacerbated the problem, it was not the major cause. Most of the teachers didn’t always strictly adhere to English medium. Many, including myself, often slipped into the local language Luganda to emphasise a point. So English was by no means an impenetrable barrier to understanding, yet they still weren’t learning.

The overwhelming problem was the excessive demands of the syllabus. In science students learnt about heart-circulation and refraction in the human eye, topics most British children learn at GCSE level. In maths they were taught an extremely complex formula for dividing fractions when all they needed to do was flip the second fraction and multiply. Algebra and Roman numerals were other complex topics utterly inappropriate to their level.

The demanding curriculum means children are under constant time pressure. Candidates taking their secondary school exams joined the ‘boarding section’ of the school (the headmaster’s mum’s house). They had to get up at 4am, stay after school until 7pm for extra lessons, then have an hour-long revision lesson at the house from 9pm.

Pupils were constantly given examinations, such as mid-terms and end-of-term exams. But due to the demands of the curriculum, they had no time to revise for them – and no time to work for themselves and improve their own English. An EL Gazette correspondent sent me some readers to distribute to the candidates to improve their English reading ability, but the headmaster said this would distract them from studies and that they didn’t have the time.

From my experience in Uganda, all the arguments over the effectiveness of English medium are completely blind to the obvious problem – these children are being shamefully let down by an outdated curriculum completely inappropriate for their background.