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Addressing Uganda’s literacy and education shortfalls


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Reading and writing (literacy) and arithmetic form the foundation of a solid education. Besides these, progressive assessment and vocational training will take Uganda’s education to the next level.  

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:  Prof. Venansious Baryamureeba is vice chancellor of Uganda Technology and Management University and former vice chancellor of Makerere University. He presented this Paper to the Rotary Club of Kampala at Grand Imperial Hotel on July 25.

Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational.

There is need to focus on both formal and informal education. Formal education is classroom-based, provided by trained teachers whereas informal education happens outside the classroom mainly in after-school programs, community-based organizations, museums, libraries and at home.

So it is important that parents do not leave the education of their children only to the teachers in education institutions. Parents need to provide relevant (informal) education to their children. For formal education we need to ensure that the students are literate first.

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. As per the 2002 Census, Ugandans aged 15 and above who were literate stood at 66.8 percent (76.8 percent male and 57.7 percent female literacy). In the Peoples Republic of China literacy is measured as the ability to read and write in Chinese language; in France literacy is measured as the ability to read and write in French; and in the UK literacy is measured as the ability to read and write in English. In Uganda how do we measure literacy?

Many Ugandans who cannot read and write in the official English language have the ability to read and write in other languages like Luganda, Luo and Runyankole. Either way, the literacy rate in Uganda is still low compared to other East African Community member states and more effort is needed. We still have children who finish primary seven while still illiterate.

So since English is the official language, the training of English teachers for primary schools needs to be given priority if the literacy rate of Uganda is to improve. There is need to also focus on the training of Mathematics teachers for primary schools to improve on the numeracy or arithmetic skills of children. This would make it possible for primary education to focus on setting a solid foundation or building blocks of the child’s education.

This foundation at primary school level should focus on being literate (mastering reading and writing) and arithmetic. The focus of teachers in primary schools should be on enabling the children to learn instead of passing the terminal Primary Leaving Examination (PLE). So there is need to train/retool teachers in primary schools on assessment and examination.

Once equipped with relevant skills as examiners, progressive assessment in primary schools should replace the terminal PLE. Progressive assessment has worked well in higher education institutions and students are assessed as per the course demands. The core skills at primary level can better be assessed through progressive assessment.

In the Ugandan education system the other area that needs special attention is the post-secondary (after Senior Four) education. After Senior Four, students should be given the opportunity of joining either vocational or technical institutions or high school. This phase should last three years and students should acquire a diploma.

This means that after completing a diploma of three years in a vocational or technical or high school institution the graduates should either have employable skills or job creation skills. This category of diploma holders is grossly lacking and having everybody, including those in high school, preparing to join university go through a three diploma would address the scarcity of skilled diploma holders. The one year added on advanced level secondary education to make high school last three years could come from reducing primary education to six years instead of the current seven.

At all levels of education lifelong learning skills should be imparted on the students. We need to revise the writing culture. Few Ugandans are writing books and as a result most of the books used in our education system are imported. Even very few staff in higher education institutions is engaged in writing books.

Lastly, the reading culture in Uganda is fundamentally lacking. Other than reading for a formal qualification very few Ugandans engage in lifelong reading. This could be as a result of lack of emphasis on reading ability in the crucial first few years of a child’s school career since a child’s education stems from their ability to read well.

However, not all is lost. We need to identify the gaps in our education system and have them fixed if we are to be the education hub within the East African Community.