Cissy Nakisige, 9, is one of the 16,000 children born every year in Kamuli district.
I found her seated under a mango tree reciting the vowels a, e, i, o, u. She was also picked among the best pupils in her school to read different stories from her storybook.
When the teacher breaks the class routine to welcome visitors, Nakisige, who is in primary three, approaches our team smiling and curious about what has brought us to her school, Mbulamuti primary school. She is an orphan and her aged grandmother struggles to get her necessities such as scholastic materials, money for porridge and uniform, so that she can comfortably study in the Universal Primary Education (UPE) school.
She will be lucky to be part of the pupils who will do their Primary Leaving Exams (PLE) in four years’ time. Only 12,000 children of the 16,000 born in the district every year complete their primary education, for the last seven years. The other 4,000 usually drop out due to numerous obstacles that many Ugandan pupils face while trying to complete their primary school.
“Every year we lose over 4,000 pupils who don’t sit their PLE. (This is a high number) if you compare it to the total number of babies that are born in Kamuli district.
“To make it worse, the number [seems to] increase every year, but we don’t know where the school dropouts go,” Joseph Musoke, the district education officer, says.
“The intake rate for Kamuli district of all children that are supposed to be in school is only 73 per cent. Out of 73 per cent, 31 per cent don’t complete P.7 and majority of those who complete don’t go to secondary school,” he added.
Musoke says the school dropout rate in Kamuli stands at 31 per cent and he views this as a question of waste of resources, yet these innocent pupils could have been educated and turned into productive citizens of the nation.
Musoke attributes the school dropout rate to increased corruption in the country, where money which should have developed UPE schools has been embezzled and the education system collapsing. He cites other causes as early pregnancies and marriages for girls, poverty and high levels of illiteracy amongst parents.
“The parents lost the grip of supporting the education of their children as the quality of education kept declining. They prefer marrying their children off at a tender age to get money from bride price and ruining their future in the process,” Musoke said.
Like many sub-Saharan countries, Uganda has seen the number of children accessing primary education, through UPE, jump dramatically. But there are still many gaps that contribute to hindering the children from completing school and attaining high-quality education.
“Last year, Plan Uganda released its own survey of early-grade literacy in Kamuli district that indicated reading skills in the district being at risk. Only 36 per cent of the P.1 and P.2 pupils assessed could identify and name more than 15 letters of the alphabet; 11 per cent could read at least nine familiar words. Also, eight per cent could read a short story of 60 words in one minute, five per cent could listen and understand a story while 6 per cent demonstrated spelling skills,” Henry Achai, the Kamuli district project coordinator of Plan Uganda, an NGO, says.
Achai said the distressing figures were attributed to teachers’ inability to interpret the thematic curriculum correctly, lack of support supervision in schools by the head teacher and inspectors, lack of a conducive learning environment and lack of support from parents.
To weed out these lapses, Plan Uganda moved to support education in Kamuli. And it has paid dividends. For instance, Nakisige, a P.3 pupil, is among the few pupils who have managed to beat the odds jiggers, studying under trees and the lack of quality education in Kamuli to succeed.
She has now benefited from Plan International’s one-year project of enhancing access to quality education in 10 primary schools out of the 180 UPE schools in Kamuli district. Nakisige can now read and write.
“As we are closing the project, many pupils in Kamuli can now read and write. The project was implemented with a goal to improve reading and learning outcomes for primary school pupils in Kamuli district,” Achai says.
To achieve this important goal, Plan conducted refresher training courses for teachers in the use of interactive and innovative child teaching, basing on effective teaching of reading and writing in lower classes. Plan provided them with textbooks and other scholastic materials to improve the effective delivery of literacy lessons which will benefit the pupils.
Betty Babirye, the head teacher of Bugulusi primary school, a rural school with dilapidated structures, says she got emotional when she saw the terrible conditions under which the teachers were working.
“I cried when I was transferred to this school. I knew I could no longer enjoy the teaching profession anymore since nobody would recognise my effort. I got devastated in spirit and lost morale for work,” she says.
“However, Plan came to my rescue when it introduced this project. This has inspired me to reinvent myself and perform my duties, with my staff, effectively,” Babirye said.
She said before the project, parents were not interested in educating their children, but now they participate in supervision of school management and feed their children at school by giving them lunch and breakfast. Fredrick Byakika, the head teacher, Bwooko primary school, said the number of pupils in his school has increased from 600 last year to 865 this year due to the introduction of this project which keeps pupils busy in classrooms.
“Before this project, we were the worst performers in the district and registered no first grades at PLE. The government was not providing us with scholastic materials and there was no coordination between teachers and parents,” he said.
“The teachers were also absent from school and had lost the morale of teaching, since the children were not interested in studying and their parents were not supporting them,” he added.
Eunice Mirembe, the P.7 class teacher at Bwooko, said reading had helped her pupils to gain confidence and she could engage them in reading, even if she was not in class.
Byakika says if there is no timely release of funds for UPE schools to buy scholastic materials and improvement in rural teachers’ accommodation, Uganda’s UPE is likely to collapse completely.
He cautioned that when children are not supported to perform better during early primary, they will definitely not perform at higher levels and this could be dangerous to the nation.