Peter Kiwanuka, a father in his mid-30s, works with a Non Governmental Organisation in Kampala’s central business district. Before he wed, 10 years ago, he had promised himself never to send his children to a boarding primary school. But he has been forced to break that promise after enduring a draining daily school run for four years.
A school run means the act of parents dropping and picking their children from school. Kiwanuka’s two children, who are in Primary Five and Primary Seven, are at Mugwanya Preparatory School. Before he sent them to boarding schools, he used to wake up at 4:30a.m every day to get his children ready to go to school at Kampala Parents Primary School, at 7a.m.
“Many times they woke up crying, had their breakfast in mid-sleep and eventually slept in the car on the way to school,” Kiwanuka says. Due to the heavy traffic jam, Kiwanuka had to be on the road from his home in Nsangi, at 6:30a.m., yet the earliest the children got back home was 9p.m., again due to the jam on the road.
To compound matters, the kids had a lot of homework, which they had to do after their supper before they slumped into bed close to midnight, only to be woken up at 4:30a.m. again!
Right across the city, many parents are finding themselves in this maddening rush to get children to school before 7a.m., especially if they are studying at some of the high class private primary schools like Kampala Parents Primary School, City Parents Primary School, Greenhill Academy and Kampala Parents Primary School 2004. But why are they keen on enduring this pain?
The parents say they go through this because they want their children to get top marks or aggregate 4 at PLE. With the competition in good secondary schools getting fierce, primary school heads are bracing themselves to satisfy this growing army of parents who want top marks for their children.
One such parent, Tendo Mutale, a businessman in Kampala, says he has decided to cope with the pressure of taking his children to school early and fetching them late. He says his daughter, who is now in Primary Four, leaves home in Nateete at 6:40a.m and must be in class at Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School by 7a.m.
“I feel that this is the only system that works; if she doesn’t study here, she will not succeed and I will have failed her,” Mutale said.
He is opposed to taking his daughter to government owned schools because he feels they no longer guarantee good grades in national exams.
“I admit that the system is rotten, but these children have their best chance when studying in private schools,” Mutale says.
He feels that government schools are no longer under pressure to provide good schooling. Mutale is also opposed to sending his children to boarding primary school insisting that they are too young. “A child needs parental assistance and should not go to a boarding school at that young age,” he said.
However, he is a bit concerned that children carry dozens of exercise books and textbooks in the rucksacks every day, yet some of these books are not used everyday. “These children end up carrying eight kilogrammes of books around everyday, or risk being caned,” he empathised.
The situation is no better in boarding schools where children have night preps up to 11p.m. and yet they have to wake up before 5a.m. for morning preps.
The Commissioner for Pre-Primary Education, Resty Muziribi acknowledges the problem exists especially in private schools. State supported schools usually start classes after 8a.m. However, she explains that the ministry requires all schools to start at 8:15a.m each day and close at 5p.m. She adds that she is also aware that some schools are flouting this policy to get pupils into schools earlier on the pretext of completing the syllabus.
Muziribi says the Ministry of Education is not well equipped to deal with the problem due to decentralisation. “The schools are under the divisions and municipalities, so we can only offer guidelines and come in when the problem becomes too big,” she said. Muziribi added that the long hours at school are not healthy for young children.
“We know this is happening but since parents are not publicly complaining, we are not in position to clampdown on the issue as yet.”
Although some head teachers say they are pressured by parents into ensuring that their children pass exams, most declined to admit it openly.
“Parents put us under a lot of pressure if we fail to provide substantial homework,” says Robert Mugerwa, a deputy head teacher at Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School in Mengo.
He denies that the children spend too much time in school. “We don’t overload these children. Some of them need to be inspired to study on their own – some even go to the internet,” he said.
However, Commissioner Muziribi does not buy that argument. She insists that teachers are professionals and should be able to tell how much teaching is too much.
“Doctors are not under pressure from patients to get medical prescriptions; so, why should teachers complain that parents make them teach excessively…?” she asks.
Muziribi says that by succumbing to this pressure, the teachers are failing the learning process.
“These children go through one test after another including homework and at the end of the day they become competent at passing exams instead of becoming intelligent sociable people,” she said.
FOUR STAGES OF LEARNING
Raising Voices, an organization working with the Ministry of Education to enhance quality education in the country has set out a handbook, by its co-director, Dipak Naker, in which it explains that the ideal learning process has four stages. Naker explains that while the process starts in school, it is enhanced throughout one’s learning over many years.
In the first stage, children are taught at an early age how to pay attention and grasp critical information. At this stage they are also taught how to develop reliable and effective skills for memorizing information.
Naker explains that this is initially done through drama, music, physical exercise and pictures. Over time, different methods like scientific experiments are used.
The second stage involves the learner being taught to compare information with other knowledge that is already known and to assess whether it is relevant and meaningful. This helps students learn to use logic in memorising and later explaining information, a skill now in great demand in passing school homework as well as essays and structured questions.
In the third stage, a pupil is taught to explore the sources of information and make decisions about its truth and usefulness. “Students who can make sound and justifiable decisions have developed the skills and honed the instincts that allow them to make mature judgments,” Naker explains. In the last stage, students are taught to apply the knowledge they have gained.
However, teachers have resorted to copying out notes which the students are then taught to reproduce in tests and homework. According to Naker, how the students feel about internalizing the information is unimportant.
Indeed the failure to grasp the information and poor exam scores are explained as lack of effort by the student not the teacher. “In many cases, fear and shame will motivate the student to the required effort and avoid mistakes,” Naker says.
LOST JOY, LOST CREATIVITY
With lots of work to do, most students and pupils have no time to play or socialize, unlike in the past. The days when girls tucked their dresses up and played a ball game called kwepena (dodge the ball) are long gone.
In place of games, children think about the next test or what homework they will be taking home with them. Once upon a time, boys made their cars from wires they gathered from all corners of the village; cut used slippers into round balls for tyres, and competed over who made the best truck, van or car.
Today’s children are content to lose out on this creativity and wait for their parent to buy them a plastic ball, toy car or pistol from the supermarket. The toy cars even come with remote controls – depriving the children of the need to run around and play.
Mutale, whose daughter is in this category, says he is concerned about her development. “Almost all her conversations with fellow students and parents centre on school work,” Mutale said.
Kajumba Mayanja, a clinical psychologist at Makerere University says one of the best gifts one can give children is to let them play. He explains that psychologists can tell whether a child has a problem with their development and mental health by observing them play.
He warns that parents and teachers who are pumping their children with lots of school work and not enough time to relax and socialize are stunting their development. Kajumba says that overall, a child that plays is healthier than one who doesn’t.
“When children play, they also learn how to talk; their vocabulary and their language develops,” he said.