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Why are students failing sciences?

Science subjects need more teachers, and even love from students

The latest Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) results have brought home more profoundly the high failure rate in the science subjects.

Just like in the 2012 exams, only 0.7 per cent of the entire enrolment passed Physics with a distinction. The situation worsened in Chemistry – 0.4 per cent of the enrolment managed a distinction compared to 0.9 per cent the year before.

Only in Mathematics was there some improvement, 4.1 per cent managing a distinction, compared to 2.1 per cent in 2012. However, even here more than 66 per cent of those enrolled obtained a Pass 8 or worse.

While releasing the results on February 25, 2014, Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) Executive Secretary Matthew Bukenya explained that the performance in sciences remained worrying.

“Nearly 45 per cent did not reach the minimum competency level [in mathematics],” he said. “In the sciences, there is evidence of lack of practical teaching despite tremendous efforts by the ministry of Education and Sports in supplying laboratory equipment to schools.”

He explained that those who failed “found difficulties with questions requiring explanations, description of experimental procedure, use of chemical symbols and formulae, writing of units and dealing with tasks that require practical experience”.

Uneb Chairman Fagil Mandy explained further that science teachers needed more assistance due to poor training, arguing that they were ill-equipped to respond to the demands of the curriculum.

“We may need to take all of them for refresher courses … we want to emphasise originality of thought and critical thinking,” he said.

He revealed that a study by the Uneb had found that most malpractices had been found in the science subjects. He argued that teachers who were poor in the sciences would find it difficult to make their students perform better.

This matter is backed by Dorothy Nakanwagi, a former S.4 student at Kibuli Secondary School, who attributes the poor performance in the sciences to the negative attitude towards the subjects. Nakanwagi believes any improvement will have to start with an attitude change among students.

“I personally did not like Physics, not because it was hard but because I had a negative attitude towards it,” Nakanwagi said.“All I had to do was change my attitude and I passed. So, it was the attitude factor causing poor performance.”

Innocent Okanya, a former student of Teso College Aloet in Soroti, scored 48 aggregates, with his heaviest failures coming in the science subjects, which he said got little time for revision.

“If more time can be given to science subjects, right from senior one, the performance would improve just like the arts subjects,” Okanya explained.

No teachers

Commenting on the problem, the assistant commissioner for Secondary Education in the ministry of Education, Francis Agula, admitted that there was a shortage of science teachers across the country.

“We have carried out an assessment that shows that we have a shortage of 3,082 science teachers, and we have asked the ministry to address this as a matter of urgency,” he said.

Responding to this, Education Minister Jessica Alupo admitted that the sector intended to apply for Shs 21bn in the coming financial year to ensure the requisite teachers are hired to deal with the high failure rate in the sciences.

School dropouts

Even if the money can be found, the sector will still struggle to find the teachers to fill the slots. There are just too few student-teachers specialising in science subjects, especially in the National Teachers’ Colleges (NTCs), where secondary school teachers are trained.

Four of the six NTCs train science-biased teachers: NTC Kabale, NTC Unyama, NTC Muni and NTC Kaliro, each taking in about 200 students annually. The principal of NTC Kabale, Benjamin Turyahikayo admits that his institution hosts the largest number of students – 300, who all graduate after two years of training.

“I think all four institutions can raise at least 1,000 teachers every year; unfortunately even those are not usually absorbed by the sector,” he said last week.

The remaining three major institutions that train science teachers are Makerere, Mbarara and Kyambogo universities, which together account for less than 700 graduates annually.

In the interim, schools are coping in the best way possible. The schools most affected by the teacher shortage are in the rural areas. Most of these also lack the extra funds to hire teachers. Consequently, most are now relying on senior six dropouts as science teachers.

According to the director of studies at Teso College Aloet, George Francis Ojangole, most established science teachers in Soroti, Kaberamaido, Katakwi and Amuria districts have turned to other jobs in the engineering and the health sectors, where they can get better pay.

“Most schools here … have very limited science teachers forcing most schools to rely on senior six dropouts to help in teaching of these subjects,” Ojangole told The Observer, last week.

Ojangole explained that Physics teachers often upgraded their skills and became engineers, while those trained to teach Biology and Chemistry upgraded to clinical officers and pharmacists. Ojangole blames low pay for the crisis.

“There is no way performance can be good in science subjects when one teacher has to hop from one school to another leaving no time for [revision],” Ojangole said.

Joseph Nsubuga, a science teacher at Science Foundation College Bweyogerere, says the low number of teachers is also a major challenge, due to the high student numbers.
“There is no time for one-on-one consultations like the arts subjects as the students are much more than the teachers,” he said.

Finding the required number of science teachers and paying them appropriately may be one step to resolving the problem. The other step will require teachers to find it in them to teach the students to love science subjects. Until then, science subjects may continue to be done poorly in national examinations.


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