By Pius Patrick Akol, Regional Coordinator, Uwezo Uganda

On a warm Sunday morning, an Uwezo Uganda team and I set off on a journey aboard a bus to Ngora District for a five-day assignment as an assessor. Our task is to collect evidenced information for the 2016 Uwezo Beyond Basics Assessment (UBBA) that seeks to establish competencies among Primary 5 and 6 children in literacy and numeracy at the transition from basic (Primary 1-3) to higher level (Primary 4-7). Other passengers aboard the bus quickly notice the exuberance among my team members, as each member attempts to foretell what will unfold during the assessment.

Upon arrival at the district – albeit tired by now – my mood is suddenly lifted after learning that the mobilization had been excellently done by Robert, the district coordinator. All heads of schools had already been notified of our visits and I couldn’t wait to get to my first school the following day.

When all was ready the next morning, I embarked on a trip with my co-assessor through a dusty road to Napirit Primary School, where Rose[1], the school head teacher awaited our arrival. As I approach the school, my eyes are met with old painted classroom buildings, which for a moment evoke old memories of my school days.

As we complete a short questionnaire, my eyes are enticed by the writings on manila papers-stuck on the wall just behind Jane’s seat. My desire is to establish how many pupils passed with first grade that year and years before. With my eyes disappointed, I quickly turn to inquire from Jane, when the school last had a pupil passing in first grade. “The school is trying its best”, is her response; before taking a swipe at the pupils whom she blames for not being serious, and the non-supportive parents blamed for not adequately supporting the school whenever called upon.

As she struck a demeanour of authority in her chair, I struggle to conceal my discomfort with her statement. From it, I am reminded of the blame-game that has hitherto bedevilled many leaders in our society. Many like her have often failed to reflect and learn so as to improve situations around them. Instead, the norm has turned to deflecting their inadequacies to what I term ‘the low-lying excuses’ as convenient defence. Despite this disappointment, I am conscious not to draw negative energy this early, lest I crowd my judgement before the assessment.

Shortly, we request Jane to meet the Primary 5 and 6 class teachers for English and Mathematics as we head to sample out 20 pupils each from the two classes. Led by Jane, we quickly find ourselves inside one of the classrooms that reveals smiling faces of boys and girls, who welcome us in a thunderous chorus as though rehearsed. Before we are introduced to the class teachers and pupils, the first thing that catches my attention is the incorrect pronunciations and tenses from the pupils which leaves me wondering how they would fair, particularly in sentence construction and reading.

Jane courteously introduces us as visitors from Twaweza using Ateso, the local dialect. The children were quite lively and connected quickly with us, which lay ground to explain why we had paid a visit to their school. Without further ado, we quickly engage the teachers in generating the attendance lists for pupils before we sampled out 10 boys and 10 girls each from Primary 5 and 6. With a single test prepared for both classes, pupils were assembled in one of the empty classrooms for the assessment that would establish whether they had mastered the required literacy and numeracy skills based on primary 4-level as the transition class where the medium of instruction is normally English.

We soon embark on distributing the test papers, beginning with English that included sections on dictation, guided composition and sentence writing. As I walk through the corridor spaces between the desks, a boy and girl share a desk, sitting side by side. Some pupils seem uncomfortable because of the short desks that could not fit their legs. The teachers too are quietly perusing the test papers leaving me to only guess as to what they are pondering. It would not be long before I could see the pupils looking up the ceiling as though trying to recall the answers to questions while others seemed nervous and subconsciously bit at the ends of their pens – in search for the correct answers I imagined.

“It was simple”, most pupils responded in chorus when I asked how they found the English test. Other pupils kept silent as they seemed unsure.

In a space of 20 minutes as pupils did the test, I notice some pupils struggle to copy answers from multiplication tables. Midway the test, a few other pupils try to stretch their necks to get a glimpse of answers from colleagues; but upon seeing the assessor, they quickly put on a pretentious demeanour as though nothing was happening. As the mathematics test lasted a bit longer, this provided an opportunity to mark the English scripts. I must say, that I was left with lot of heartache due to how poorly all the children scored in the English test.

Soon after the Mathematics scripts are collected, we immediately embark on a face-to-face testing of pupils’ skills in reading and comprehension. As I listen to every child reading, I realize that many were struggling to read words in the written story with some often reading imaginary words.

On day 4 of the assessment, I meet a 15-year old primary 6 girl who can hardly read nor comprehend a primary 4 level-story. Saddening is that girls like her in many schools in Uganda will in a year’s time, sit for their Primary Leaving Examinations. More puzzling, is that at 15 years old, she ought to be already in senior three of her secondary education cycle.

Quite often poor performance in schools is blamed on government for not doing enough, but parents and guardians ought to shoulder part of the blame, particularly due to their failure to take simple actions like assisting pupils with homework and monitoring pupils’ learning in schools. Providing actual learning as opposed to routine schooling is undeniably the bridge to improving skills for Uganda’s children. In striving to do so, certain things are unforgivable. For instance, on our second day of assessment; some girls were sent to fetch water for a teacher, while others continued with a lesson. Such incidents cumulatively hamper progressive learning.

For a moment, I get encouraged by Government of Uganda’s efforts at one school where an unannounced monitoring visit was made through its hitherto popular Swahili phrase dubbed ‘Kisanja Hakuna Mchezo’ – a symbolism for action without jokes.

For now, I know and believe that these children can overcome these difficulties if only we can all play our roles: government providing the essential inputs and supervision of schools, parents getting interested in the learning of their children and talking to their teachers, and teachers committing more to the day-to-day remedial actions within their means.

[1] School and headteacher names have been changed to protect privacy of institutions and individuals

Pius Patrick Akol shares his experience from conducting assessments on 23rd October 2016 for the Uwezo Beyond Basics Assessments.