Has Uganda’s Education system gone to the dogs? #GuestPost

I have read James Wire’s blog post on how Budo, SMACK, Gayaza et. al. are digging their graves and thought I should take the time to share my thoughts.

Before I do, I’d like to establish my bona fides, since what I have to say may strike some as pretty radical. I am a product in part of the Ugandan school system. I sat for P.L.E some time in the late eighties. I knew my place at Kings College Budo was guaranteed, seeing as I had heard my name announced on radio as one of the best performers that year. After Budo, I won a scholarship to attend a leading Ivy League university. After four years there, I won another scholarship to attend one of the Oxbridge universities for a post-graduate degree. I have taught for many years at a local university and also been active in consulting and business. In short, I have been through the Ugandan education system, been through (what many rightly see as) the gold standard in education systems, taught in the Ugandan system, interacted closely with the products of P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E and for years employed them as well. I would tentatively suggest that I am as qualified as the next man to critique the system in broad terms, and to offer possible solutions to parents seeking to give their children the best they can.

James, though a careful and honest thinker, is dancing around a core truth: That the education system is fundamentally broken. That it makes no sense at all for a middle class parent of means to put their child through the current P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E system, and that those who are making money off the fiction are happy that no one is examining this system closely. The underlying, often unspoken, myth of this system is that top grades lead to success in life. Parents as a result are stampeded into doing everything to try and ensure their children attain those high grades: soul-crushing school hours, creativity-sapping rote learning, buying of places in top schools, etc. The result, in my modest experience, is a lost generation, unsuited to the world they will experience as adults. The problem is of course that the parents are as lost as their children. For some reason they don’t try to honestly assess current world trends (in terms of what those mean for future employment or work opportunities) or are too afraid to deviate from the norm.

First, let me restate the obvious. Given current trends, Uganda’s formal sector cannot possibly generate enough jobs over the next ten or twenty years to match the number of graduates (or indeed post-secondary leavers) the education system is putting out. The results are everywhere you look. The implied promise of the current education system is that if you get good grades, then you will get a good job. The jobs are not only few, with the current pressure on the grading system (where a 1 in a PLE subject may mean scoring above 96%), those good grades have become as elusive as the American Dream. The only people who benefit from this edifice are the schools, extracting ever-growing fees, and the education management bureaucracy.

Secondly, and again to restate what must surely be obvious, Uganda and Africa are brimming with opportunity and promise, just not so much in the regular, formal sector. I despair when I meet one of my former students, all shirt-and-tie-and-clerical-job, whose father is still struggling to run their family farm in Kiruhura District as he has for the last twenty or so years to educate his children. I despair because on close questioning, it soon emerges that his family is still making quite a good income living off the cattle. The son, if he went back, could improve the farm’s earnings even more, and have a vastly richer life (and experience) for it. Yet both father and son will not hear of it; success means Kampala and a Kampala life! I understand of course that this is borne of a system that was created by the colonialists to train city types, karani class, and that we haven’t taken the time to examine it and reform it for a new era. The city needs its workers, but it is surely not optimal that all our best and brightest are jostling for a piece of city life, and ignoring vastly richer pickings out in the wilds.

To put my money where my mouth is, I can confidently say I will not put my children through this system. I have no intention of raising their hopes, only for them to walk from one office to the next, CV in hand, begging for non-existent jobs. I have no intention of wilfully training karani. Africa’s future requires a cadre of widely educated men and women. Men and women who, whatever their formal schooling (doctor, lawyer, etc.), are able to quickly interpret new environments and make the right decisions. The ideal well-educated African of the next twenty years should be perfectly capable of earning a law degree and after that going off to Karamoja to establish a new game reserve on long-disused ancestral land. (Yes, the earnings, in twenty years, from a modest game reserve will far exceed those from lawyering away in apartments in Ntinda.) We have focussed too much on schooling and not enough on education.

And so, you might ask, what does this education of such a future African look like? Let me tentatively offer a random selection of my thoughts on this:

  1. Walk away from the P.L.E/U.C.E/U.A.C.E track. No half measures. You can’t put your child in that system and still protect them from its creativity-sapping, soul-crushing effects. The imperatives of this system are to generate top grades. That means long hours, masses of homework, cheating and all other vices. Instead, I recommend home schooling or (better) putting your child into one of several smaller institutions that follow ‘international’ curricula (typically A.C.E but there are other good ones). Most of these have grown out of home schooling arrangements. And they are growing in number. A key advantage of these schools is that the curriculum is much more focussed on your child understanding concepts rather than rote learning them. The pace is also a lot less soul crushing; kids get to play a lot more, which is great for mind development. I am not a huge fan of your run-of-the-mill international school; you know, the one charging thousands of dollars ostensibly to deliver a result our local system will not. First, because such schools tend to attract a certain type of parent (typically more money than time or indeed sense – see below) and so apart from breaking the bank, your child tends to grow up in a surreal world, second because I believe fundamentally that delivering an outstanding education is incompatible with the profit motive. Any time you are unjustifiably asked to pay huge sums for education, take a step back. That said I accept that some of these schools may in fact provide a good alternative for some parents.

  2. Education is not something you simply throw money at. A parent needs to be actively involved in educating their child. A parent needs to have time for their child. This means not only supplementing where the school may fall short – for instance I believe strongly that where the alternative system may not have a Ugandan or African History (or Geography) syllabus, the parent must step in and ensure the child is educated in these important contextual issues. Education is not merely about that which will be examined. While all children need to be given a strong foundation in Literature, Mathematics and the physical sciences, a good education is not about just these subject areas. Ensure your child picks up knowledge in lots of other subject areas as well (local/regional history, literature, etc.) Provide the exposure even simply by making key books available to them.

  3. Education is about learning your environment and what it takes to live and work with it. How often do you take your five-year-old child to market day at Nakawa with you? And if not, how will they learn about some of the realities of the country in which they live? How will they learn to parse local slang, learn to weave through Ugandan crowds, avoiding a boda boda here, a charcoal carrier there? Does your seven-year-old child sweep and scrub the floor, wash dishes or wash their clothes? Or are these considered jobs for workers? Does your twelve-year-old know how to prepare a full meal? Children must learn early to work with their hands, and consider it absolutely normal performing even the lowliest of tasks. Any child who grows up with lunkulu will find it hard to prosper in Africa. When his/her farm workers tell him it is impossible to trim a small bush, he will go hire a tractor, instead of picking up a panga and shaming them into action by doing it himself. The best leaders (and leaders is what you want to create) are those who don’t just tell others what to do but can show them what to do. That’s where the premium lies.

  4. Related to the above, education is about exposure. Allow the child to encounter (in a deftly controlled manner of course) a diverse array of people and settings. The Baganda had it all figured out: a future Kabaka never grows up in the palace. He grows up in the provinces as a commoner, interacting with his future subjects as one of them. Take your child to a rural uncle’s home and leave them there. Let them learn to overcome challenges their modern lifestyle would not ordinarily throw at them. Learning to navigate the modern world (iPads, Social Media, Dubai malls, etc.) they can learn later in life. What they will have difficulty learning at an advanced age is how to immerse easily in their own country, across social classes and across the myriad cultures of this land. Train your child for Africa. Not for Europe or America. They represent the past, not the future. Ensure your child speaks a local language well. Luganda is a must. (Yes, way!)

  5. Teach them patient self-application. I do not believe in giving your five-year-old child an iPad. That’s just stupid. (Yes, really.) I also don’t believe in TV, but I understand that a little bit of it may be acceptable. Instant gratification is the best way to destroy your child’s future.

  6. Expect to spend money on your child’s university education. A degree is still important, and will be important for years to come. I have met a lot of very smart, very capable people who don’t have a degree. They struggle. Not for lack of ability, but because the world demands that third-party validation that a degree provides. A degree essentially certifies that this person is educated. I know that this is increasingly not true in our country, but don’t start fights you can’t win; find the money, and send your child to a decent university. In Uganda, I rather like UCU and Nkozi. The rest, I am not so sure; many of them seem to have been overwhelmed by UPE products. Standards have suffered as a result. If you can afford it, and careful saving over ten or so years means for a lot of parents can, send your child to a decent university abroad.

  7. Stop trying to turn your child into a bog-standard ‘professional’. You know, lawyer, doctor, and engineer. Especially if that child is of above average intelligence. What no one tells you is that you don’t have to be that intelligent to make it in most of those standard professions. Allow your children to dream while at the same time having their feet firmly planted on solid ground. Teach them to measure success not in terms of ‘prestige’ but in terms of real value: How they improve society, what they build/create, etc. Teach them to find always seek to make/find a way, and not to accept defeat easily.

  8. Controversial as it may seem, ensure they have a knowledge of and fear of God. The arguments are long, but for now trust me on this one. While at it, do not allow them to become so narrow-minded in their beliefs that they are too quick to dismiss our traditional ways without first examining them intelligently.

Enjoy the journey. And try and overlook my failings in this article. Instead focus on the broader message.

PS: I don’t wish to become the story; rather I would like you, dear reader, to focus on what I have to say. To that end, James agrees not to reveal my identity, since it is not central to what I have written.

24 responses to “Has Uganda’s Education system gone to the dogs? #GuestPost

  1. Pingback: SMACK, Namilyango, Gayaza, Lubaale Mubbe | The Wire Perspective

  2. I cannot agree more on the points raised in this article. First and foremost, I have been teaching for over 20 years and I have come to realise that the role of the teacher has to change if our students are going to continue to compete with students all over the world. Teachers used to stand in front of classes and “dish out” knowledge to the students. This should no longer be the case because knowledge is everywhere- on the Internet. The teacher should now become a guide in the classroom, his/her position should now be in the center of the classroom, watching over all the students guiding them but most importantly allowing students to be at the center of their learning.
    Secondly, teachers and schools should be focusing on building thinking skills by allowing students to question, challenge, evaluate, interpret and verify what is taught. Students also need collaborative skills, and I am purposely saying collaboration, not cooperation because everyone must participate in order to learn from one another. If you look at projects which are successful today, there is a high degree of collaboration, not one person is running the show.
    Lastly, schools must foster creativity and exploration of God given talents in students. Each one of us has a talent and by nurturing and developing that talent we are able to excel and contribute to our societies in ways others are not able to. It is for this reason that we talk about and respect people like Einstein, Picasso etc. On this list, you can add all the local musicians, comedians, leaders, preachers etc who “did not go to school” but have greatly contributed to our society.


  3. Without wasting more time, government needs to address overhaul the education system and save the future generations.
    Cornestone Leadership Academy is one of the schools with a non-traditional approach to education. http://www.cornerstonedevelopment.org


  4. It is a great article, however, it is also true that Ugandans, educated in Uganda, are leading in so many fields on the regional and global level…let us not throw out the baby with the bath water, there is something to be said for a system where so many go through and come out to do great things…

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a common defence of the status quo. Yet when examined it often falls over. I suspect (and correct me if I am wrong) that you are talking about all those Ugandans who end up at the World Bank, or at the ICC, or as successful lawyers or doctors in America or Europe. But where are the successful real estate moguls in America that are products of this Ugandan system? Where are the Ugandans founding novel research institutes? Where are the Ugandans leading reforestation drives in the Amazon? I suspect these are few and far between. Perhaps it only goes to prove how our system is so oriented towards producing clerks when we celebrate highly-paid Ugandans clerking their way through the World Bank or the ICC, playing tool to other people’s agendas? Perhaps we are so thoroughly brainwashed we cannot see that our best and brightest need to be put to better use? Of course the system as-is can produce people who can read, write and do some arithmetic, who go on to learn a few extra bits of instruction following (a.k.a trades degree)…


  5. While I agree with the suggestion to invest more in vocational training etc, I also think what is urgently required is the stuff that adds an “X” factor to a graduate of our schools at any level, whether vocational or otherwise. Things like leadership, an entrepreneurial mindset, critical thinking, out of the box thinking, examination of ideas, seeing yourself as a solutions provider, etc. This is what some parents are desperately seeking and the non-traditional schools sometimes are able to offer that. One of my kids has gone through a system where working in teams is the norm, research is done from a tender age, and adapting your learning to provide solutions around you is required. Can educators find a way to make radical changes that incorporate such things alongside the national curriculum?


  6. Very true, our current education system is totally misdirected and i see a souring job crisis in the country. A child that cannot produce good grades in our current system is considered weak. But remember this kid is talented or is gifted in something that the system cannot explore because the current system was designed to output mainly “white collar” job seekers.
    Look at how vocational schools have been ignored country wide. Right from the ministry of education to the press coverage, emphasis is less on vocational schools. These schools operate on meager resources, financial and structural. The public perspective that only students with poor grades go to vocational schools has existed for long and can be changed. These job creators like carpenters, iron mongers, brick makers, black smiths, welders, shoe makers can play a big role in creating jobs and boosting our economy. Many Asian countries like Japan and China placed emphasis on technical and vocational studies and that is how their countries developed , No wonder we have so many technical expatriates from Japan and China in the construction industry ( buildings, roads and other constructions). Which Engineers are we graduating every Year when we rely on expatriate Engineers ?
    Look at how the Agricultural colleges are struggling. Yet agriculture is the back bone of our economy.
    Suggested solutions:
    1. Government needs revisit its stand on these Tertiary institutions and consider increasing funding, infrastructural support and expanding curriculum to provide degree courses.
    2. Vocational studies should start at Primary school level.
    3. We need constant scrutiny in our education system to tailor it to our national needs. ( What happened to the ” White Paper” and other previous researches ? )


  7. This article will free many parents who are trapped in low value education basket of our education system. Woe to your “slow developing” child; the system will crush their self esteem and label them failures and the object of scorn. I look forward to a rejoinder with info on the non traditional approach to primary education.


  8. Very well written rejoinder. Opinionated as hell but he dares point to empiric as well as hypothetical evidence. I buy his overall argument.


  9. Great article and I totally agree. I have heard several people argue that our curriculum is rich but the problem is the manner in which it is taught re the application. Do you agree? Please ensure your article is published in the press…


  10. Please give us examples of the other smaller institutions you mention here
    “Instead, I recommend home schooling or (better) putting your child into one of several smaller institutions that follow ‘international’ curricula (typically A.C.E but there are other good ones). “


  11. This is very true, i always tell people, how can my child learn what my great grand parent studied.
    We need a complete overhaul of the system if we are to be more competitive.


  12. The whole education systems needs an overhaul. our children waste alot of time learning irrelevant things to the peril of relevant ones


  13. Great article. True to the bone. Thank you!


  14. Pingback: Budo, SMACK, Gayaza etal Stop digging your graves | The Wire Perspective

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