What is wrong with Uganda’s education system?
We hear this all the time.
It has become a popular lament that goes something like this: Ugandans are unproductive, economically underdeveloped, lazy, at or near the bottom of the global economic pecking order partly because of our political leaders but mainly because of our education system.
If our education system were a person, he or she would be one of the most condemned people in Uganda.
Policy makers in the current government have tried to solve this problem by planning to move resources and emphasis from the arts subjects to the sciences.
Many Ugandans with moderately comfortable incomes have decided to abandon it altogether and send their children to schools in Kenya, South Africa, Europe or North America.
Others who cannot afford schools abroad now enroll them in private schools and others in international schools in Uganda. The illusion is that any school with the word “international” is a good school.
The rest of us who can’t afford any of these options are left to gloomily lament the fate of our children.
It is not a good time to be Uganda’s education system.
But let us think for a moment. Is the education system really this bad or might the problem lie elsewhere?
Let us go back 20 years to 1995 when the first commercial Internet service provider, Infomail, entered the Ugandan market. Uganda started to take its first steps in what was at that time referred to as the Information Super Highway.
Gradually, after first being intimidated by this new and strange world of lower case letters, signs like “@”, “//http:” and “www”, we adapted.
We learnt how to compose and send email, read it, search for information in the engines of the time Lycos, AltaVista, Excite and Yahoo.
We learnt how to attach text documents to our email and learnt how to copy several people into our email.
By the early 2000s, we had started learning how to send photos via email, download programmes and photos.
In the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, we learnt how to download music onto the new thumb drives and external hard drives.
We also learnt how to use the early consumer pocket digital cameras and of course by this time the mobile phone had gone mass market and mainstream and we were experts at sending sms text messages and downloading music ringtones.
Around 2008, the first large numbers of Ugandans started getting onto a new social media network called Facebook. We learnt how to upload profile pictures, search for and link with long-lost friends, classmates and share photos and gossip.
When the early 3G+ Internet arrived in 2010 via Orange telecom, we learnt how to download videos and music, as some started to own the new Internet-enabled (or “smart” phones).
Around 2013, many Ugandans started getting onto a new social network called WhatsApp, now with more Ugandan users than the other main social platform Twitter.
All this rather complicated digital and Internet technology, tens of thousands of ordinary Ugandans who had attended ordinary UNEB schools somehow learnt to use.
There were no workshops and special courses at school or in town to teach us. We just learnt from each other, from family members, office colleagues or classmates.
Today, a Ugandan who attended a UNEB school can do almost anything on the Internet or with a smartphone that a London- or Los Angeles-educated Briton or American can do.
In other words, the world is driven today by digital technology and devices and Ugandans are comfortable with using these technologies.
And not just UK-educated or US-based Ugandans alone but ordinary Ugandans living in Arua, Masaka, Kasese, Mbale, Kampala, Soroti and Jinja towns.
The question, then, is why do we think our traditional eduction system is all that defective?
How come we who were educated under it manage to have the skills and minds open enough to easily adapt to these new and fairly advanced late 20th Century consumer digital technologies?
As Professor Mahmood Mamdani asked us first year students in one of his opening Political Science lectures at Makerere University, if the Ugandan education system is that bad, how come it produced the same Makerere University that was for decades a prestigious institution across Africa?
We must understand what the Ugandan education system was created for. It was mainly a grammar school type, stressing the basic read, write and arithmetic skills and an exact replica of the British school system.
Uganda, like most of Tropical Africa, was not going to be an industrial power in 1910. The country was just being built up from scratch, training clerks to take up the future roles for the basic desk work in public administration and the civil service.
For what it was created, it worked well for most of the first 80 years since the founding of the first secondary schools like Mengo S.S, Namilyango College, Gayaza High School, St. Mary’s College Kisubi and King’s College Budo.
There was nothing wrong with that.
Uganda’s immediate needs were not rocket scientists or computer scientists but well-trained clerks to record births, deaths, marriages, take population census data, hut tax information, record agricultural harvests and food production, process official application forms and school exam results.
What we appear to have failed to do, or what we have progressively failed at, is sustaining these clerical skills.
The caliber of writing on Facebook is the primary example of failing at the basics of grammar, spelling and simple, primary school written expression.
And, as dismayed parents who have sent their children to private and international schools are starting to discover, even today’s “elite” educated Ugandan children write nearly as badly as children from UPE schools.
All those millions of shillings and thousands of dollars spent in international schools in Kampala and abroad in the hope of giving their children a good start in life have come down to the inability to write better than “LOL!”, “BRB”, “plz” and “thx”.
Most averagely better-off families today install satellite pay TV in their homes and so begins the other bit of damage — television as the enemy of the mind.
Just as much of the stylish fast foods we eat actually are bad for us, these well-designed flat screen objects in our homes can be a liability if we don’t understand how to view them with discretion.
Too much time watching entertainment TV, playing video games and jumping about bouncing castles has left most children from “middle class” families unable to write and think clearly.
On the face of it, some speak with British or American accents. But go past the accents and what we have is the appalling writing that the Kampala Express does battle with daily from incoming comments from readers.
In a certain way, some children from more humble but disciplined families that cannot afford pay TV and video games are forced to read books a little more and ironically this poverty gives them a future advantage over their counterparts from TV-obsessed wealthier families.
In summary, as far as I can see, the Ugandan education system in its original form created by the colonial administration and shaped along the lines of the British school system was okay.
It produced former president Godfrey Binaisa, excellent and witty writers like John Nagenda, a future Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki and a future Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.
It produced most of the best lawyers, judges, editors, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, university lecturers, medical doctors and civil servants of note between 1897 when Mengo S.S. was founded and a century later in 1997 around the time the current UPE was introduced.
It was an S.4 student at a humble UPE school in Nsambya in Kampala who helped create the account and Facebook page for the Kampala Express in Sept. 2014 when this editor of the Kampala Express was totally clueless about how to use Facebook.
Even in its current UPE form, the Ugandan education system can still deliver the basic skills.
Where it has failed is in becoming a victim of the commercialization of education, where competition to rank among the best schools at UNEB exams is now the focus.
The other failure has also been in not making a better job of orienting students to the new, fast-moving, technologically-driven world.
But from the nightmare of poor writing I see daily on social media, if anything I think we need this old-school education system even more now than during the 1950s or 1960s.
As already stated, we have effortlessly adapted to the digital technology that dominates our lives today, so the issue of “sciences” does not much arise. What we have failed to do is to bring the old-time, old-school diligence to social media and the Internet era.
This return to old-school, old-time 1970s diligence is what the Kampala Express largely tries to do. Nothing fancy.
If we can just return to writing in that proper, formal way of years past, that alone will make the Kampala Express seem like an “elite” paper, before we get into the obsession with the latest digital technology.
What a newspaper like the Kampala Express badly and urgently needs and is looking for right now is not people expert at streaming video and music or downloading software, but who can write with the basic clarity of a primary school child of the 1960s and 1970s — sentences that start with capital letters and end in full stops, and those who write “thanks” or “thank you” rather than “thx”.
The New Vision, Daily Monitor, the Observer, NTV, Urban TV, and WBS TV, I know for a fact, are faced with the same desperate need for people who can just write in the old, proper way.
So, just as we were able to learn by trial and error in sending email, downloading music, opening and using social media pages, uploading photos for our social media pages without formal classroom training, the way out of our present mediocrity is the same — we just need to start being serious, reading serious books and serious magazines to organise our thoughts.
The Internet itself is full of oceans of rubbish, but it is also full of excellent and priceless material, better than what the 20 best schools in the world can ever offer.
We just need to get out of our mental laziness, aggravated by video games and social media, and apply ourselves to learning and with that, we shall become as skilled as any child educated in Britain, Canada, America or France.
If parents would just act as guides to their children, that alone would produce wonders. If some of us would only sit down once a week with our children and guide them around the Internet’s best quality websites, they would learn more than what international schools teach.
If only some of us with Zuku, StarTimes, Azam TV, DSTV and so on would just occasionally tune in to National Geographic or Discovery channels for a change and not always SuperSport or the Latino soaps, six months of that would open our minds to quality programming.
One accusation leveled at our education system is that it teaches too much cram work and not enough creative thinking.
Well, I only wish Ugandans would just cram more for a start. The right kind of cramming.
I wish we would cram and memorise the fact that a sentence begins with a capital or uppercase letter and proper place names like “Africa” or Kampala” start with an uppercase letter. Cramming of the right things is not necessarily a bad thing.
We have all crammed our bank PINs, email and social media passwords, without which we would not be able to function.
Cramming the simple details of P.4 writing alone would make life much easier for the Kampala Express and other Ugandan newspapers.
Even if we abandoned the sciences and taught only the arts in school, just by working on our skills in the arts subjects would do much for Uganda.
Knowing Ugandans and other Africans as we generally are, anyway, even if we taught nothing but sciences in school, we would still not have the discipline to do what the Europeans and East Asians are creating in precision technology.
So we might as well try and perfect the area where we have the best chance, that is the arts, particularly English which happens to be our official language and, fortunately, the dominant language of the Internet.
Then maybe we could find a place in the world market by translating documents, working at call centres and so on.
Our main problem, from what I can see, is not our old education system.
The problem is with us.