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Why thematic curriculum is still a challenge to schools

When the thematic curriculum was launched in 2007, there was a belief that children starting their learning in the local language would appreciate English better, in their later years. However, as SAMUEL KAMUGISHA has found, the education sector has not been able to keep the critics of this system at bay.

Every year, since 2007, a study comes out to show that children are struggling to learn in their local tongue, and then struggle to transit to English, which is the official language for education.

The thematic curriculum policy requires the use of pupils’ mother tongues as languages of instruction from Primary One to Three and then English from Primary Five to Seven. Primary Four is a transitional year.

Several reasons have been advanced for the challenges; from a lack of textbooks and other learning materials, to poorly-trained teachers, all the way to poor attitude from parents.

Over the last five years, the education sector has appealed to the donor community to support the transition to thematic curriculum. That has included funding for new textbooks as well as training for instructors in the local language. Yet despite all of this, little seems to change.

The latest evidence that things are still not going according to plan, is the Uwezo report, the sixth in a series, which showed that more children are learning better in English than in the local language.

“The acquisition of reading skills in the local language is on average slower than for English,” the report said. While two out of ten P7 pupils were unable to read and comprehend a P2-level English story, findings from a study by Uwezo assessment teams indicate, three out of ten P7 pupils were unable to read and understand a P2-level local language story.

The 2015 Uwezo Uganda survey recorded data on 164,129 children up to the age of 16. The assessments were limited, as in previous years, to children aged 6-16, who regularly resided in the selected households. As the assessment was done during school term time, children in boarding schools were excluded from the assessment.

Uwezo assessors interview a P4 pupil from Bestow PS in Gulu at her home in Laroo division

Some 24,132 P3-P7 pupils in 58 districts were assessed. By Primary Three, about 41 per cent of the respondents were unable to read local language words, syllables, paragraphs and stories at all while about nine per cent of those assessed in primary seven fell in the same category of non-readers.

About 84 per cent of Primary Three pupils and 34 per cent of Primary Seven learners had only attained partial competence. For the five class grades assessed (P3-P7), full competency stood at 35 per cent (65 per cent had attained partial competence) while 28 per cent were non-readers.

DISPARITIES

The study looks at the competence levels for pupils, who had undergone nursery education for the mandatory two years or more and those who hadn’t or had attended just a year. The former group had more chances (41 per cent) than the latter group (28 per cent) of doing well in literacy and numeracy.

Local language competence was also relatively better in private schools (39 per cent) than government schools (33 per cent) and community schools (28 per cent).

Just like with numeracy and English language literacy, pupils who had received coaching lessons performed better in their local languages (46 per cent) than those who had not (32 per cent).

Urban schools performed better than rural ones, the former with an average competence of 40 per cent – six points ahead of the latter (at 34 per cent). The regional differences also manifested in the learning of local languages under the thematic curriculum. On average, the competence levels in the seven languages assessed stood at about 35 per cent.

Runyankore-Rukiga (about 54 per cent), Luganda (about 45 per cent) and Runyoro-Rutooro (about 40 per cent) had higher competences than Leb-Acoli (about 24 per cent), Ateso and Leb-Lango (each at about 22 per cent) and Lusoga (at about 12 per cent).

Generally, competence in the local language remained lower than in both numeracy and English language. For example, whereas about 81 per cent of the pupils had attained full competence in English by Primary Seven, only 68 per cent had attained the same in local language.

WHY THE POLICY HAS FAILED

Part of the problem is with the policy. The curriculum is not fully observed in urban schools across the country. District leaders here have allowed these schools to continue using English as a medium of instruction due to the ethnic diversity of their pupils. Local languages are also not examined at the end of primary education.

Pointedly, Medadi Ssentanda, a lecturer at Makerere University’s language education department, has studied the matter for his PhD at Stellenbosch University. In his study, he looked at 10 schools in Oyam, Rakai and Kampala districts, where he found out that they were concentrating on subjects examinable in Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE).

Titled Thematic curriculum and mother tongue education in Uganda: discrepancies between de jure and de facto language-in-education policy, the 2012 report quotes a school teacher as saying: “Since we are quite few just as you have observed the number of teachers, we concentrate on what is to be examined; that is where our energies are rested. You find that subjects are given names such as major and minor subjects.”

Ssentanda’s findings also indicate that parents were not sensitised. His report quotes teachers as saying that parents “think that [mother tongue] education was intended to fail their children”.

Consequently, parents have been reluctant to send their children to schools that have embraced thematic curriculum. In August 2016, parents in Luweero district were reportedly removing their children from government schools to private ones because the former were teaching pupils between P1 and P3 in Luganda. (See Private schools hinder ‘thematic curriculum’, The Observer, August 15-16, 2016).

Ssentanda’s report also notes that teachers complained that if three years were spent teaching a pupil in the local language and another one year (P4) transitioning, three years (P5-P7) would not be enough for the learning of English language.

The findings also indicate lack of reference books in the local languages. “Government schools have different materials from those of private schools. The available materials are too shallow and repetitive.” the report adds.

It also notes gaps in training teachers in local languages. For example, whereas only six local languages are examinable at O-level, about 35 local languages are lined up for instruction in mother tongues at lower primary level. A 2012 Education Sector Annual Performance report noted that only half of the 455 teachers visited by education ministry officials had been trained to deliver the thematic curriculum.

Meanwhile, in some areas, there is confusion on the local language of instruction in which pupils should be taught. For example, in Buliisa district, over four languages – Lugungu, Alur, Runyoro and Kinyarwanda – are spoken. In Nakasongola, Luganda is spoken in some areas but it can not be understood in certain areas where Luruuli is widely spoken.

SUGGESTIONS

The two reports – Uwezo’s, and Ssentanda’s – paint a picture of a school system unprepared to deliver the thematic curriculum especially as the schools continue to attach more value on grades in national examinations. They also show how unclear the thematic curriculum policy is.

“There is a need to: carry out countrywide linguistic repertoires in schools and communities; examine MT [mother tongue] at end of primary schooling; [and] modify the current language policy to allow more time of learning English and at the same time introduce and/or formalize bilingual education,” Ssentanda recommends.

Uwezo researchers, on the other hand, advise that teaching literacy in local languages be given “targeted support through the special early grade reading and teacher development programmes that have been initiated”.

Such initiatives include: the School Health and Reading Programme (SHRP), the Learning and Retention Activity (Lara) and the Uganda Teacher and School Effectiveness Programme (Utsep) which run in 86 districts across the country. 

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