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O-level curriculum: what went wrong?

With about three weeks to the start of the first term, teachers in secondary schools will continue to implement the current O-level curriculum for an unspecified period of time. YUDAYA NANGONZI picks up the pieces on a debate that has many wondering what is in store for the next generation of O-level students.

While a new curriculum developed by the Uganda National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) was expected to start this year in 20 schools across the country, and later be rolled out to other schools in 2018, this will not happen.

This follows a December 21, 2016 meeting at State House in Entebbe, in which President Museveni advised that the new curriculum should be suspended to allow more adjustments.

In the meeting, the president emphasized the need to reduce the number of subjects taught at O-level from the current 48 to 14 in order to cut out repetition, duplication and overload on students.

Of the 48 subjects, 47 are examined by the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb). The president directed each of the nine public universities to second a lecturer to work with the NCDC on the proposed reforms to the curriculum.

EIGHT WASTED YEARS

In 2008, NCDC started work on updating the curriculum, following concerns that it was now outdated, having been adopted in 1965. The work was hinged on imparting much needed skills, called generic skills, that employers were looking for in graduates.

As of 2016, the curriculum had reached the final stage where textbooks were to be prepared, teachers retooled, and 20 schools identified for the pilot project. But the December 21, 2016 meeting at Entebbe, now termed “historical” by some of our sources that attended, changed everything.

Museveni in a meeting with university dons and ministry of education officials where he directed that the new O-level curriculum be halted

A source tell us that it was unfair for government to halt implementation of the curriculum this year after several consultations had been made in the development process.

“The meeting was so broad, with about 30 university professors. So, with all the changes that were proposed, we may start working on the new curriculum around 2020 or 2021 with NCDC,” the source said.

Last week, we reported that the same meeting also proposed 14 subjects that would stay on the O-level syllabus, but there were concerns that subjects such as agriculture, home economics, technical drawing, metal/wood work, building practice and music had been dropped. The affected subjects would, instead, be taught in technical/farm institutes and polytechnic institutions.

WRONG MOVE

However, the proposal of dropping vocational subjects has drawn the most protests from education experts, while other Ugandans displayed their anger on social media.

James Tweheyo, the Uganda National Teachers' Union secretary general, said it was wrong to drop some subjects from the syllabus, as there must be a clear correlation between what is taught and why it is taught.

“This country does not need jokers in the education sector. You cannot say that you are dropping agriculture from the curriculum when about 75 per cent of Ugandans are majorly engaged in agriculture,” Tweheyo thundered. “Where do you want people to go when they drop out of school? I think some people in the ministry of education need to wake up and be serious.”

He added that a subject like Home Economics is a good entry point for students targeting the fast-growing hotel industry in the country. Maxima Nsimenta commented on The Observer Twitter page: “They should have dropped Geography [since] we study about irrelevant topics like the Canadian prairies or West African history.”

Another reader added: “Please no! The wood work I studied in form two earned me Shs 300,000 in 1996. The technical drawing I did helped me to sketch my house plan.”

The subject proposals are still puzzling more people and hope that they are not approved by government.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

In coming up with all these proposals, one would be wondering if this happened in just a day. We have established that all this started after disagreements emerged among officials in the ministry of education, NCDC and some university leaders following a series of consultative meetings.

“In some consultative meetings with parliament, it was realised that even internally, there were a certain calibre of staff that had not appreciated the new curriculum. We held several meetings and they could not openly give us their views,” the source said. “But when the president invited us back to State House, they tabled completely different things that also led to proposals of dropping some O-level subjects.”

Fred Mwesigye, the executive director of Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda (FENU), told us that, on several occasions, some university officials snubbed NCDCs’ consultative meetings.

“NCDC did its part but if other people decided to run to the president instead of the ministry at the last hour, then this was total chaos,” Mwesigye said. “[At many of the meetings] we sat, tabled our issues and we were listened to. So, if another group is also not happy, will it run to the president to ask for more changes? As Ugandans, we need to grow up.”

Our source said at some point different groups of people, including some who attended the meeting, were flown out of the country to see how other countries had reviewed their curricula.

According to the source, the major bone of contention arose from NCDC coming up with what are called science learning areas, where Biology, Chemistry and Physics would become one.

“One group [among] the universities and in the ministry felt the merger of the subjects was not proper, since they all require different approaches to be admitted for various courses at the university,” the source said. “There [wasn’t] much discussion about other subjects, but these science learning areas brought a big problem. It seems even some technocrats had not understood what we were doing.”

Furthermore, the teaching methodology was also going to change under the new curriculum, since a teacher would now come in as a facilitator of learning, thus promoting self-learning on the learner’s part. But those who believed in the traditional approach of the teacher-knows-it-all were uncomfortable with this arrangement.

There was another component of the initial cost of about Shs 110bn that was required to implement the new curriculum. This, according to our source, was a quick turn-off for government that made implementation of the curriculum remain an unfunded priority.

In 2008, the World Bank had funded the development of the new curriculum under the Support to Universal Post Primary Education and Training (UPPET) project.  Under the Adaptable Programme Lending (APL1) fund that was given to various developing countries, Uganda managed to also construct classrooms, train head teachers and teachers and develop materials for the new curriculum.

Unfortunately, there were no resources under the APL1 project to kick-start the implementation of the curriculum. So, the project closed in July 2014 before implementation could start.

Although the World Bank had committed itself to come up with a follow-up on the project last year, the on-and-off meetings with parliament and the president that called for more consultations stalled implementation.

DISCUSSIONS CONTINUE

Despite the continuing public complaints about the planned changes in the O-level curriculum, education ministry officials have been at pains to assure anyone who will listen, that this is not the final programme.

“We still have a number of meetings to iron out a few things, plus the universities are yet to send representatives to the committee suggested by the president,” an official reported to us.

However, this official declined to be named, insisting that they were not the designated spokesperson for the curriculum development process.

“Anyone who wants details should ask the minister or permanent secretary, as they are fully in charge of this process,” the source said.

Our source added that the public should be confident that the process would produce a new curriculum that was acceptable and beneficial. Only time will tell if this promise is fulfilled.

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