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Repeating classes: Is it still relevant for today’s pupils?

As schools prepare to open for the first term of 2018 in February, parents whose children were not promoted to the next class are in a fix.

The mere thought of paying for an additional year in the same class or transferring the child to a different school is a pain in the neck. But is it a wise decision for a child to repeat a class? Writes YUDAYA NANGONZI.

When Anorld Tendo completed primary two in 2014 at Kings Way primary school in Seguku, his teacher labelled him “academically weak”.

His third-term report was not promising but he was narrowly promoted to primary three. His mother Viola Nakanwagi refused to believe that her son was a slow-learner, and plotted to turn his performance around by enrolling him into the boarding section at the same school.

“All I wanted was for my son to be promoted. I thought he was just too playful at home,” Nakanwagi recalls. “[But] the worse came to the worst in boarding section. His performance worsened and he had less concentration in class.”

Despite spending more money on coaching and school fees, Tendo had made no progress by the end of the third term of primary three and he was advised to repeat. Tendo threatened to drop out of school and was only willing to repeat P3 on condition he studied from another school.

Nakanwagi took her son to Silver Spoon primary school in Kibuli. Tendo’s performance slightly improved with the best scores being 50s and 60s. But still Nakanwagi was not impressed by the “average” marks that enabled her son be promoted to primary four in 2017.

“I got depressed this time because I didn’t know what was wrong with my baby boy. I invested a lot in coaching again and talking to his teachers but I was left puzzled,” she says.

She later applied for a vacancy at the nearby Greenhill Academy Kibuli where Tendo’s younger brother studies and performs very well. Unfortunately, he failed the P4 entry interviews “miserably”.

Nakanwagi then switched to Aga Khan primary school where Tendo finally passed the interviews. Sadly, Tendo’s performance deteriorated and could hardly understand a thing on the national curriculum.

“In P4 first term alone, he could not write his homework and comments from teachers were too many. He would get 50s or below in tests. At some point, I wanted to enroll him on the international curriculum but I was discouraged by his teachers and some friends,” she says.

Tendo studied at Aga Khan for only one term and his mother took him back to Silver Spoon PS where he completed primary four last year.
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LEARNING DISABILITY

Towards the end of term one 2017, Nakanwagi’s sister, also a teacher for children with special needs, suspected Tendo might have a learning disability. She advised his mother to seek guidance from Dr Eria Paul Njuki, a specialist in child language and language disability.

Njuki is also a specialist in diagnosing children with dyslexia and autism. Njuki diagnosed Tendo with dyslexia – a medical condition that affects the brain and makes it difficult for one to read and spell words correctly, although victims have otherwise normal intelligence.

“In this case, Tendo is not a weak child. If his teachers understood his challenge, they would work around it. He didn’t even deserve to repeat primary three because he is an intelligent boy,” Njuki told The Observer.

Indeed, Njuki’s consistent interaction with Tendo and his teachers at Silver Spoon helped him greatly improve academically last year.

Previously, Tendo would be registered in third and fourth divisions but he passed with aggregate nine to be promoted to primary five this year.

To Nakanwagi, “this was an excellent achievement from my boy. Recently, he asked me when he is going to start writing his holiday work yet, before, he had no interest in studies.”

Njuki says dyslexics have enormous challenges with academics but are capable of thinking outside the box – just like Tendo who aspires to become and engineer.

Tendo’s handwriting and spellings were poor, he jumbled up numbers, and wrote sentences without spaces, among others, which Njuki explains that all are features of people with dyslexia that schools need to pay attention to. In fact, his mother says teachers occasionally marked his right answers wrong because the scripts were not readable.

While Nakanwagi can now afford a smile, many children are always compelled to repeat classes probably because they don’t have parents with Nakwanagi’s vigilance and resources to find out what is wrong with their children.

Sixteen-year-old Peace Nampiima, a pupil at Makerere University primary school, last year sat Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) for the second time after scoring aggregate 32 (Grade 4) in 2016.

She was forced to repeat after being denied admission into USE schools that fixed their cut-off points at aggregate 28. At the end of first term 2017, Nampiima managed to get aggregate 29 – thanks to extensive revision.

“I am a hardworking girl. I will make it this time and make my mum happy. She is poor,” Nampiima told The Observer. “The exams were difficult compared to last year [2016] but I will pass.”

The confidence on her face shows a determined child but who has not been helped to identify her weakness apart from subjecting her to intensive revision and tests. In the recently-released PLE examination results, Nampiima passed in Div 2 with aggregate 23.

But not all learners can take class retention as lightly as Nampiima did. In 2014, Mariam Kamwaka, a senior three student then at Trinity College Nabbingo, committed suicide after she was asked to repeat senior three for failing to attain the required marks to be promoted to S4. Her body was found hanging in the school dormitory.

Kamwaka’s death shocked the country with the then ministry of Education director of basic education, Dr Yusuf Nsubuga, apportioning blame on teachers.

“Some of you [teachers] are behaving as if you are not parents. You don’t have skills in counseling. You are becoming irrelevant and unhelpful to students. When some students come to you and tell you what they are going through, you share it on assembly the next day. The students then become frustrated. That is why they don’t come to you. The death of this young girl [Kamwaka] could have been avoided,” Dr Nsubuga was quoted as saying in the press.

Despite Nsubuga’s lamentation, more learners are still being told to repeat classes without necessarily identifying their academic weaknesses.

TO REPEAT OR NOT

In 2007, government introduced the automatic promotion policy as an efficiency measure to promote universal primary and secondary education.

According to the assistant commissioner for primary education at the Education ministry, Dr Tonny Mukasa Lusambu, the policy has been abused by various stakeholders including teachers who unreasonably make children repeat classes, wasting government resources in the process.

He adds that private schools are also not adhering to the policy as many force parents to pay colossal sums of money when their children repeat. Last year, the parliamentary committee on education recommended that the policy be scrapped because it compromises quality.

In response, Lusambu said the policy cannot be scrapped just for the sake of it.

“Once we don’t put limits through the policy, you may find a lot of people doing things their way, which includes unfair repetition of classes,” he said.

According to Florence O. Araat, a teacher at St Peter’s primary school Nsambya, it is not right for schools to just make children repeat classes.

“When one of my daughters was in P2, the school said she should repeat, to which my husband agreed; but we almost fought in the house,” Araat recalls. “I told him it is impossible for a child of a teacher to repeat a class, moreover in a school where I teach.”

Araat says children who repeat classes lose concentration if they are taught by the same teachers. Last year, out of 520 primary four pupils at her school, at least 40 were not promoted to primary five this year. In her stream, two pupils aged 12 and 11 were not promoted.

One missed three marks to reach the required pass mark while another had been performing badly due to absenteeism and unending sickness. Araat only discovered later in third term that one of the pupils was a traumatized HIV/Aids patient, which heavily affected his studies.

“Whenever we sent the pupil back home to bring his parents, he would come back after several weeks. I discovered later that the pupil was born with HIV/Aids and struggling to accept his status while the father, a single parent, was also a victim and too weak to come to school. Honestly, if I make such a child to repeat P4, it will not be fair at all!”

She intends to talk to the school’s head teacher to have the two pupils promoted to primary five but give them more attention this year.

“It is not permanent that a child will be weak academically. If you know one’s weakness, you need to pay attention to them because they are capable of performing better in another class,” she says.

Araat’s view is backed by the national secretary of the Federation of Non-state Education Institutions (FNEI), Patrick Kaboyo, who also insists that every child has the capacity to excel depending on the potential that the teacher taps.

“There is no stupid child like teachers put it. Having to repeat a class can be stressful and embarrassing for children, and it may have lasting effects on your child’s development and sense of self,” says Kaboyo. “This phenomenon of retention should be discouraged because it is unprofessional.”

He believes that a good school should have systems that address the pedagogical, emotional, psychological and all physical needs of a child at any school.

“So, any shortfalls that a child has academically cannot be blamed on the inability of the child to progress but, rather, on the teacher to devise means and identify the child’s needs. Every teacher undergoes school practice to interface with those formative challenges that children have, but not making them repeat classes,” Kaboyo says.

NOT A GOOD PRACTICE

Njuki has no kind words either for schools that compel learners to repeat classes.

“It is unfounded, uncalled for and dehumanizing to make a child repeat. Remember, everyone enters an examination room with no intentions to fail.”

He says if you asked parents to allow their children to repeat, only 10 per cent will agree. According to Njuki, every child is special in their own way but some fail because teachers cannot adjust their methodologies to teach them adequately.

He explains that there are children who can study better if taught individually, others through group interactions while others can survive in big classes. Some children are gifted with natural talents, which can only be discovered by schools embracing co-curricular activities and/or through continuous practical assessment.

While Njuki is also concerned about the overwhelming class sizes that impede the learning process, he urges teachers to ensure that “if children cannot learn the way you teach, then you teach them the way they learn”.

“There is no school that can make one intelligent. If that [was the case], all children who go to top schools in the country would be excelling in life. All we need is proper assessment of learners beyond the usual tests,” says Njuki.

Dr Lusambu says before a child is compelled to repeat, there should be a discussion between the parent, head teacher, teacher and the child. In most cases, he says, children are ignored.

“It is not true that all children who repeat classes perform better, [some] even get worse. But if you involve a child in these discussions, they appreciate why they are repeating and peer challenges can be overcome,” Lusambu says.

According to Lusambu, children may repeat a class if, for instance, they continuously missed classes and, as a result, one did not acquire competences appropriate to the previous class.

Education guidelines indicate that a child should attend school not less than 180 days a year – meaning not less than 60 days in a term that comprises between 80 and 90 days. This, however, calls for teachers to keep the daily attendance registers up to date.

Lusambu also urges teachers to write comprehensive report cards which detail the behavior, character and performance of learners. He discourages “unprofessional” comments such as ‘pull up your socks; your child would perform better but is very playful’. He says such comments do not inspire learners.

If possible, Njuki advises, the ministry should allow schools to write reports in languages understandable to parents and learners.

nangonzi@observer.ug

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