In Charles Dickens’ novel titled Hard Times, the author satirizes the education system, which intended to crash imaginative faculties of pupils and promote the learning of dry facts at the expense of other pursuits.
It was an abomination for children to attend circus performances where there was life, imagination and amusement.
What mattered was the mastery of figures and transforming those skills for the greater good for the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers.
This system turned children into lifeless beings whose social ranking in society was determined by how well they mastered the figures or facts. “Facts, figures and averages, and nothing else,” Dickens derides.
A similar and dangerous situation is creeping in Uganda’s education system. What is worse for Uganda is that whereas the Dickensian times emphasized figures at the expense of imaginative pursuit, for Uganda, the pursuit for academic excellence has been driven by cheating exams.
For the last two months, the media has been awash with news about the leakage of national examinations for O-level schools. What was even more alarming was that exams leaked through social media.
Who is leaking them? Nobody specifically can be pinned for this crime. But some claim disgruntled officers at Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) are doing it.
There is speculation that some employees have a score to settle with their new boss, Dan N Odongo. His ascent to the top seat has won him friends and foes alike.
So, the foes have devised a sinister plot to leak the exams so that the appointing authority looks at him as incompetent.
Whereas that may hold some water, I would like to believe that the problem lies with failure to recognize that education is a public good, and not a commercial service which has to be marketed and sold with all the aggressiveness of entrepreneurs.
The leakage of exams says a lot about how we look at education. What is the purpose of education? Why do we send our children to a certain school, and not the other? It also speaks volumes about the decadence of our moral and social values.
What values do we expect to impart in our children when we take them to school?
Teaching used to be one of the most valued professions in Uganda. Not any more. Education has ceased being a public good which ought be distributed fairly and for purposes of improving one’s life.
It is now a commercial service driven by aggressive profit-seeking entrepreneurs. And because it has become an enterprise, the country must brace itself for the attendant negative spinoffs.
The learners who are the supposed beneficiaries of this modern education have become the first casualties. The proliferation of private schools comes with negative ripple effects.
Schools must make money. And how do they make money? The pupils must all pass with flying colours. If it is a primary school, out of 30 candidates who sit primary leaving examinations (PLE), at least 28 must pass with aggregate 4. How do you achieve this? The owners and teachers must be creative. And how do they become creative? They must cheat.
Whenever examination results are released by Uneb, school owners or head teachers make a mad dash to media houses to have their schools and best candidates profiled. Others even cook and exaggerate figures of their learners’ performance.
I recall one head teacher of a little-known school who came to The Observer offices and presented results inconsistent with those released by Uneb.
Without any justification, he wanted The Observer to stick with his set of results and discard what Uneb had released in respect of his school. He was told that if he felt very strongly that Uneb had made a mistake, then he could pay for advertising space to publish what he called ‘true’ results. He didn’t take this option.
The values we hold as a newspaper, integrity being one of them, could not allow us publish this man’s forgeries. But later we learnt he was able to ‘persuade’ other newspapers to publish his falsehoods.
That is what stiff competition in the education sector does to the lives of our children. The entrepreneurs have hijacked the delivery of this public good. Learners are no longer educated but vigorously drilled to pass exams. How sad!
Children have lost confidence in their abilities. They cannot attempt any challenge in life without being aided or without expecting favours. Before they appear for job interviews, their background check includes the possibility of bribing those on the interviewing panel.
If they don’t offer bribes, the parent would try to influence the process through behind-the-curtains manoeurvres!
Cheating and use of unfair advantage continues throughout their lives. The entrepreneurs have further stratified children into categories of failures and educated ones.
Worst, education now appears to be designed for the few that are intellectually and financially stronger. And this leaves the privileged feeling superior while the rural poor, studying under mango trees and unroofed classrooms, feel more inferior and ignored.
What kind of society are we building?
The author is the business development director at The Observer Media Limited.