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Secondary schools selection exercise: Who is in control?

To the average Ugandan parent, the selection process for senior one and senior five is complicated.

How schools eventually end up with the students who apply there is not as straightforward as it seems. Yet in the recent exercise, CHRISTIAN BASL, a German national, attempted to understand the process and compare it to what happens in Europe.

The main hall at the Uganda Manufactures Association is a place for trade and international fairs. But this time, the big hall wasn’t crowded by marketers and sellers. Instead, about 2,500 secondary school head teachers and their representatives sat in rows, with long lists of student names and their grades, lying on their desks like product catalogues.

On this two-day event, the head teachers were supposed to sift through 541,089 students and determine the ones who would join senior one in their schools. The national chairperson of the Placement Exercise, Baritazale Kule explained the necessity of this event with economic vocabulary.

“We still have students who have to be sold to other schools, simply because of their choosing,” he said. “Not every student-choice matches the available spaces.”

Some of the teachers during the S5 selection exercise at UMA show grounds


To put it more delicately, the students apply for places in senior one, while still in P7, or senior five, while still in S4. So, they choose three secondary and three vocational schools in their application. They make a wish-list, but the final decision is not theirs: “When the students have applied, this is delivered to a computer. Then we look at the number that is required per school. The system automatically gives the cutoff points for each school”, Kule explains.

After the release of the PLE results, the computer checks the list: If the student’s result matches the cutoff point of their first or second choice, they are automatically set up on a list for the school that they applied to. Those who fail, have to then apply in writing to schools for admission.

Beyond the applications, the students hand their fate to the head teachers and the exams that they have to sit. It is literally a marketplace, as many students have little or no control over the application process.

But tales abound of students with very good results, who have to join another institution after the school’s selection list is filled – that is, why 2,500 teacher start to bargain with one another – a practice called selling.

“The teachers must be able to know the capacity and the ability of the students they are dealing with. Because we still have many students who are non-selected,” Kule explains.


At the age of 14, students of the same age in Finland, the country with the highest-ranked education system, still have two or three years to go in the equivalent of primary school.

Yet across the border in Germany and Austria, 14-year-olds would have already transferred to secondary schools, three years before. Germany and Austria have distinguished themselves as the only countries in Europe that set apart pupils at the age of ten, after four years of primary school. That is due to a school system that basically offers three types of secondary school, depending on the grade point average of learners. At this point, they are free of change.

Thus last month, fourth-graders in Germany received their interim reports. With a grade point average of A or B, they can transfer to an eight-year “gymnasium” (high school). Those with B or C go to a five-year “Realschule” (secondary modern school). The rest go to a four-year “Mittelschule” (middle school).

Thus in Uganda, the fate of the students lies squarely on their performance in exams. Indeed in 2013, several parents hauled their teachers before courts in a failed hope to have the results of the fourth-grade certificates changed. In the end, the parents decide which Gymnasium, Realschule or Mittelschule a student eventually heads to. No teacher has control over the application process.

The market works the other way round in Germany. Here, the parents browse through computers for schools. In fact, a German mother told The Observer, that many schools in Germany advertise for themselves to get more pupils. Her nine-year-old daughter achieved a grade point average of A in the interim report.

Now the pupil and her mother are looking for a good Gymnasium in the next big city.

“I started looking for good secondary schools, when my daughter was in the third grade,”the mother says. “Many schools are offering Open Days. You can visit the classrooms or the sports hall then.”

To help the process along, her daughter’s primary school has organized an information evening at the beginning of the fourth grade.

“In May, the final report of my daughter will be released. Then, I will enroll her at the Gymnasium of our choice. I’ve never heard of a school declining a student,” she says. No head teachers of secondary schools will transform into bargaining barkers after the application in May, as happened in Uganda in January.

But when you believe Kule, the current placement exercise might become obsolete in the future.

“We are trying to explore electronic selection, but choosing the students remains a challenge”, he said. What he is explaining could see algorithms take over the selection process completely, with one’s grades determining which secondary school they join.


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