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UCE 2023: Overall pass levels up as poor science results continue to cause concern

L-R The Uneb executive director, Dan Odongo, first lady and minister of Education Janet Museveni, and the Uneb chairperson, Prof Celestino Obua

L-R The Uneb executive director, Dan Odongo, first lady and minister of Education Janet Museveni, and the Uneb chairperson, Prof Celestino Obua

Two years ago, amidst high expectations and objections within the teaching fraternity, President Museveni approved a significant increase in pay for science teachers.

A graduate science teacher was enhanced from Shs 1.2m to Shs 4m, and for those with diplomas, the lowest paid shot from Shs 930,000 to Shs 2.2m. The presidential directive left the highest-paid arts teacher on the U3 scale at Shs 1.3m and those at U5 with Shs 784,214.

At the 2023 World Teacher’s day celebrations at Kololo, Museveni emphatically said that the salary disparities among arts and science teachers would not be addressed soon.

It was believed that better pay would not only improve the quality of science education but ultimately elevate the performance of learners. However, during the 2023 release of the learners Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examination results at State House Nakasero last week, the results of science subjects painted a disheartening picture.

It was a perplexing outcome that left many questioning the effectiveness of the increased pay for science teachers. While presenting the statement of release, the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) executive director, Dan Odongo, said performance in the sciences continues to be “a cause for concern”.

Candidates continued to struggle in science subjects, with failure rates remaining obstinately high as less than 20 per cent of the candidates obtained credit pass levels in Physics and Chemistry, and 40 per cent or more were unable to pass.

“The science subjects are still being performed poorly. Surprisingly, sciences also lead with high cases of exam malpractices, affecting mostly Physics and Chemistry practical examinations and Mathematics,” Odongo said.

He explained that teaching sciences requires a blend of practical and theoretical approaches but most teachers focus on the latter.

“In most secondary schools, students are taught theoretically from S1 to S3. Teachers embark on practicals in S4 on weekends only, which is all wrong. The Education ministry has been supporting the SESEMAT program to empower science teachers but I have been informed that after the trainings, teachers resume old methods of teaching,” Odongo, also a former Biology teacher, said. He insisted that the poor approach to teaching sciences and inadequate science teachers in schools greatly contribute to the growing trend of low science results.

Asked why the much-heralded pay rise had not yet yielded the expected science results two years later, Odongo had this to say.

“I do not believe that merely increasing somebody’s salary makes them a better worker. Teaching is a calling, and someone must be devoted to the job. It was expected that giving more money to science teachers was going to make them more productive but there is no evidence to show that the increment in salaries has translated into better performance.”

Uneb examiners further attributed the low science results to the inability of candidates to master basic scientific concepts, manipulate science apparatus, carry out procedures as prescribed in question papers, and interpret results that could have been made. Some schools have also reported to have no science teachers, which exacerbates the problem.

GENERAL PASS LEVELS UP

In 2023, at least 361,695 candidates (179,032 males and 182,663 females) appeared for the examination compared to 345, 695 candidates in 2022.

According to the results, the 2023 performance was significantly better than that of the previous year with 346,816 candidates passing the examination. At O-level, the two grading subjects are; English and Mathematics. If a candidate fails any of the two subjects in addition to an F9 in any compulsory science subjects, they are pushed to another grade.

Female candidates performed better than males in the English language. However, in other subjects, males dominated with differences being very significant in History, Geography, Commerce, and sciences.

At the subject performance level, Odongo noted improvements in English, Religious Education, Mathematics and Biology. There was a drop in performance for History, Commerce, Agriculture and Physics subjects.

“In the English language, the perennial challenge of presenting crammed passages from texts in response to questions on original composition writing has greatly reduced, which may explain the significant improvement in the candidate performance,” he said.

Uneb noted an upturn in performance for Biology, which has been recording a steady decline. At least 3.1 per cent of the candidates passed with distinctions compared to 0.2 per cent in 2022. This is thanks to engagements between Uneb and the Association of Biology Educators (ABE) which discussed the root causes of the poor performance.

“We didn’t only engage with the board but also shared with examiners to harmonize the question papers. Last year, we observed that the board kept within the O-level syllabus, unlike the previous years where candidates would get compulsory questions arising from the A-level syllabus. This alone, without splitting the paper into two, was able to make the paper within limits of learner’s abilities at this level,” Frederick Dongo, the president of the ABE, told The Observer.

Dongo said there is still room for improvement although the government engagement of teachers on the pedagogical aspects of the new curriculum is still weak.

SCIENCE TEACHERS SPEAK

While increasing teacher pay was a crucial step, it was not a panacea for all challenges facing science education, according to Aaron Mugaiga, the secretary general of the Uganda Professional Science Teachers’ Union (UPSTU).

He cited factors such as insufficient laboratories, lack of teacher training, and negative attitudes towards sciences by students that continue to shape performance.

“It is true that the performance of science subjects is not comparable to that of arts subjects. This has been the trend over time. This is the second year of the remuneration and its impact may be too early to judge,” Mugaiga said.

He added: “We should appreciate that we now have a breed of motivated science teachers; if given time, we shall see the performance improve. We are seeing positive indicators already much as the performance is still low.”

He attributed the poor performance in sciences to the Covid-19 lockdown on the education sector whose effects are still vivid among all teachers and learners. Mugaiga, however, urged Uneb to share sample question papers of the new curriculum across all subjects to enable learners and teachers to catch a glimpse of the assessment format.

As of last week, Uneb had completed the sample papers and arrangements are being made to upload them on the school portals. Hardcopies will also be availed to all examination centers.

FAILED CANDIDATES

Out of the 361,695 candidates who sat the 2023 UCE examination, at least 14,879 candidates (4.1%) were ungraded. The failure rate, however, dropped by 0.5 per cent. This is the last examination administered under the old curriculum.

Effective this year, all UCE candidates will be assessed following the revised curriculum. To ease the transition process of candidates who would like to repeat S4, missed the exams last year, or adult learners studying on their own, Uneb chairperson Prof Celestino Obua said the board has agreed to administer a one-off examination to close the old curriculum later in the year.

“The exact date will be communicated but registration will not be open for those who took PLE after 2019 as this cohort should be currently in school under the new competency-based curriculum,” Obua said.

Whereas the repeaters will sit examinations this year [2024], their UCE certificates will be labelled 2023 by Uneb. Education minister Janet Museveni encouraged all eligible persons to take this single window of opportunity in 2024. She emphasized that repeating candidates shall not be subjected to the assessment and examination processes of the revised lower secondary curriculum whose pioneer candidates will sit examinations in October/November this year.

Meanwhile, the hearing of cases of suspected malpractice in the 2023 examinations commenced on Monday, starting with PLE cases. The board will extend invitations to the affected candidates and schools through the District Education Offices. The board’s security committee will continue with the hearings as it awaits feedback from the judiciary on its request to set up a special utility court that would concentrate all cases in one place and ensure a faster conclusion.

Currently, there are cases from the 2022 examinations that remain unresolved in various courts across the country.

“If the [2022] cases are resolved in 2024, what impact will the rulings have on the schools and candidates? We need a speedy resolution of cases and we hope the judiciary will answer our prayer in the affirmative,” Odongo said.

The selection for senior five shall take place from February 26 to 27 while students are expected to report for term one on March 11, 2024. The selection for technical and vocational institutions for UCE 2023 leavers has been extended to end on February 23, 2024.

Click on the links below for the full schools ranking

UCE 2023: How schools performed from aggregate 8-20

Schools with the highest number of Division One

Percentage ranking of schools with the highest number of candidates in Division one

nangonzi@observer.ug

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