To President Museveni, science subjects mean promise –innovation and research that will spur growth and the development of the country.
But the flaws of that philosophy or thinking are becoming clearer with every national examination cycle. Science candidates continue to post low results in national examinations. According to the 2019 Ordinary level results released last week by the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb), far fewer candidates will qualify for science combinations at Advanced Level.
Speaking last Friday during the release of O-level results at the Office of the President Conference Hall in Kampala, Uneb executive secretary Dan Odongo delivered the bombshell. He said nearly half of all candidates who wrote their Physics and Chemistry examinations last year failed.
They failed to get the minimum pass Eight. In a nutshell, they didn’t score at least 40 marks and above. A total of 333,060 candidates sat for the 2019 Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examinations – about 2,339 candidates more than the 330,721 in 2018.
Results showed that out of the 332,620 candidates who wrote the Physics exam, only 0.6 per cent passed with a distinction, 14.2% got a credit and 46.8% or about half were total failures. They got passes or F. In Chemistry, 1.4 per cent candidates got distinctions, 15.5% credits and about 54.6% or half of the class failed flat out of the 332,638 who sat for the subject.
On the gender curve, statistics of female performance in sciences are very worrying.
“It has been the same story that females write better English and performed better than males in the subject. In other large-entry subjects, males show better performance, with the differences more marked in Mathematics and Sciences,” Odongo said.
“The performance of females in Sciences, especially Physics and Chemistry is quite low with nearly 60 per cent unable to get a Pass Eight.”
Uneb chairperson Prof Mary Okwakol expressed great concern at this low achievement of females in Science subjects and Mathematics.
“Uneb is of the view that there is need to investigate and identify the factors responsible for this phenomenon to address this negative development over the years,” Okwakol said.
With Chemistry and Physics highlighted as the worst-performed science subjects by Uneb, we explore performance of schools subject by subject. Results of 1,262 candidates, which were withheld, are not part of the analysis.
Out of the 3,514 schools assessed countrywide, only 464 and 328 posted distinctions in Physics and Chemistry respectively. Further analysis shows that Physics got more D1 scores (646) and D2s (2,205) while Chemistry got 643 D1s and 530 D2s.
John Walusimbi, a Physics and Mathematics teacher at King’s College Budo, which scooped the highest number of D1 scores in Physics, was not satisfied with the performance.
“At Budo, the performance wasn’t to our satisfaction but it is not so bad,” Walusimbi said. Budo got 34 D1s and 40 D2s. Last year, the school was in third place with only 25 D1s and 41 D2s.
St Mary’s SS, Kitende maintained its tight grip on second place with 19 D1s, Namilyango College, 13 D1s, and Ndejje SS and Ntare School with 12 D1s each in Physics.
Interviewed about the low performance in Physics nationally, Walusimbi said the subject has many concepts yet students attempt to use similar thought processes used in other subjects.
“Candidates need to explain issues in a physics manner. Physics is now set in such a way that you need to apply knowledge rather than memorizing of formulas and calculations,” he said. “[For instance], Paper three has structured questions while paper two involves essay writing. When you mix all those papers, it becomes complex and hard for students.”
He explained that all papers are relevant but students are not self-driven. The “teacher knows it all concept” is killing performance since students are trained to memorize. They simply take in what the teacher dictates.
Walusimbi also said some Physics teachers are weak. His views are firmly supported by Education minister Janet Museveni.
“It is very unfortunate that teachers rush through the curriculum content to skip some topics. I understand it is referred to as compressing the syllabus. Where a curriculum is carefully designed to be taught over a four-year period, it is now taught for only three years,” Janet said.
This, in addition to teaching at awkward hours such as 6am and late in the evening, leaves learners with little time for their own preparations and study. Like Biology, Physics is voluminous yet some teachers approach it theoretically, according to Aziz Sundya, a Chemistry and Physics teacher at St Elizabeth Girls School, Mityana. This denies students a chance to get exposed to the practical aspect of the subject.
“You find that candidates cannot even manipulate any apparatus in electrical experiments. Maybe, even teachers themselves don’t know what to do. Some teachers teach the subject because they passed it luckily not perfectly,” Sundya argued.
“If a teacher scored a credit six or five at O-level, how will he/she produce a distinction while in practice? Unless a child is so good and aggressive, they will only pass out of their initiative.”
One big problem examiners found in Chemistry is that candidates did not know the steps required in balancing equations. “This is an indispensable skill in the subject. There is a lot of misspelling of chemical terminologies,” Odongo said.
Uganda Martyrs SS Namugongo again topped the table with most D1 scores (34) compared to 78 the previous year. It was followed by Kitende with 25 D1 scores, Seeta HS (24), St Joseph Naggalama (23), and Mt St Mary’s Namagunga and Ndejje SS with 21 D1s each.
In an interview, Steven Musisi, a Chemistry teacher at King’s College Budo, said the subject misses a practical touch. “Here’s the dilemma with teachers! A practical lesson will take a teacher at least two hours. If the same content is taught theoretically, it will take him or her 45 minutes. So, one prefers to opt for the latter,” Musisi said.
Musisi, a Uneb examiner, said the subject was done poorly nationally because the setting of some questions changed. He said some topics are so high pitched for 16-year-olds (to comprehend) like Hydrolysis of salts, which were made compulsory last year. A student gets confused by just looking at a question from that topic.
Chemistry has three papers; paper two, which carries the biggest weight, is marked out of 80 and others are marked out of 50 each. It was the most failed.
“During marking, the 70s were few yet previously, they used to be many. So, if you fail a paper whose denominator is big, you can make up for that gap with the other two papers,” Musisi said, emphasizing the need to train learners in how to think and, not cram concepts of the subject.
He also pointed to lack of science equipment as a hindrance to passing the subject. “I went to invigilate last year but to my dismay, a Kampala school was using a paraffin stove for a Bunsen burner in practicals. If this happened in a town school, what is happening in the villages?” he asked.
A high-quality Bunsen burner costs Shs 20,000 while a Chinese-made costs Shs 6,000. Still, proprietors don’t stock such equipment for students.
The director, Education Standards (DES), Dr Kedrace Turyagyenda, said: “When you go to issue a license, the laboratories are in place with equipment but when you go back for normal inspections, they are not there. I know some private schools borrow equipment to impress you when they know you are coming….This can’t be sustainable and we shall get them,” she added.
Due to budget constraints, DES inspects secondary schools after every two years, with 2,000 schools prioritized annually. This clearly leaves many schools out of the loop.
With poor teaching methods, low remuneration of science teachers, lack of laboratories and equipment, Museveni’s science dream is teetering on the brink of collapse, according to Prof Julius Lejju, the dean, Faculty of Science at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).
“I disagree with the president’s speeches that sciences are the only drivers of the economy. That is wrong! Humanities too are playing a key role because everyone will not do sciences,” Lujju said, adding: “The president himself wasn’t a scientist! We need more leaders like him who didn’t do sciences. I know Museveni is driven by excitement about some things but he needs to calm down and make use of all technical people in different fields. He needs presidential advisors in medical, political, humanities and other things to help him drive the economy.”
Much as MUST is a government institution; its science problems are not limited to secondary schools. Lejju said students are equipped theoretically but graduate with little exposure to practicals due to lack of sufficient equipment to train with during practicals.
“When we churn out these science teachers with little knowledge on practicals, what do you expect them to transfer to students in class? Do you expect grades to improve in sciences at O-level?” he asked.
Annually, government sponsors a minimum of 100 students to train as science teachers at MUST. Surprisingly, Lejju said some decline to teach and use their first degrees to get into other courses such as medicine, engineering and pharmacy since teachers who have stayed in practice for long are also disgruntled.
He urged government to waive taxes on science equipment and chemicals to encourage schools to purchase them.