Last month, Makerere University subjected applicants to the Bachelor of Laws programme to pre-entry exams. The exams, which attracted over 1,600 aspiring learned friends, marked an unusual step in the University’s admission criteria. The assessment was designed to gauge the abilities of prospective law students in aspects deemed foundational for legal schooling including aptitude, analysis, comprehension. The results however reflect a startling performance curve. Students from secondary schools that have usually constituted the bulk of the law class did not perform as well as they do in national exams. It was also reported that applicants with humble grades at A-level who took the test outdid the stars of UNEB. A screaming headline in one newspaper concluded that this scenario had exposed weakness in UNEB exams. Although this is a first time, the happening illuminates some impressions that are worth putting into perspective.
For some time, concerns have been voiced about the country’s education system being largely exam-oriented from primary to secondary. In the early 1990’s, the idea of continuous assessment in lieu of exams was mooted but doesn’t seem to have gathered sufficient steam. As children enroll in school, success is continuously measured in terms of how well students excel in national exams rather than how much knowledge they acquire to effectively apply themselves in life. Attainment-driven schooling, exacerbated by massive enrolment and the proliferation of private schools, undermines the development of individual skills in favour of distinct grades.
Deriving from its Latin roots “educere” meaning to “bring out potential” or to “bring forth what is within,” education’s purpose lies in widening rather than limiting an individual’s horizons. Hence, UPE, USE together with our Universities have a joint role in supporting younger generations of Ugandans to discover their potential so they can appreciate their mastery over their surroundings.
The grade-oriented culture also skews the teaching in most schools towards aiding students to score past a given mark as opposed to nurturing the entire spectrum of the individuals’ abilities. Classroom instruction is compromised to enable learners fair well enough to join prominent secondary schools and to enroll for programmes that are considered prestigious at University. The study of history is intended to foster students’ ability to develop logical and coherent arguments. However, to most students, history is presented as a recall project and the learners lose out on the independent thinking and analysis. The same holds for the sciences. Physics, chemistry, agriculture develop potential by triggering natural curiosity – through games children play, chores, using gadgets and an array of day-to-day applications. The thematic curriculum in primary schools is premised on the idea of developing individual strengths so that beneficiaries are able to thrive in life. It is the foundation to build upon, along the rest of the educational pathway.
It is not the attainment-driven teaching, premised on maximising numbers of students emerging with distinctions and A’s that will deliver the much needed potential. Rather, it is the nurturing of creative expression, ingenuity, critical thinking, self-awareness, exploration and values such as social consciousness for which there is no structured PLE, UCE or UACE, that will put school-going Ugandans in good stead for a future of ever-increasing global competitiveness.
While it is too early to draw firm conclusions, the results of the Makerere University pre-entry exams are certainly reason to raise our antenna. Even as we study the trend, the congruence between UNEB grades and the performance of students outside national exams speaks a lot about what we can do to support an environment of genuine learning. Ultimately,Uganda’s 17 years or so of schooling will be judged by how well they facilitate progressive discovery of individual promise.
The author works with the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education and Development (AHEAD) in Kampala.