Spotlight on primary education completion and foundational learning in Uganda

Photo: Andrew Pacutho / Save the Children

ADEA and UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (UNESCO GEMR) launched a new country report on Thursday 18th April, that places the spotlight on foundational literacy and numeracy in Uganda. This was on the margins of the Foundations for Learning Conference organised by the Aga Khan University in Kampala. GEMR and ADEA collaborated with the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports to conduct the study that resulted in the country report. It is part of the second cycle of the Spotlight’s “Born to Learn” series on universal basic education completion and foundational learning in Africa, a tripartite partnership of ADEA, GEMR and the African Union. The evidence from these reports contribute to the continental level discourse within the African Union’s Leveraging Education Analysis for Results Network (LEARN) peer learning mechanism. This cycle, ‘Learning counts’, consists of one continental and four country reports. It focuses on the alignment of the curriculum, textbooks, teacher guides and assessments in mathematics at grade 3 and the last grade of primary – and on concrete areas for improvement.

The Uganda report is the second one to be released, following the report on South Africa, launched in March. It will be followed by the twin launch of the Zambia country report and the continental report in May 2024 and the release of the report on Mauritania. Uwezo Uganda supported the fieldwork and engaged and deployed researchers to each of the four districts. Local civil society organizations provided research assistants who spoke the local languages.

The report spotlight’s Uganda’s positive practices that are improving foundational learning and can be shared with its peers in the continent. It has embedded the achievement of universal foundational literacy and numeracy skills in its Early Grade Reading programme covering 80% of public primary schools and encompassing 6 million pupils, which has been shown to improve learning at grade 3 level. In addition, its Teacher Development Management System and Cluster Coordinating Tutors are important building blocks for strengthening teacher training. However, it also highlights the challenges.

The number of children enrolled in primary school increased from 6.5 million in 2000 to 9 million in 2017 (the latest year for which official data are available). While the completion rate increased from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2010, it had declined by 2020 as shown by the blue line in the figure below. The data shows that children finish primary school with several years delay. Considering late completers, the ultimate completion rate increased from 55% in 2000 to 63% in 2010 before declining to 57% in 2020 (grey dotted line).

Primary completion rate, 1990–2020

In terms of learning, data from the 2013 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SEACMEQ) report (the last time Uganda participated in a cross-national assessment with recognized comparable standards) shows that only one out of five pupils at the end of primary school achieved the global minimum proficiency level in numeracy.

Other development partner-supported assessments have since suggested low levels of foundational learning. For instance, the USAID-funded School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) and Learning Achievement and Retention Activity (LARA), which carried out Early Grade Reading Assessments in 2015 and 2019, found that about 45% of grade 3 students could not read a single word. This makes it more likely they will fall further behind each school year and drop out of school.

Classroom and teacher shortages hinder the effective implementation of the curriculum in government schools. Overcrowding poses a major obstacle to delivering quality education and assessing student learning adequately. Access to textbooks remains a significant hurdle.

Regarding the alignment between the Ministry’s vision for foundational numeracy and its implementation in practice, a strong alignment is found between that curriculum and the content of teacher guides to support teachers’ teaching practices, but less between the curriculum and what is being assessed. For example, in the grade 7 curriculum, 58% of content is dedicated to numbers and number operations, yet these represent only 35% of the learning opportunities in a typical grade 7 textbook and 22% of the learning opportunities assessed in the P7 national exam.

Alignment between core grade 7 documents in Uganda

Curriculum Textbook Assessment  

Pedagogical alignment was also flagged as requiring attention: Uwezo’s field research found that only 42% of observed teachers asked questions that required students to use creativity or imagination to apply information to new topics during mathematics lessons. Also, 54% of observed teachers utilized material from the textbook, as opposed to the curriculum or the teacher guide, when planning lessons.

Language barriers to learning are prominent. A transition from local languages to English as the medium of instruction is intended to take place in grade 4. However, there is no specific guidance yet on how this transition should occur.

Although there are indications that there will be an increase in funding per pupil, the latest spending levels were 2.7% of GDP in 2021, as opposed to an international benchmark of at least 4% of GDP.

These and other findings inform the recommendations of the report across six broad themes, offering concrete actions to improve and strengthen learning in Uganda. Some of these include:

  1. Articulating a clearer vision for achieving foundational literacy and numeracy.
  2. Rethinking curriculum content and structure. Pupils need to learn more problem-solving skills and application of foundational numeracy skills from the outset of their schooling.
  3. Improving accessibility of the curriculum and student textbooks, including making materials available in local languages.
  4. Improving clarity and content of teacher guides and providing additional training for teachers to implement the curriculum effectively.
  5. Prioritizing assessment for monitoring student progress along with in-service training to develop teacher skill to carry out classroom assessment.
  6. Strengthening foundational learning opportunities through various strategies, ranging from remedial education for learners who have fallen behind to addressing teacher shortages and absenteeism, and implementing a school feeding programme.