Every January, the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) releases the results for the Primary Leaving Examinations for the previous year.
Screaming headlines on Uganda’s news dailies, television and radio stations are a show of education might as pupils who excelled are showcased.
This excitement is only short lived because after a week, the results are no longer in the news as the country’s focuses on new stories and waits in anticipation for the senior four results to be released a few weeks away.
It’s then that the hunt for places in secondary schools start as all parents cross their fingers for a vacancy for their child.
Those lucky to join the country’s Crème de la Crème secondary schools rejoice at the opportunity while others are less excited having to make choices that would not be their preferred option.
However, after the excitement of the results are over and the scramble for secondary school places is done, what happens to the children who were for a brief moment the country’s school stars?
Do they go on to fulfil their potential, does their success continue or do they get swallowed up?
Very few have chosen to follow up on the performance of the country’s stars when they get to secondary schools.
Very few have seen whether the PLE litmus test is accurate and does it indicate how successful a child will be at secondary school – or is it just a moment in time?
So, I decided to follow up one of the names that appeared in the newspapers in January 2018.
Jane Dada Nabutere scored 8 aggregates leading her class in Bridge School Malaba.
Daughter to Nambuya Gertrude a teacher and Wabwire Charles, a civil servant, Jane comes from a humble background in the impoverished backyard of the busy town of Malaba. Jane strikes you as a quietly brilliant girl who talks little.
Following her PLE success, Jane was given a place at Nabisunsa girls secondary school – one of the best schools in Uganda – it was her first choice.
However, like many parents, Jane’s parents couldn’t afford school fees at Nabisunsa Secondary school. Jane was lucky to get a sponsor, someone who had seen her excel during her primary years.
Nearly a year later, I followed up on her academic performance at the prestigious school. “Jane continues to surprise us. She is doing great. Her performance is really good. In fact she scored 8 aggregates at the end of term with a class average mark of 83.9%” said the Headteacher Hajati Aisha Kibirige.
Last term, Jane was proud to be announced as one of the schools giants at the end of term assembly. School giants commonly known as “Sunsas Kadala” are Nabisunsa’s top pupils in senior one.
“I like Nabisunsa girls secondary school because the academics are great. We have academic mentors and teachers that keep monitoring us and motivating us to work harder. It’s like still being in the Bridge community even though I am growing up” Jane says.
Traditionally, Nabisunsa only selects the country’s top cream who excelled in the Primary Leaving Exams only taking pupils who scored 6 aggregates or less.
Despite the fact that Jane scored 8 aggregates, the head teacher decided to take a gamble on her considering her academic success despite her poor background.
She has not been disappointed.
Jane is being given special attention as one of the school giants whom the school believes will bring back 8 aggregates in 8 subjects when she gets to senior four. It’s an incredible journey.
“I am very happy because of the firm foundation that Bridge gave me during my primary education. I am still founded on the values of hard work, commitment and discipline. I know that if I continue like this, I will be a doctor one day. This has been my dream. I will be a doctor” the impressively ambitious Jane says.
In order to nurture her dreams, the school makes sure that she interacts with older girls who passed through the institution and who are now practicing medicine.
“She has a one on one with several doctors who encourage her to keep going. I believe that this motivates her even to work harder to achieve her dream,” said the headteacher.
As we celebrate Jane’s academic progress, I inquire from the head teacher why some of the best pupils in PLE, the stars, do not perform as well as they are expected to when the reach secondary school.
“When these girls join schools, they often lose focus on their academics and form social peer groups basing on their social status. Since many come from rich families, they often become proud and can lose the ambitions and dreams, the bigger picture. But here we do not allow that, we ensure that all children are judged only on their academic merit and their determination to succeed,” said Hajati Kibirige.
According to Christine Apiot, an educationalist, there are cases where many of the children who excel in PLE never carry on to become the best performers in senior four.
“There are a lot of things that are done by different primary schools to ensure that their children pass and get good places. This may include cheating in exams, or it may be a case of using money and influence. Nevertheless, there are the geniuses who work hard and make it to the top. As children go up the education ladder, the system starts to isolate them and success depends on discipline, commitment and hard work – a good work ethic and not only raw talent, and there are very many parents who actually get disappointed,” said Apiot.
Apiot said that primary schools needed to start focusing on real learning and behaviours that will create a foundation for the children as they move forward – in their education and in life – rather than just helping them to pass exams.
It’s not just schools, many of the parents focus on their children scoring highly rather than nurturing the child’s performance and character.
Julian Nakate, a parent at one of the prominent schools in Kampala is a classic example.
“At the end of the day it is the primary results that speak. If my child scores four, five, six aggregates, then they qualify for a good school. I will break the bank to pay the high school fees to ensure that they can go to that school. That is what matters most,” says Nakate.
It is indeed a debate of whether it should be learning or just passing exams which matters most to parents.
But we should also ask whether the education assessment system is designed to sacrifice the development of a child because of the way it prioritises exam results.
If the stars of the PLE do not stay stars because of the way the system is designed, what we should do about it?
Look at Jane. She is excelling because she was taught to be committed, hardworking and disciplined – she has a foundation that will allow her star to continue to shine.