Some months ago I was asked to be part of an advisory panel on a project to improve primary education in Uganda. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. What, I wondered, would I have to offer? The project, SESIL (Strengthening Education Systems for Improved Leadership) is funded by the Department for International Development and managed by Cambridge Education. The basic premise is that by introducing systems for collecting, analysing and using data to make decisions, school leaders will be better placed to improve children’s outcomes by the end of primary school.

Before heading out to Uganda, I was briefed on some of the facts on the ground. One of biggest problems is teacher absenteeism. According to the World Bank’s Service Delivery Indicator Education Survey from 2013, “1 out of 4 (23.3 percent) teachers in public schools were not at work. Of those who were in school, 52.3 percent were not in the classroom. The result was 47.7 percent of  public school teachers at any point in time were not teaching.” When added to the phenomenon of ‘orphan classrooms’ (classrooms where pupils are present but there is no teacher) the World Bank reports a total teacher absenteeism rate in Uganda of 56.3%! The report concludes saying, “more than half of the teachers were missing in action.” Added to that there is a ratio of 1 teacher to every 50 students, and the estimate of teachers possessing the minimum knowledge to teach the curriculum for which they are responsible is just 19.4%.

Pupil attendance is also a concern. Although the Ugandan government has ensured universal primary education (UPE), only about 90% of children are enrolled (according to 2014 census data) with just 40% of that number finishing 7 years of education. There is no real way of being sure how many of the children who are enrolled in primary school actually attend, but most estimates are much lower. Complicating matters, the advent of UPE coincided with an explosion of low cost private schools in the urban centres. In districts around Kampala, there are as many of 3 private schools for every government school. The perception of parents seems to be that the education provided by these schools is of a superior quality but that isn’t necessarily borne out by the data. Interestingly, far fewer private school teachers are qualified and they tend to be more poorly paid than government school teachers.

Unsurprisingly, pupils’ attainment in literacy and numeracy is a concern. According to a 2015 Uwezu study, 85% of children in the third year of primary school (P3) are not literate in English at the level expected of pupils at the end of the second year (P2). By the end of primary education (P7), 1 in 5 children are still not literate in English at a P2 level. Similarly, 70% of children in P3 are unable to do simple arithmetic. By P7, 15% of children still cannot. To get an idea about what this means, look at the sample literacy and numeracy questions below:

Uwezo English Literacy Test

Read the following:

I love my motherland Uganda. We have a national flag. Our flag has three colours. These colours are black, yellow and red. It has a crested crane in the middle. The crested crane stands on one leg. I like staying in Uganda. It is good for crops. People grow different types of crops. There is enough rain for the whole year. This makes crops green all the time. Our country is a good place to stay in.


  1. What are the colours of the Uganda flag?
  2. Why are crops in Uganda green all the time?

Children who answer at least one question correctly are marked as literate in English at a P2 level.

Uwezo Numeracy Test

Children were asked to:

  • Recognise/identify numbers between 1 and 9
  • Recognise/identify numbers between 10 and 99
  • Add a two-digit number to another, where no carrying is required, such as 12 + 16.
  • Subtract a two-digit number from another, where no borrowing is required, such as 21 – 11.
  • Multiple a one-digit number by another, such as 2 x 6.
  • Divide a one-digit number by another, such as 9 ÷ 3.

Children who could correctly identify four numbers in each category, and correctly answer 2 out of 6 questions for each of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are marked as numerate at a P2 level.

This all made for pretty bleak reading. The SESIL project, like many other projects run by NGOs and donor programmes, is an ambitious attempt to create a self-sustaining, systemic improvement designed to improve the quality of school leadership which, it is hoped, will see an downstream uptick in teacher and pupil attendance and, consequently, better pupil outcomes. One of the approaches I was asked to consult on before visiting the country was the plan to estimate the extent to which pupils are engaged in lessons. I discussed the evidence stacked up against the reliability of lesson grading and the subjectivity and slipperiness of a concept like ‘engagement’ and advised that probably the best that could be done without perversely incentivising teachers to do silly things would be a system where observers would simply check every 10 minutes whether at least 90% of the pupils in the classroom appeared to be paying attention. Obviously this is a very poor proxy for learning but it’s hard to see how encouraging pupils to look like they’re paying attention could be a bad thing. I was very careful to caveat all of this by saying that I felt unable to make any assumptions about Ugandan classrooms. I’ve previously visited schools in Malawi and Nigeria and know that class sizes in sub-Saharan Africa can be enormous. I honestly don’t know whether the advice I’d offer to schools in a more developed context would have any relevance in classrooms in Uganda. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the project leaders decided to accept my advice on lesson observation.

Last week, I and other members of the project’s advisory panel, flew out to Kampala to get a sense of conditions on the ground and to see whether we would be able to offer a critical outsider’s perspective on what what the SESIL team are doing and what might be improved.

Before getting out to schools, I got to visit Shimoni Core Primary Teachers College. Teacher training colleges not only provide pre-service training to new teachers, they are also responsible for supporting in-service teachers through Coordinating Centre Tutors (CCTs) who visit schools and provide continuing professional development. The CCTs are a vital part of all the development work conducted by programmes like SESIL but they are massively over-stretched and under-resourced. Some of them are responsible for over a hundred schools and lack of transport is possibly the biggest barrier they experience: when I asked what one single thing would most improve their effectiveness, most said a motorbike.

One of the CCTs said that at one of the questions he was asked most frequently was how to get children to read in class sizes of over 150 students with no textbooks. “What advice do you give?” I asked. He shrugged and said, “I was hoping you would tell me.” What do you say? I told him that my approach to teacher training in the UK is to model what I think is effective practice by getting teachers to watch me teach their classes. As I’ve never had the experience of trying teach 150 children to read, I would hesitate to suggest how to go about it, but that I would imagine that it would involve a lot of teacher-led board work mapping phoneme and grapheme correspondences with lots of call and response interactions with pupils as well as much targeted questioning as possible. He agreed this sounded like a reasonable suggestion but was also surprised as foreign ‘experts’ usually recommended lots of group work. I suggested that if anyone know how to do effective group work in such large classes with no resources it was up to them to demonstrate it. He laughed and seemed excited at the idea of teaching model lessons. What struck me was that if those responsible for outreach and training are not sure how to support teachers, how likely is it that teachers themselves would feel confident about teaching children to read?

Over the week I got to visit four schools in Wakiso and Kira districts, in both rural and urban settings. I should say that theses districts are relatively affluent and probably not representative of some of the poorer districts further away from Kampala, but even so, I was impressed by what I saw. We had been told that P1 classes were usually much bigger than other classes because parents would often bring children who are too young to start school. Although UPE is meant to start at age 6, because there is no system for registering births, there’s no real way for anyone to prove a child’s age. This makes schools an extremely cost effective child care option, especially when you consider that all the official pre-primary provision is fee-paying. Even though a headteacher might think it obvious that a child is 2 or 3 years too young, they are not allowed to to turn anyone away. Later class sizes are often smaller because children suspected of being underage are often kept in P1 until deemed old enough to graduate to P2. (Incidentally, grade retention is officially outlawed in Uganda.)

At Gimbo Primary School, Wakiso District the headteacher had come up with a creative solution to overcrowding. Instead of packing in all the underage children into P1, she had put all the obviously underage children into nursery classes. She didn’t yet have enough classrooms to accommodate all these additional nursery pupils so they were being taught in ad hoc accommodation like the library (see below). The school was fundraising to build additional classrooms but so far had only raised enough money to lay the foundations.

Gimbo Primary School

When children are old enough to walk further, they are often sent to further afield private schools, and this is exactly what happens at Gimbo. Last year’s P7 had only 17 students. This year’s has 14.

There are other pressures that affect class sizes. Kisimbiri Primary School is in a much more urban setting and serves a more diverse community where a greater variety of local languages are spoken. (There are over 65 local languages in Uganda.) In lower primary (P1-3) instruction is supposed to be in local languages and, in more rural schools, this is straightforward: the teachers uses the language spoken in the local community. In more urban schools there has to be a compromise. At Kisimbiri, lower primary lessons are taught in Lugandan which means children from homes where a different language is spoken tend to go to private schools where English is more likely to be the medium of instruction. This means that P1 to P3 class sizes at Kisimbiri range from 50-60 students. But then in P4, instruction takes place in English and the students come flooding back: in each of the 4 remaining years there are 2 classes of over 100 students!

Kisimbiri Primary School

The headteacher at this school has only recently been appointed but he’s already managed to make some big changes. A water purifier has been installed and he has managed to get funding to provided all children with a basic midday meal (normally this is provided by parents or not at all) and he’s also involved various NGO programmes such as Raising Voices who work with schools and communities to reduce violence against children. The headteacher recounted the introduction of a children’s court where pupils were able to raise their fears and concerns. Apparently the head had been in the dock earlier in the week because there had been insects in the maize!

I also got to spend some time at two schools in Kira District. Kamuli Primary School is the district’s star performer. Last year they had 245 pupils take the Primary Leavers Exam (PLE). 121 pupils were awarded Division 1 (the top grade), 123 were Division 2 and 1 pupil was Division 3! This was head and shoulders above any of the other schools I visited and so my working assumption was that they were either doing something remarkable or had found a way to game the system. Kamuli has over 1500 students, with almost 500 boarding. Clearly their pupils are from more affluent backgrounds – although the headteacher showed us the slum from where a minority of the pupils come – and perhaps the outstanding results can be explained by parents’ socio-economic status. But the classrooms I visited were extremely well-ordered with clear, consistent routines and purposeful, well sequenced teaching. The P1 class I visited had over 100 students and two teachers – one leading the instruction and one helping children stay focussed. The lesson I observed was a Lugandan lesson and the teacher got the pupils to blend graphemes to build up words in the language. Much of the lesson was teacher-led although there was lots of choral teaching and, as far as I could see, the children were enjoying the lesson. Children were called to the front to demonstrate what they had learned and, in every case, were eager to do so. If ever a student made a mistake the teacher patiently guided them in the right direction and allowed the to correct their errors. Remarkably, there were enough text books for all the children in the class and these were used to help consolidate the lesson. There were lots of games, singing and dancing. Afterwards the lead teacher asked me how I though she could improve. I told her honestly that I thought it had been a great lesson.

Kamuli Primary School

The final school I got to visit was Kijabijo Primary School. This was a community school which had been built and entirely funded by the local community until the government had taken over its funding.  Apparently this happens quite a lot: if there’s no school in easy walking distance, parents will often get together to set one up. Many of these schools are unable to keep going for long as the communities that start them cannot always afford the ongoing cost of paying staff. It’s far from automatic that the government will take over, but when they do it’s something of a mixed blessing. The headteacher at Kijabijo said that the local rural community distrusts the government and since takeover, many had chosen to send their children to the one of the three surrounding private schools. Also, those parents who do continue to send their children are much less involved. Apparently, many families send orphaned children of relatives to the government school but their own children to private school. As you might expect, the school was much less well funded and even though teaching was superficially similar to that in Kamuli, it was far more lacklustre. In one classroom I had a look through children’s exercise books and saw that they’d repeated the same lesson 3 or 4 times that week.

Kijabijo Primary School

One of the most surprising aspects of these school visits was that nowhere did I see anything like the teacher absence estimated by the World Bank. I didn’t see a single class without a teacher and, in fact, many of the schools had 2 teachers per class. Paul Bennell, one of the members of SESIL’s advisory panel presented a currently unpublished paper which cast serious doubt on these estimates. In it he argues that teacher absenteeism has been systematically overestimated and that it is unfair to suggest that low attendance should equate with ‘low teacher effort’. For a start, much of the reported teacher absence is authorised. For instance, teachers are directed to take part in CPD or to report to District offices. Somewhat eccentrically, teachers on maternity leave, study leave or who are suffering from long-term illnesses such as HIV-AIDS are considered as absent.  Estimates also ignore the fact that illness is much more pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa than it is in more developed countries, and in the rainy season, many people – not just teachers – take time off work with malaria. Attending funerals also accounts for a significant proportion of teacher absence – not attending a funeral in Uganda would be socially unacceptable. The time of day that school is visited will also affect estimated absenteeism; if schools are visited in the morning, many teachers face long and unpredictable journeys to work (especially during the rainy season) and may be late; if visits are in the afternoon lower primary classes finish in the early afternoon and it’s not uncommon for these teachers to return home early.

Bennell also casts doubt on the logic behind categorising teachers present in school but not teaching as being absent. As mentioned earlier, the ratio of teachers to pupils is 1:50. In secondary schools there are 3 teachers for every class and in primary the figure is 1.5 teachers per class. Many upper primary teachers are subject specialists. In the schools I visited many teachers reported only teaching 28 out of 40 lessons per week. The World Bank assumption appears to be that if teachers are in school and not teaching then they are skiving but this hardly seems reasonable.  He also points out that teacher absence rates reported by other organisations such as Uwezo report are much lower (16.6% – 17.6%) and by re-analysing the World Bank’s own data, Bennell has come up with an adjusted absenteeism figure for Uganda of 16.6%. SESIL’s own (self-reported) data on teacher absenteeism is about 10%. Although this is still very high it’s along way from 56.3%!

Clearly some teacher absence will be due to skiving or moonlighting, but attributing most absence to ‘low teacher effort’ has a predictable and toxic effect on the way teachers are viewed. I listened to a speech by the Assistant Commissioner for Basic Education in which he said that teachers who drew a salary but didn’t come to work were stealing and should be treated like criminals. I’m pretty sure this sort of rhetoric doesn’t help the situation. But it makes for easy soundbites – if policies aren’t working, blame teachers.

At first glance it wold be easy to take the view that schools and teachers in the developed world have nothing to learn from education in countries like Uganda but when you consider the challenges they face, the work they do is heroic. Teaching classes of over 100 pupils with no resources beyond a chalk board would tax the skills of almost any teacher. The best teachers I got to see were remarkable both in terms of how they set about the task of teaching, and in the work they got out of their pupils. Clearly the system needs support but building capacity sustainably is slow and careful work. I’m very much looking forward to returning to Uganda later in the year.