Uganda’s private schools must stop snubbing language learning policy

Ugandan children are meant to learn in local mother tongues for their first three years of primary school. EPA/Stephen Morrison

Private schools are becoming ubiquitous across Africa. Research has shown that their growth, although it has positive effects, is also problematic because many private schools are being set up without proper policy guidelines.

In Uganda, this absence of policy guidelines manifests in private schools’ attitude to the government’s language-in-education policy. Many are simply snubbing the policy – and they are getting away with it.

A policy for literacy

In 2002, Uganda’s literacy rate was 76.2% of people aged between 15 and 24. The Ministry of Education was dissatisfied with this, and in 2004 commissioned an educational review which found that the existing curriculum was poorly structured. It also revealed that English was the language of learning and teaching across all primary school years.

The review’s authors suggested that this was actually crippling learning in the early years, because children were coming from homes where they spoke another language and were expected to become immediately fluent in English.

So in 2007, Uganda’s Ministry of Education introduced a policy that championed mother-tongue education through the curriculum. Mother-tongue education has well-documented benefits in the early years of learning.

Under the 2007 policy, pupils must be taught in the mother tongue of their area. This is the language of instruction and English is taught as a separate subject. In the fourth year of school, English starts to become the primary language of instruction and then, in the fifth year, it is established as the only language of instruction.

All of Uganda’s rural schools must choose a dominant local language and use this as the language of learning and teaching for the first three years of primary school before making the transition.

But urban government schools are exempt. The policy assumes that their learners are drawn from different parts of the country and therefore from a multitude of linguistic backgrounds. That makes it difficult to choose just one mother tongue for the first three years of schooling.

These schools use English as their medium of instruction but must teach a mother tongue as a subject.

There is no available data on the number of private schools and government schools in Uganda, but private schools seem to be in the majority. It is not uncommon to fund a school in someone’s garage at their home. Many are not regulated at all and are never visited by government inspectors.

The study: private schools snub the language policy

In 2013, a study found that most rural public schools were complying with the policy – particularly those where there was a clearly dominant local language.

But private schools gave many reasons for snubbing the policy and the curriculum that was built around it. First, they claimed that their pupils came from complex, multilingual backgrounds and so should be exempted as with their urban government counterparts. The study found that this was not the case: their pupils tend to come from similar language backgrounds.

Second, they preferred not to “waste time” on a subject that is not examined at the end of primary schooling. In this case, that means a local language. Instead, they concentrated on English, as this is the language of examination later in pupils’ school careers.

The private schools that were approached for this study only taught mother tongue languages as a subject, subverting the government’s policy.

Sadly, public schools’ decision to stick to the policy is costing them – they are losing learners to private schools. One of the reasons for this is that parents want their children to become proficient in English as fast as possible because there is a general belief in Uganda that English is the most important language.

In the study referred to here, it was found that these attitudes to English partly contributed to some government primary schools having fewer than 100 learners across all seven classes or grades. Meanwhile, neighbouring private schools boasted 700 learners or more.

A pre-primary complication

Matters are further complicated by Uganda’s stance on nursery or pre-primary schooling. It is not compulsory, so those parents who want their children to attend nursery school turn to private schools. They are enrolled when they are three or four years old and graduate into primary school at the age of six.

Because there is no language-in-education policy guiding pre-primary schooling, the medium of instruction at these private nursery schools tends to be English. Private school teachers argue, therefore, that it’s difficult for them to switch from English to the mandated three years of mother tongue education and then back to English again.

These children who have an extra few years of learning before starting formal primary school also obviously have an advantage over their peers in government schools. They are perceived to be smarter by many Ugandans who believe English is the “best” language.

The government is now revising its pre-primary school policy and there are hopes that this will become a compulsory level of education. It would also make sense to extend the language-in-education policy to pre-primary schooling so that children have an extra two or three years of learning in their mother tongue. As extensive research shows, the benefits of this would be numerous.

Intervention needed

Uganda’s government needs to consider a proper study of school language practices. Policies should be informed by what is actually happening in classrooms, rather than the government foisting a policy upon schools with no understanding of what is actually happening when teachers and learners meet.

Any review of the existing language policy needs to explore Ugandan attitudes to different languages and consider how best to tackle these or work with them. It will require a massive sensitisation and education drive about the advantages and values of mother tongue education to improve Ugandan parents’ attitudes.