September 2017
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CHILD PROTECTION INADEQUACY IN THE UGANDAN EDUCATION SYSTEM
Jessie Bakitunda, Uganda National English Language Teachers' Association, Kampala, Uganda

[NOTE: This article has been reviewed by the SRIS leaders, and not copyedited by TESOL, due to its length.]

There once was a student in her first year of senior high school. She missed school for a couple of weeks since she was struggling with the typhoid fever. None of her teachers called her home to follow up on her. Perhaps the reason was the overwhelming number of students in the school she attended. She reported the matter to her class teacher and gave her a medical report to explain her absentia. As was the norm, it was the class teacher’s responsibility to inform other teachers concerning this matter. However the English teacher was not informed on time. The students’ explanations were blocked when the teacher failed to listen. The student was labelled negligent, unserious and lazy. The teacher continually said hurtful things about her. The student felt that the teacher started failing her on purpose, even for the simplest mistakes that fellow students were not failed for. She detested the teacher with a passion, as well as the subject. She realised she was heading on the road to failure. The quick solution would be to drop the English literature class, but she knew it would cost her good grades in her secondary leaving examinations.

She reported the matter to the head of department in detail. The teacher calmed her down and arranged mediation with the teacher she hated. They had a candid and constructive discussion on each other’s’ expectations, likes and dislikes. The matter was resolved. The English teacher later became her confidant and good friend and they mutually respected one another. She went ahead to become her school’s best English literature student in the final examinations. This girl was me.

Inclusion and Involvement Versus the Teacher’s All-Knowing Identity

The story above shows that it takes two parties to solve a conflict and none is all knowing. Resolving a conflict requires humbling oneself, listening and talking to the other. This supports the notion that children are not empty vessels; they need not be passive participants in the learning process. Children can make valuable contributions towards their learning and take control of it when they are encouraged and well guided. Participation in project work and essay writing are ways of encouraging creativity and critical thinking.

My experience of traditional Ugandan society has been that adults (teachers too) seldom give children an audience or allow them to participate in decision making and learning. In fact, my recollection of English lessons had teachers writing long lists of tenses and nouns of different forms and all we did was copy the work off the board. Such dull lessons are still the norm in many Ugandan schools. As a school going child, I realised that most of the teachers used the teacher centred approach where the teacher was always right.

There are times when learners only copy notes from the blackboard with no explanation. Teachers’ habits and pronunciation mistakes are sometimes passed onto learners. There were times when teachers were offended by a child who had pronounced the words differently; on occasion this would result in a violent or emotional conflict. Additionally, the learning process then becomes confusing. This is still happening today. Some teachers tell children everything: what to think, what to say, the subjects they must major in and career choice. It is common for parents too to decide their children’s subject majors and careers because of the opportunities they see, without consulting with the child. When the child insists on going in a certain path of academia following their strengths and weaknesses, they face a lot of discouragement.

The Realities Concerning the Right to Education in Uganda

In the previous section we saw that teachers have hunger for dominance in classrooms, thus causing tension and fear among learners and stifling communication. Below we will indulge further into this:

57% of Uganda’s population are children, and children between 4 and 18 years must lawfully be in school. Child protection and development are a critical challenge. The situation analysis of children in Uganda indicated that students reported experiences of sexual abuse, but 60% of the abused children kept quiet due to cultural inferiority and the fear of being victimized by perpetrators (United States Agency for International Development, 2015). School authorities also preferred to handle matters quietly to avoid scandals. In the schools I attended and taught at there were no designated counsellors that dealt with student issues, thus teachers doubled as counsellors and often blundered, despite their good intentions. Trust based relations were lacking between teachers and learners. Some teachers were, and are, seen as objects of fear because they verbally, emotionally and physically abuse learners.

Ugandan children, like those in the rest of the world, have a right to education as accorded by the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children. This right has led to the availability of free education in some primary and secondary schools Education in Uganda. However there are still some problems associated with the provision of education as seen below:

  1. The assessment system focuses on learners passing examinations (Nangozi, 2017). It is rigid and the focus is on traditional assessment or the exam. This assessment does not prepare learners for real-life challenges. With the focus on examinations and tests, teachers have not been able to identify their different learner needs and competences, thus stifling creativity and critical thinking among learners. Learners who fail examinations are labelled as failures yet, in actuality, teachers were not able to examine and accommodate the different learning styles and assessment needs. Teachers often punish instead of support learners.

  2. The large class sizes affect the quality of teacher service. With a class of 100, it is hard to pay full attention to individual learner needs.

  3. There are not enough funds to cater to the learners in school. Uganda’s rampant poverty causes parents to default on school fees and has a negative toll on the enrolment of the children of the poor (Republic of Uganda & United Nations Children’s Fund, 2017; Deininger, 2003). For example some girls miss school because they cannot afford sanitary pads to use during their menstrual periods. Finally, some schools fail to provide meals for children, and many teachers are not being paid well (salaries are often late and low).

  4. Children and teachers’ rights are denied.

In my observation, children are not involved enough in deciding what they will learn and the enactment of the bills that concern them. For example, in 2016 the 9th parliament of Uganda passed the Children’s Act that led to the establishment of the Uganda National Children’s Authority (Atimango, 2016). It was charged with the management, monitoring, and coordination of the implementation of all child-related policies and laws: including ending all forms of violence against children. It also introduced confidential abuse reporting mechanisms. This act was a good step taken, but was lacking in the area of sensitization and implementation. I think sensitization concerning the act has been too slow to allow effective implementation, which is common with Ugandan policies. Uganda needs to learn from countries like Sweden that have a good reputation in child protection; Sweden was able to completely affect a ban on corporal punishments in 1979 (Fredén, 2015).

My assertion is that one cannot overstate how important it is to have had children fully involved in the implementation of the act and all decisions concerning them since they would be more responsible in ensuring that their rights are upheld. Sadly, I hardly recollect their involvement in the act enactment. Personally, I was never asked, even though I was a school going child during the time of research leading to the enactment. To check the fact: I asked 50 of my teacher acquaintances different schools if their learners participated in the enactment of the act. Only three had heard about the act, and two of those teachers did not know the details pertaining to it. The poor sensitization is thus not suiting the aims of the act.

In addition, Ugandan teacher training colleges and universities have not fully emphasised the importance of child protection. International schools are keener in implementing child protection laws in comparison to the Ugandan local schools. Most of the child protection awareness is done by civil society organizations in response to demands by foreign donors like UKAID and USAID. These organizations have a small scope in providing protection literacy to both teachers and learners. Let us take an example of the girls’ education challenge project implemented by the Private Education Development Network; between 2013 and 2016, they trained only 2 teachers per sampled school in 3 out of Uganda’s 111 districts (Private Education Development Network, 2016). This is a great initiative with a lot of potential however, considering the needs and current status quo, it is but a drop in the ocean.

Recommendations for Averting the Issues

Despite several laws, teachers’ and especially children’s rights are still violated both physically (corporal punishments) and emotionally. Further trainings concerning child and teacher protection would go some ways in alleviating this problem. A paradigm shift advocating for positive disciplining instead of beating learners is needed in Uganda. Teachers should adopt different corrective measures, for instance asking the student to write an essay about their naughty classroom conduct. Such a punishment would also help learners improve their writing skills. Adopting measures that are less harmful and ensure child protection, such as the Western detention system would make a great difference in their learning experiences.

In the Uganda National English Teachers Association (UNELTA) we believe in teaching English not only for its sake but for the sake of solving communal problems. We sharpen each other with new instructional skills, assessment and professional development trends. We passionately advocate for child protection in schools and take other lessons in professional development among members. We have voluntary trainings with teachers in various regions of Uganda. We would like to partner with the government, universities and organizations of the world to make learning the best experience for our learners.

UNELTA members would deeply value collaboration with international teacher organizations and schools in regards to supporting and equipping us with modern teaching, assessment and child handling skills. This can be done through conducting webinars, conferences, and seminars. Teacher exchange programs could be adopted where Ugandan teachers will be exposed to hands on training in countries with better education systems. We could learn from teachers from developed countries in handling identity and diversity issues considering their exposure in teaching immigrant children. This will help Ugandan teachers handle children from different tribes as well as refugee kids better.

References:

Atimango, M. (2016, March 22). Uganda parliament passes children act. Retrieved from https://uganda.savethechildren.net/news/uganda-parliament-passes-children-act

Deininger, K. (2003). Does cost of schooling affect enrolment by the poor? Universal primary education in Uganda. Economics of Education Review, 22(3), 291-305.

Fredén, J. (2015, December 14). First ban on smacking children. Retrieved from https://sweden.se/society/smacking-banned-since-1979/

Nangozi, Y. (2017, June 12). Educationists ‘blame’ teachers over assessment of learners. The Observer. Retrieved from http://allafrica.com/stories/201706120665.html

Private Education Development Network. (2015). The 2015 PEDN Annual Report. Kampala, Uganda: PEDN.

Republic of Uganda & United Nations Children’s Fund. (2017). Emerging global challenges: Climate related hazards and urbanization - Protecting Uganda’s children. Kampala, Uganda: Raya Muttarak, Martin Flatø and David Lawson.

United States Agency for International Development. (2015). National forum on the state of the Ugandan child (briefing note). Kampala, Uganda: USAID.


Jessie Bakitunda is a Ugandan English language teacher from Kampala who graduated from Makerere University. She is a member of the Uganda National English Language Teachers Association where she serves on the strategic planning committee as a public relations officer. Jessie was an exchange student at Gothenburg University, Sweden, where she received a certificate in conflict resolution.

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