By Tusiime Tutu
Imagine spending five years in A-level after four years at O-level and seven years at the Primary level. It may seem like an eternity, but this could soon become a reality for Ugandan students if a proposed education reform is approved by the government.
The National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) conducted a needs assessment study in 2021 to identify gaps in the current A-level curriculum. In December 2022, the NCDC proposed an education reform recommending that A-level students be given five years to fully explore the three principal subjects offered at A-level and a vocational subject to act as a backup in case of career progression through university fails.
For Douglas Mwebaze, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and student of fashion, this education reform comes too late. Douglas completed A-level studies in Biology, Mathematics, and Chemistry, but was unable to pursue his dream of studying Dermatology at university. Without a vocational backup, he struggled to keep going, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When I couldn’t get into university, I was broken. I was sad. I was mad at myself for the choices I had made in A-level and not being in the system I was meant to be in,” he said. “In that system, we are not invited to be creative and invent solutions and come up with ideas. Yet life keeps changing, which means we must be able to creatively tackle life; something that the Covid-19 pandemic made clear.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the limitations of Uganda’s education system, especially in terms of eLearning and vocational practice. In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, the Ministry of Education launched a new curriculum reform for lower secondary that emphasizes practical and creative-based learning. However, the pandemic disrupted the implementation of this reform and highlighted the need for a more comprehensive and effective education system that can engage students, especially in the arts disciplines.
If the proposed education reform is approved, it could be a game-changer for Uganda’s education system, providing students with more time to fully explore their interests and passions, and giving them the tools they need to thrive in an ever-changing world.
Redefining purpose in a pandemic
In the midst of a global pandemic that has disrupted education systems worldwide, 24-year-old entrepreneur Douglas Mwebaze found himself at a crossroads. Having completed A’level studies in Biology, Mathematics, and Chemistry, Douglas had envisioned a career as a medical practitioner in Dermatology or Radiology. But when he was unable to join university for his chosen degree, he was forced to reconfigure his career path and find a vocational alternative.
It was during the first lockdown of 2020 that Douglas discovered his passion for music. With time on his hands and nothing to do, he found solace in creating music. “The first lockdown found me at a time when I was feeling lost, and creating music gave me comfort,” he says. “After that spark, I delved into acting and realized that everything that was happening with music and acting was a light to where I belonged.”
Unfortunately, Douglas’s story is not unique. The COVID-19 lockdowns forced schools to shut down for months at a time, exposing the gaps in the national education system and culminating in psychological effects on students due to the lack of educational streams. Many learners were forced to abandon school altogether, further widening the gap in their academic careers.
The good news is that Uganda’s National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) has conducted a needs assessment study to identify gaps in the current A’level curriculum, and in December 2022, they proposed an education reform that recommends giving A’level students five years to explore the three principal subjects offered at A’level and prepare for their chosen career path. This reform, which is currently awaiting government approval, also recommends that each student study two principal subjects relevant to their future career and a vocational subject to act as a backup in case career progression through university fails.
The proposed curriculum reform is a paradigm shift in Uganda’s education system, moving away from a colonially borrowed education system to a more culturally relevant, digitally optimized, and practical education system that nurtures the talents and creativity of learners. It is a step towards a system that does not just focus on memory-based learning but encourages critical thinking, practical application, and creativity.
Douglas’s story is a testament to the fact that creativity and practicality should be the foundations of schooling and consequent employment. His journey shows that with the right opportunities and support, learners can find their passions and thrive outside the traditional education system. As Ecclesiastes 9:11 says,” chance happens to us all if you are willing to run the race.”
The race forward
On March 6th, 2023, the Ministry of Education released the syllabus for the Uganda National Primary Schools Performing Arts Festival. This festival is a national event that provides opportunities for all students to participate, from regional to school-level competitions. The Ministry directive mandates that every school, whether government or private aided, must participate in the festival.
In 2018, only 50 schools participated in the National Music Dance and Drama competitions. However, in 2022, after the competitions resumed following the Covid-19 pandemic, 74 primary schools qualified to participate. This increase in participation despite the economic and curriculum pressures on schools after the pandemic demonstrates the evolving education system’s paradigm shift that gives space for creative arts.
The post-Covid-19 education culture has taken urgent steps to support the creative arts through national efforts, ensuring that students like Douglas have every opportunity to explore their passions and niches. “In 2022, I felt that I wanted to know how the Fashion and Design industry works. Luckily, MOTIV offered a certificate in Fashion and Design, and I enrolled in it. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries, so I want to be able to recycle textile waste,” says Douglas.
One of the objectives of this year’s national performing arts festival is to “orient children to develop their creativity, confidence, and leadership skills for posterity.” By empowering Uganda’s creative arts industries through practical education, the country can gain prolific productivity that ensures a continued export of creative goods, which will contribute to National Revenue.
However, the creative arts need adequate public and private investment in skilling to be taxed for a viable contribution to the national economy. For example, the proposed A-level curriculum reform allows students like Douglas to study Fashion and Design as a principal subject examinable by the Uganda National Examinations Board and specialize further at the tertiary level.
Uganda is a young population with about 65% of the population still engaged in basic formal education from Nursery to Tertiary levels. Therefore, it is urgent that children are brought into the conversation on making the creative economy a significant part of Uganda’s economy. With festivals like the Azulato Children’s Festival by Goethe-Zentrum Kampala and the National Performing Arts festival, children and students are allowed the time to explore their creativity.
However, even with a National Action Plan to improve the contribution of the creative arts in Uganda, the reality of education-based implementation shouldn’t remain a task for the private sector. Covid-19 became a blessing in disguise for Douglas, allowing him direct contact with MOTIV Uganda, where he involved himself in conversations on creativity, capability, practicality, and productivity. “Everything with creativity comes with seeing a gap within one’s environment and coming up with a solution to fill that gap,” says Douglas.
Improving the quality of the Ugandan National Education System requires encouraging creativity and practicality in schooling while harnessing each individual’s capabilities for consequent careers. Creativity is an essential tool in solving problems, as seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to be met with creative solutions.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Tutu Tusiime and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.