Screen Shot 2019-10-18 at 5.04.16 pmWe are on the fifth day of our annual Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) among Gulu municipal primary schools. This year there are 98 schools we are testing – every primary school in town – but this number grows every year!

We weren’t sure how we could physically do it, but thankfully this year we have joined hands with some organisations and individuals who believe in what we do and wanted to lighten our load and do it with us. We even had five government school head teachers and representatives travel 10 hours from western Ugandan to learn how to conduct the assessment (and help us out whilst learning), so they can return to their own schools and assess reading. These ‘helpers’ have made a huge difference and on day five we have clocked 49 primary schools.

For the first four days this week we focused on private schools, which finish early for holidays. Two days ago I was floored with confident readers in one particular private school. The reading teacher had memorised their school position from last year (19) and had clearly worked hard this year on teaching reading. I was not only impressed with being served two bottles of water, two sodas and two cakes, but also with how fluently children could read and comprehend what they read (even in the first year of primary school). I quickly ran the numbers last night and that particular school has reading levels better than our best school last year! So encouraging!

But oh how the tables turned today. Our western Ugandan visitors are returning tomorrow so we wanted them to test reading in some government schools to see the difference before they leave. I was with a head teacher from Budibugyo this morning in one of our neighbouring government schools. It can take a while to complete the assessment with just two people testing, however today we went at a super fast pace. Unfortunately our speed wasn’t a reflection of how smooth we were at our testing skills, it was because children were scoring so many zeros that we couldn’t complete the whole assessment on them. Some children in their third year of primary school were not able to read any two-letter words! And many children in their first and second year of primary school could not say letter names or simple sounds correctly.

The even more depressing part is this school has been trained in effective methods of teaching reading! And has had many opportunities to receive further training since. They don’t even need to get transport to our office or training room, it’s a short stroll away. But there is a difference between being trained and implementing what you have learnt. Something we have learnt very well!

We were the first to return to our office, no surprises there. But unfortunately our colleagues soon followed, also with deflated faces and showing us their scoresheets plastered with ‘zeros’.

Some of the schools we visited today had received a quick surge in children’s reading improvements after training, some two years ago, others three years ago. However now these schools’ results are on the decline – and at a rapid rate! I quickly crunched the numbers from this morning when returning and P3 (grade 3) was reading at a rate of 39 words per minute last year, this year they dropped to 25 words per minute.

Our team leader was not surprised. Many of these government schools had stopped implementing phonics. There’s multiple reasons and it’s hard to pin-point exactly why in a concise manner. Some government teachers say they want extra money to teach, others say they teach too much already and don’t want to teach anything new, others just lie and say they are when they aren’t. Possibly many government schools are after a ‘quick fix’ to improve education. However there are no quick fixes and overnight miracles to transform and teach children how to read.

On the contrary our private schools are improving even more and I am confident the gap between government and private schools is going to be bigger this year, possibly bigger than ever before. They flock to training, beg us to observe them and demand for more and more professional development – they just can’t get enough!

At least there are some victories. If you can afford to send your children to a private school, then there is hope. If you can’t, then I’m not sure what the answer is. We are a little over half way through our reading tests, but we will wait to see what the numbers tell us. But I know we need to sit down early next year and work out a plan for helping our resistant government schools.

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