By Klubosumo Johnson Borh and Yanis Ben Amor
Though many more children throughout the world are attending primary school since the Millennium Development Goals were adopted 15 years ago, in order to sustain the success, increasing matriculation and improving attendance in secondary schools are essential.
In Uganda, secondary school attendance remains extremely poor. In 2012/2013 gross enrollment rate was 34 percent and by the end of the school year, only 22 percent of eligible children were still in class. With this in mind, a new program developed by researchers at the Earth Institute looks to use newly developed technology to boost enrollment and keep kids and adolescents in class.
The Truant Assessment Program is a school absenteeism prevention and intervention program designed for secondary school children in Isingiro District in southwestern Uganda. The project has planned an integrated and comprehensive approach to identify the causes of chronic absenteeism among secondary school pupils in impoverished and educationally disadvantaged populations, improving school attendance and academic achievements and reducing school dropout through an innovative biometric system using fingerprints for unique identification of pupils, phone calls, and home visits through trained education extension workers in the Isingiro District.
The program will also implement an inexpensive and simple biometric system, called eAttendance, that will track and store students’ daily attendance records electronically. The program consists of two major components: (1) a fingerprint scanner paired with a netbook or tablet running a tracking software; and (2) dedicated education extension workers to work with absent students.
The program works by using students’ fingerprints to record daily attendance each time the student is present at school. The attendance records from the schools are aggregated wirelessly to a central location where education extension workers are able to analyze the data and identify students who are at risk of becoming chronically absent. The workers are then dispatched into the community in order to locate the student, pinpoint the reason for the absence, and address each student’s individual needs to improve attendance. Interventions include home visits, parent engagement and one-on-one sessions with the education extension workers. By identifying patterns of absenteeism early and addressing specific needs of each student, the Truant Assessment Program looks to reduce chronic absenteeism, improve attendance and academic achievement, and reduce dropout rates. Our program will initially be implemented in 10 schools targeting students 14–16 years old.
Despite the plethora of evidence regarding absenteeism being a common and core issue in the Ugandan school system, there is still only limited knowledge on the causes of chronic absenteeism or evidence-based programs that address absenteeism in Uganda, or in sub-Saharan Africa more broadly. Considering the seriousness of this lacuna, a team of researchers traveled to Uganda in March 2015 to gain an understanding about the trends, gender factors and age group mostly affected in order to inform the design of our program.
Findings from interviews with teachers confirmed that absenteeism is a common issue in the school systems in Isingiro. The average number of students absent from school on a daily basis is at least five during the week, except for Tuesdays, which are market days, at which time absentees increase. Girls and boys are both affected, but adolescent girls are especially affected. We found that the age bracket affected the most ranges between 16–19 years.
Our interviews confirmed that students are exposed to a number of risk factors for chronic absenteeism and dropping out of school. Early pregnancy is one of the contributing factors for girls in the district, and it is attributed to girls getting involved with older men in order to earn school fees. We have reported on this worrisome trend here.
Our interviews also showed that school fees are too high for most of the families. The cost ranges from 110,000 to 115,000 Uganda Shillings (about $37) for each student, and the costs for boarding students are even higher. Parents are poor to the extent that they cannot afford to pay school fees on time. As such, school administrators often send students home. Whenever students are sent home, they stay there for weeks before returning to school. The majority of the students come from poor backgrounds that make school fees and supplies difficult to afford. Many of the parents reported that farming provides school fees for the children and that children would have to work at home to contribute to raising the school fees themselves if it weren’t for the monies gathered from selling farmed goods. Many students also reported that they live in remote regions located far from their schools, which also makes it difficult to travel to class, especially during the raining seasons.
Absenteeism is greater during the planting and harvest seasons and can also increase during market days. Parents seem to ignore the importance of their children’s education. As a result, many children carry goods to the market on market days instead of attending their regular classes. Many of the teachers reported that parents should be informed about the importance of education, because most of them are not educated themselves. Most students experience family pressure to help tend to farming activities during the planting and harvest seasons, which coincide with the school year, in order to make ends meet. The students’ family livelihood and support system depends on farming. As such, they are often left with the difficult choice of going to school or staying and helping their parents.
In the Isingiro district of Uganda, the Truant Assessment Program has the potential to identify chronic absenteeism, especially in combination with the eAttendance tracking system and the education extension workers. Through collaborations and referral, the Truant Assessment Program plans to partner with other NGOs and local partners in Uganda to address other risk factors. By identifying patterns of absenteeism early and addressing specific needs of each student, the program looks to reduce chronic absenteeism, improve academic achievement, and reduce dropout rates.