It is 4.30am, in the new upcoming suburb of Najeera. The school van driver is menacingly hooting at the gate of Mr. & Mrs. Ssenfuma, interrupting the peace and quiet of the neighborhood. The neighbors are cursing as they enjoy the last bend of their good night sleep-‘why don’t they prepare their kid early and the van finds him ready at the gate, instead of disturbing the peace and quiet of our neighborhood?’. Meanwhile, Kyle Ssenfuma, 4years old, a pupil in Kindergaten 1(aka baby class) has got used to being woken at 4.00am to prepare to be picked by the school van, and as the van driver hoots at the gate- at 4.30am, he is finishing up on his breakfast (a cup of white porridge and a chapatti) -, to pick his school bag and make a dash for the gate, otherwise the van will leave him!!

The van then picks Kyle, and makes a dash for the next pick-up, Viviane-3years old, and then another one, and then another one. It picks every kid in Najeera, Ntinda, Kigowa and Kulambiro (it is coded as ‘route A’ by the school), and arrives at the school gate at 7.00am. By the time the van reaches the school gate, Kyle Ssenfuma, Viviane and half their friends in the van who were the first kids to be picked by the van are asleep-in the van. They were woken up by their parents between 3.30am to 5.30am to prepare to be picked by the van, and endured the 2 hour drive around the 4 villages of Kiira Municipality, in a school van, whose shock absorbers were last repaired in the last holidays. The first order of business of the driver and the accompanying teacher is to wake the sleeping kids up and drag them into the school compound for games and sports!! What a way to start your day!!

It is very interesting how the socio-economic changes in society and the liberalization of the education sector in Uganda are affecting the present and future of our children. Why should a 4year old (some are as young as 2.5years old) be made to go through this horrendous lifestyle at such a tender age? Why are infants waking up at 3.30am? Are they working on their PhD theses? Why would a kid that age be made to bathe at 3.30am just because they have to fit in the modern life expectations? (the last time I checked, I used to wake up at 6am to go to our primary school in my village, and bathing at 6.30am was a challenge even when the water was warm). Why would a 4year old kid be leaving home at 4am or 5am going to school? Are they going for a high level cabinet meeting, or they have been summoned to go for an emergency National Security meeting? What are these kids going to do at 5am-has the primary curriculum been enhanced so that school hours start early and students get their bachelor’s degrees in P.7? And the 2-3hours of rotating around a whole division, is it our version of promoting domestic tourism?

The other challenge is the workload that these kids have. They spend the whole day studying and come back home with homework-on the very things they studied!! Why? Why should a kid in Kindergarten be given homework? What are you assessing? Why are you assessing knowledge acquisition by a 4year old, when you should be dealing with how they are relating with their peers, their participation in sports and games, their appreciation of colour, their ability to take themselves (or ask to be taken to the toilet) when nature calls, and other basic and social needs of a human being at that age? In effect, a kid wakes and starts their active day up at 3.30am to 5.30am, and will officially go back to sleep at 8pm to 9pm after completing their homework with mummy, all in the name of education (of course they have a siesta at school in between the lessons) !! 16 hours of active life for a 4year old. Are we training robots? And why give kids homework, only for it to end up being done by the parents? Are you assessing the parents as well? What happens for parents who are illiterate or semi-illiterate but have made their way from their deep villages to Najeera and want their kids to study in the high end schools, but have no idea what their kids are studying? Do you envision the inconvenience the parents are going through having to lie to their kids on ‘the correct answer’, only for the teacher to mark it wrong and the parent and kid meet each other in a rather unfriendly mood in the evening for a session that usually sounds like this: ‘Daddy why did you lie to me? Teacher marked my answer wrong’.

The other challenge is the load they are carrying on their infant backs. The kid is doing 8 subjects in baby class (I don’t understand why. I did 4 subjects in P7 when I was triple their age!!). For each of the 8 subjects, they have an exercise book, and a work book for homework. That makes it 16 books in their back bags. Given their very active age, they keep running across the compound, carrying this load on their very young and fragile spines. And then we wonder why we are having an increase in the number of spine injuries within young adults.

At the end of the term, a whole week is dedicated to exams. Exams for 4 year olds!! What are you examining-whether a 4 year old understood or can memorise the concepts you taught them? At 4 years of age? Has someone thought through the impact of ranking a 4year old as the last performing pupil in class? Have we thought through the impact this will have on their confidence levels throughout their academic life and even life outside the classroom? This exam issue comes complete with the invention of ECD examination bureaus that have sprouted in almost every division of Kampala. This means that kids will be examined by someone who never taught them. What are they examining? If a kid came to your classroom unable to play with their peers, why not assess them at the end of the term on their ability to interact with the peers in and outside the class? If a kid didn’t know how to use the toilet, why not rank them at the end of the term on their ability in the same? If a kid started your class with speech difficulties, why not rank them on their ability to speak at the end of the 3 months of the term in your classroom? Why ask an examination bureau to set general exams for toddlers, as if they came into your classroom with general skill sets or general skill gaps? As if all this isn’t enough, a kid ‘fails’ a subject, and a teacher asks for extra funds from the parent for remedial lessons ‘so that the kid can cope with the rest of the class’!! How can a 4 year old be ranked a failure?

As we analyse the school drop-out rates in the education system, we need to start differentiating kids that dropped out of school, and those that literally ran away from school system. There was a time when drop out rates were explained by lack of school fees by parents, disability, early marriages, socio-cultural practices that curtail kids-especially girls; from continuing with their education pursuits. However, we are now faced with a new face of drop outs-kids of middle income families, who inspite of their family’s financial muscle just give up on education, and literally refuse to continue with school-kids who are going into education exile. My submission is that this can partly be explained by the system we raise up these kids. We overwork these kids right from day 1 of their school life, and so by the time they complete lower secondary-they are exhausted. Their bodies give way. The few that get into Makerere University and other Universities believe their long awaited ‘heaven’ has arrived, and so they are unable to complete University because they are catching up on 16 years of hard labour. We, as education practitioners, policy makers and parents need to sit down on a round table and think through where each one of us is going wrong. There are best practices in Early Childhood Education and other levels of education that we can learn from. We have nations that have made great strides in improving the quality of education to make it appropriate for specific age groups. We may need to learn best practices from these nations and hence be able to improve on our own. Otherwise we risk creating a nation of robots, and its attendant negative consequences. These consequences will be for all of us to suffer as a nation, and so we had rather all participate is fixing the problem, before it becomes an emergency. Let’s allow kids to be kids, their time to be grown-ups will certainly come.

Modern Karema is the Head of Program Implementation at Educate!