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Uganda goes to the polls in 30 days to elect its next president, but there is little sign so far in the public debate on education of the need to shift focus from inputs and enrolment to actual learning outcomes.

I was in Kampala last week piloting a survey on school management (more on that later), and spotted in the Daily Monitor a feature on the candidate’s campaign promises on education, reading as follows:

Yoweri Museveni

  • One primary school per parish (to reduce average walking distances)
  • Continue to increase the budget allocation for text books

Kizza Besigye

  • Introduce compulsory universal primary education
  • Increase remuneration for primary school teachers

Amama Mbabazi

  • Recruit and train new teachers with the aim of reducing the teacher-student ratio
  • Build more schools and classrooms

That’s zero mention of actual student learning outcomes from any of the leading candidates, and a complete focus on spending more money and providing more of the inputs that have been shown time and again to bear little relationship with improved learning outcomes.

NYU Professor David Stasavage published a paper in 2005 exploring how the introduction of elections in Uganda in 1996 helped lead to the removal of school fees in 1997. He also published a follow-up in 2013 noting how elections focus politicians on those things that are easily visible to voters. Fees for tuition at public schools are very visible to voters, and so one of the first things democratic politicians address. School quality is much less visible to the average voter, leading to much less focus on teaching and learning by politicians.

All of this suggests that one way to improve student learning is to get citizens and politicians more focused on learning by better measurement and spreading of the insight that despite high enrolment, student skills are very poor. This is a key part of the theory of change behind the global ASER/Uwezo/PAL-Network movement of citizen-led student reading assessments. What sadly seems clear from Uganda is that this message has not yet got through. We’ve known since Uwezo’s 2010 assessment that children in Uganda are way behind where there should be (only 2 percent of grade 3 children could read and understand a grade 2 story).

My tip for anyone with the opportunity to grill the candidates on education policy would be to borrow Paul Atherton’s mantra:   “But can the kids read?”