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Opinion17th December 2015

How we discovered the best school in Uganda (and what it means for the other schools)

Phil Elks is International Education Manager for Ark. Formerly head of secondary school accountability at the Department for Education in the UK, in this blog, he talks about the programme he is running to measure educational progress in Ugandan schools.

The best secondary school in Uganda is not a large, prestigious institution. It’s not located where you might expect- in the capital of Kampala. Wealthy families do not compete for their children to gain entry. It’s not equipped with plush sports fields, a well-stocked libraries or a computer laboratory. Even more surprisingly, the best school in the country isn’t the one with the best grades.

In fact, according to research that Ark has undertaken in cooperation with the Ugandan Ministry of Education, the best secondary in the country is a small, unheralded school in a poor rural district. St Daniel Comboni School, is an easy school to overlook when discussing educational excellence.

So what makes us confident enough to declare this one of, if not the very best school in Uganda? It’s because of a measurement we call value-add – a new way of assessing school performance in the developing world, which has revealed something remarkable about Daniel Comboni school that might never have been noticed otherwise. [[{“fid”:”82946″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_tags[und]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”height: 266px; width: 400px; margin: 7px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]

Value-add measures progress and not just performance

Traditionally, schools in Uganda have been ranked on their exam results. This may seem a reasonable approach, but it only paints a partial picture.

Each year, Ugandan newspapers publish the percentage of students in each school who achieve a “Division 1” ranking – the highest grade out of 4. But this information can be misleading:

Is a school that admits high-achieving students who make modest progress as good as a school that admits low-achieving students who then make significant progress? How do we recognise the schools that take students the farthest?

Value-add reveals the schools that make the biggest difference

Value-add compares the results of each student at the end of secondary school to his or her primary exam scores. Schools get credit when a student performs better than expected, given their prior attainment. This allows you to control for the ability of a school’s intake, and to gauge more accurately the quality of teaching offered by each school.

Over the last few months, Ark has developed and tested a value-add model for Ugandan schools. We have collected primary and secondary leaving exam results from a representative sample of 30,000 pupils. This has allowed us to identify when students make more or less progress than expected.

Using value added measures, we are confident that the Daniel Comboni school is one of the best in the country. Students entering Daniel Comboni start out with average results. But after four years of schooling, nearly every student winds up with a division 2 or better score on their exams. Other schools get higher marks, but none of the other 334 schools we visited help students to make as much progress. Considering where their students started, Daniel Comboni school is showing that Ugandan schools can perform remarkably well even in challenging circumstances.

How do they do it? The school has a vision based on providing a holistic education for all its students. Each student is encouraged to be a self-starter, and take responsibility for their own performance. At the same time, teachers are encouraged to work with students after class if they spot any difficulties. The head teacher regularly visits each class to ensure lessons are of a good quality.

And this school is not alone. Ark’s partner organisation PEAS runs a network of schools in rural districts in Uganda. A value-add measure will enable Ark and PEAS to more accurately measure how these schools are progressing compared to other schools. Many PEAS schools, such as Akoromit PEAS high school, in the north of the country, were revealed to be performing exceptionally well on value-add measures.

The importance of identifying underperformance

But perhaps even more important than finding the best schools, is identifying the weaker ones.

Uganda has rapidly expanded access to education over the past 20 years. The vast majority of children here have the opportunity to go to school, but the quality of teaching in some places urgently requires improvement. Using value added measures we can work out where there are underperforming teachers and school managers. These schools can be held to account, and provided with extra help where necessary.

Using value-add, schools would no longer be able to use the quality of their incoming students to explain away poor performance. This is a frequent excuse in some poor, rural areas, where students often enter school with limited skills. Value-add allows you to tackle these low expectations by showing that other schools in exactly the same circumstances perform much better.

Improving school accountability in Uganda

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So, how can educationalists in Uganda use this tool to create policy changes? In England, the accountability system has teeth. School management can be changed if results are poor. This can prompt improvements in the weakest schools, and gives everyone a strong incentive to perform well. A similar approach could be considered by Ugandan ministers.

There are other ways value-add can be used to support weaker schools. Our research revealed weak and strong schools could be found in every region of Uganda, often side by side. Perhaps they could be matched? Daniel Comboni surely would have much expertise to offer if paired with a nearby underperforming school. In some cases, schools looking for solutions might find them right next door.

In the end this is the real benefit of the value-add project – not just coming up with a new, better way of measuring schools and identifying excellence, but giving Ugandan schools the opportunity to spread excellence, and address challenges. The best school in the country isn’t meant to be a secret, it’s meant to be an inspiration.