Data suggest that many countries have a large enrollment, often called a “bulge,” of pupils in the early primary grades. This can result in schools with up to 150 students per classroom with only one teacher, which can affect student dropout as well as classroom quality. However, not much is known about what causes this bulge, or what can be done to rectify it. RTI International, with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), carried out a national-level study in the summer of 2017 looking at the severity of this bulge in early primary grades in Uganda. Tara Weatherholt shares more about this study’s findings and the broader implications for early primary education in low- and middle-income countries.

This study, as well as the pilot that preceded it, focused on the prevalence of repetition within the primary grades in Uganda. What do we mean when we talk about repetition, and how can it affect students’ success in the early grades?

I think it’s always good to start by talking about what we mean by repetition, which is when a child is enrolled in a grade for more than one school year. When we think about repetition, we usually think of children who are repeating because they haven’t learned enough to be prepared for the next grade. But what we’ve found in Uganda, which likely applies to other low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is that some children haven’t learned enough because they started the grade at too young of an age and therefore were not developmentally prepared to receive the instruction. In Uganda, we focused primarily on grade 1. Essentially, there’s an understanding among teachers and parents that some children won’t progress to the next grade the following year because they’re too young, or simply because the first time around they are not really expected to learn the grade 1 materials. Sometimes children are enrolled in grade 1 with the expectation that they will repeat, simply because there was no affordable preprimary option.

Repetition is also associated with dropout. Studies have shown that children who repeat are less likely to complete primary school or secondary school. When we think about children who are repeating the early primary grades, it’s likely that they are not forming a favorable perception of school and that they quickly lose confidence in their abilities. Children who are repeating may develop negative associations with going to school, such as being bored or not liking the teacher. This is particularly true for children who are going to school too young. Those learners likely will tune out or become frustrated because they cannot follow along.

Repetition is also associated with overcrowded classrooms. That is, the higher the repetition rate for a given grade, the more children there will be in that classroom who are taking up desk space, materials, and the teacher’s attention. Repetition also leads to children of different ages in the same classroom, which also presents another challenge to teachers in differentiation of their instruction.

What was the impetus for the pilot, and how did it lead to a nationally representative study?

My colleagues Luis Crouch and Katherine Merseth published a paper titled “Stumbling at the First Step,” which documented a phenomenon of over-enrollment in some countries in which more children were enrolled in a grade than there were children at the target age for that grade in the country, based on census data. However, in these same countries, the reported repetition rate was quite low and could not account for the percentage of over-enrollment. So, they asked the question: What was behind the over-enrollment numbers?

RTI decided to internally fund a pilot study in Uganda to investigate this question. We posed a couple of hypotheses, including underreported repetition and high enrollment of children who were not yet at the target age for grade 1. Conducting a pilot study in two districts allowed us not only to investigate these questions, but also to try out a new methodology—namely, whether it was feasible to interview both parents and teachers of children, on a small scale, and then build up to a national study. The pilot results showed that the repetition rate, according to caregivers and teachers, was much higher than what was officially reported—as much as 50% higher. DFID took an interest in our findings from the two-district pilot, calling for us to conduct a national study of repetition and over-enrollment in Uganda. Our sampling strategy allowed for our findings in the national study to be representative of grade 1 students in Uganda.

Tell us a little about the study’s findings. What did you discover about enrollment and repetition as it relates to age?

We studied enrollment in relation to age of the students in grade 1. We randomly sampled children from each grade 1 classroom, and then interviewed those children’s caregivers and teachers about age, repetition, and pre-primary participation. We also collected age and repetition data from the overall classroom school records, including enrollment, teacher registers, and official records submitted to the Ministry. In Uganda, the official age of enrollment in first grade is 6 years. Given this policy, we categorized the age data of both our sampled children and the data from the school records as under-age, target age, and over-age for grade. We compared the caregiver- and teacher-report to what we found in the school records.

The study produced several interesting findings. First, we found that overall, caregivers reported almost equal proportions of students at target-age and over-age, which was different from the numbers obtained from the school records. Second, the proportion of children who were under-age, regardless of source, wasn’t as high as anecdotal evidence would have suggested, a result that really surprised us. The highest report of under-age students came from caregiver report, at 11%, and the lowest was 6% from the classroom-level records from the education management information system (EMIS).

Another major finding was that the rate of repetition differed depending on who we asked but, in any case, it was much higher than officially reported by the schools. The highest was found through caregiver reports, at 51%; and the next highest through teacher reports, at 41%. The Uganda Education Abstract in 2016, produced by the Ministry of Education, Sports, Technology, reported the national rate of repetition in grade 1 at 4.8%, a significant difference from what we found in our study. Thus, it appears that schools are systematically underreporting to the Ministry the numbers of students who are repeating.

Finally, our study found that exposure to preprimary education served as a protective factor regarding repetition in grade 1. Students who did not attend preprimary school were 3.8 times more likely to repeat grade 1 than students who did attend preprimary school, even after controlling for the effects of socioeconomic status, gender, and disability. Given that on the whole, there is a dearth of research on preprimary education in lower- and middle-income countries, we were excited to find evidence of this effect of preprimary in our study in Uganda.

What implications does this study have, both for Uganda and for other countries?

As there is no government-supported preprimary education system in Uganda, the findings of the study have important implications for the Ministry. Expanding access to preprimary education for more children through innovative approaches, such as public–private partnerships, as well as improving the quality of primary education, could reduce repetition rates. It’s also important for the government to revisit the automatic promotion policy that is currently in place, which states that all children should automatically progress to the next grade. This policy is likely contributing to the inaccurate data reporting on repetition by schools, since head teachers know that holding children back conflicts with the official policy. Overall, the findings of this study highlight the importance of access to high-quality education in the foundational years, including preprimary and primary schooling.

What is next for your work around repetition, and what other research do you think is necessary moving forward?

I think it would be exciting to replicate this study in another context. Interest in preprimary education is gaining global traction, particularly in low-income countries, and this study shows yet another benefit of early childhood education—namely, that it reduces repetition in primary school and thus improves education sector efficiency. Secondly, knowing that in Uganda, exposure to preprimary education was associated with lower repetition, I’d love to examine the effect of preprimary longitudinally on repetition and student outcomes, and also explore the quality of those early learning environments. I’m hypothesizing that the protective factor of preprimary would increase as the quality of the education provided increased.