John Oxenham

There were several factors which prompted us to invite the author to contribute this article. Firstly, Uganda has been a partner country for many years, where the IIZ/DVV used to have its own project office and where we now work with Uganda Joint Action for Adult Education (UJAFE, e-mail: and numerous partners in state, civil society and university adult education. Secondly, the welcome new interest shown by the World Bank in basic education is manifested in projects in a number of African countries, including Uganda. And lastly, it is pleasing to see literacy evaluation being carried out by a whole team, in which our partners have been involved. – Dr. John Oxenham has been in touch with this Institute for many years and is a previous contributor to the journal. For the last ten years he worked for the World Bank, where he was responsible for an evaluation of the adult education projects funded by the World Bank over the previous 25 years. He is now in very active retirement and still working on adult education; he can be reached at

Signals from Uganda: What an Evaluation Suggests for Adult Educators1


In mid-1999, the Government of Uganda commissioned the Department of Adult Education and Communication Studies of the Makerere University to undertake a country-wide evaluation of the national Functional Adult Literacy Programme (FAL). The evaluation team studied a sample of almost 800 adults, mostly women, who had successfully completed the FAL course. It also studied ‘control’ groups of non-literate adults and primary school pupils from Grades 3 and 4, as well as more than 100 facilitators. In their implications for adult educators in general, the findings suggest that:

  • adult education/literacy courses are self-targeting, in the sense that they attract really poor people, especially poor women; they also attract large proportions of poor women who have had some schooling, but not enough for their own purposes
  • all age groups of adults learn the skills of reading, writing and calculating faster than primary school pupils and retain the skills for at least two years after their course; upper age limits for enrolment appear unnecessary
  • ‘graduates’ tend to be better informed about development issues, to have more ‘modern’ attitudes and to be more likely to have adopted ‘modern’ practices than non-literate adults who have not participated in an educational course
  • there is very wide variability in the capacities of adults to master the skills and information of a functional literacy course; existing curricula and instructional methods address this fact inadequately
  • a critical determinant of the success of participants is the quality with which the organizers implement the course
  • the state and non-governmental organizations can both be effective providers of adult education courses; close partnership between them is probably best for the people they aim to serve
  • providers should plan less in terms of ‘basic literacy’ and ‘post-literacy’ and more along the lines of continuous and lifelong learning
  • curriculum planners and designers continue to underestimate the knowledge that non-literates already possess; they may also overestimate the importance of ‘functional’ knowledge in relation to participants’ desires simply to master the skills of literacy
  • provided instruction sustains the motivation of participants, no single method appears superior to others either in developing the skills of literacy or in promoting attitudes and practices conducive to social and economic development
  • volunteer, unpaid and minimally supported facilitators can be as effective as those who are paid and well supported

Introduction and Background

This paper is an attempt to draw some lessons for adult educators from an evaluation of adult basic education with literacy programmes in Uganda. The evaluation was done in 1999. Its first report of some 300 pages has been widely disseminated in Uganda itself. An abridged version of about 140 pages will be disseminated in mid-2000. A French version of the abridgement should be disseminated towards the end of 2000.

The numbers of evaluations which have samples as large as those in Uganda or as widely drawn, are few (see for example Lind, 1996, for Namibia). Similarly, few have been able to use control groups of non-literate adults and primary school pupils to assess the actual contributions of the education programmes to knowledge, skills and practice (see for example, Archer & Cottingham, 1996, on Bangladesh, El Salvador and Uganda). The findings and implications of this evaluation, then, are important for theory, policy and practice in adult basic education with literacy.

Since 1992, the Government of Uganda has been running a “Functional Adult Literacy Programme” (FAL). This revived the efforts that began in the 1940s and that were redoubled after independence in 1962. The government agency responsible is the Department of Community Development in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. By the middle of 1999, the FAL had reached 26 of Uganda’s 45 administrative districts in its 8 larger administrative regions.

In addition to the government and with its encouragement, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have undertaken local adult basic education programmes.

Although there had been a Process review of the FAL in 1995, there had been no large-scale assessment of its longer term outcomes. In 1999, on the recommendation of the World Bank and with the support of the Norwegian government, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development commissioned Makerere University’s Department of Adult Education and Communication Studies to carry out just such an assessment of both the FAL and the programmes offered by NGOs. The evaluation team completed its studies in June, 1999, and submitted its first report in September.

Summary of the Evaluation

What Questions did the Evaluators Address?

The evaluation focused on the longer-term outcomes of FAL and the programmes run by NGOs. It asked:

  • How well do adults, who successfully complete a literacy course with FAL or an NGO, remember how to read and write texts and calculate on paper?
  • To what extent do they use their skills in reading, writing and calculating?
  • In comparison with adults who are not literate and who have not enrolled in literacy courses, [a] what levels of awareness and knowledge of ‘functional’ topics do they exhibit; [b] what are their attitudes to the ‘functional’ topics; and [c] to what extent do they put into practice what they have learned from the functional topics?
  • As several approaches to teaching literacy are current, which is the most effective and what are the comparative costs? In particular, how does the REFLECT approach compare with the others?

The evaluation did not ask directly about enrolments, attendance, completion or success rates, or about the actual conduct of classes. It did not examine the quality of the instructional materials or observe how the facilitators helped their participants learn how to read, write, calculate and master the ‘functional’ topics. However, the evaluators did interview participants and facilitators about their recollections of their experiences in the literacy courses, as well as about their livelihoods and social circumstances.

How did the Evaluation Address the Questions?

A) Methods

To measure the skills of comprehension, writing and calculating, the evaluators developed a special set of tests in the language of instruction, based on the instructional materials actually used. The participants had to read the questions and write the answers. The tests were taken by people who had successfully completed the FAL course, as well as by primary school pupils from Primary Grades 3 and 4.

To assess levels of awareness and knowledge of ‘functional’ topics, the evaluators used the curricular materials as the basis of a test in which an evaluator asked a question and an interviewee responded orally.

To assess attitudes and practices, the evaluators drew up a questionnaire for use in personal interviews with both those who had been successful in the literacy courses and those who were not literate and who had not enrolled in such courses. The questionnaire covered the range of ‘modernization’ issues that the curriculum addressed. The interviews on knowledge, attitudes and practices were held with people who had successfully completed the FAL course, as well as with people who were not literate and had not attended a FAL course.

To appreciate the full environment of those who had been successful in literacy courses, the evaluators carefully observed the residential surroundings of both those who had been successful in the literacy courses and those who were not literate and who had not enrolled in such courses.

Finally, to supplement the personal interviews and house visits, the evaluators organized focus groups to discuss the literacy courses.

B) Samples

To obtain a sound sample of people who had been successful in literacy courses, the evaluators first identified the 26 districts with literacy programmes. Then, under advice, they selected one district in each of the 8 administrative regions of Uganda. Two regions were unfortunately closed for security reasons. However, the evaluators kept the number of districts to 8, but distributed them between the 6 remaining regions.

Next, the evaluators asked each district for lists of all the people who had been successful in the literacy courses. From these lists, the evaluators took a random sample of 100 graduates for each district, yielding a total sample of 800 graduates.

In addition, the evaluators requested each district authority to invite

  • 20 non-literate adults, who had never enrolled in a literacy course, to be interviewed about their knowledge, attitudes and practices in the ‘functional’ topics (i.e. a total sample of 160 people to be invited)
  • one of the better primary schools in the district to permit some of their higher achieving pupils in Grades 3 and 4 to take the ‘adult’ set of tests in reading, writing and calculating in the language of instruction (pupils in Grades 3 and 4 still operate in their local language, as their knowledge of English is just beginning)
  • a number of course instructors/facilitators to be interviewed – a total of 118 facilitators in the 8 districts assisted the evaluation
  • some community leaders and officials to be interviewed about their impressions of the literacy courses

What did the Evaluation Find?

The following section will simply report the main findings of the evaluation without much discussion of what they might signal for adult educators. It will, however, draw attention to points that are particularly striking.

1st Question: How well do adults, who successfully complete a literacy course with FAL or an NGO, remember how to read and write texts and calculate on paper? Before that question is answered, a surprising fact needs noting: nearly three-quarters of the literacy graduates had been to primary school! Indeed, more than one-third had had between 5 and 8 years of primary schooling. The fact probably arises from the decision to focus not on all participants in the literacy courses, but only on those who had passed the literacy tests. Even so, the fact does raise questions about how learners are recruited, the composition of the learning groups, and the success rates of those learners who had never been to school. Charts 1 to 4 lay out the percentages of correct responses from the total adult sample, three sub-groups of the sample and the Primary Grade 4 pupils (as expected, the Grade 4 pupils did better than the Grade 3 pupils on all the tests).

It is clear that in the first three charts, all the adult groups did better than the Grade 4 primary pupils. However, in writing, the Grade 4 pupils on average did slightly better than all the adult groups and 6 per cent better than the adults who had had no previous schooling. This finding will be discussed a little further on.

Chart 1: Simple comprehension: percentages of correct responses

Chart 1: Simple comprehension: percentages of correct responses


Chart 2: Complex comprehension: percentages of correct responses

Chart 2: Complex comprehension: percentages of correct responses


Chart 3: Calculating: percentages of correct answers

Chart 3: Calculating: percentages of correct answers


Chart 4: Writing: average percentage scores obtained by those who actually attempted the writing test

Chart 4: Writing: average percentage scores obtained by those who actually attempted the writing test

2nd Question: To what extent do the graduates use their skills in reading, writing and calculating? The great majority of the sampled graduates – 80 per cent – reported that they used and valued their new skills and knowledge. Sixty per cent reported involvement in income-generating activities connected with their classes and skills, and claimed that their lives had improved as a result. The 20 per cent who reported little or no use of their skills felt they had not attained a sufficient level of skill to be able to apply it successfully.

As for their aspirations for future learning, nearly half the graduates wanted to learn English. Other desires each accounted for only small proportions of the respondents.

3rd Question: In comparison with adults who are not literate and who have not enrolled in literacy courses, [a] what levels of awareness and knowledge of ‘functional’ topics do literacy graduates exhibit; [b] what are their attitudes to the ‘functional’ topics; and [c] to what extent do they put into practice what they have learned from the functional topics? Tables 1 and 2 below set out some of the findings. They suggest that on all three aspects, the literacy graduates do indeed out-perform the non-literates. Nevertheless, their figures will prompt questions of causality and degree. Table 1 lists the 13 questions on knowledge and compares the percentages of correct responses from people who [a] had ‘graduated’ from a literacy course two years previously, [b] had graduated recently and [c] were not literate. Table 2, using the same groups, offers a comparison between attitudes and practices.

On two-thirds of the knowledge questions, the graduates scored 10 per cent or better than the non-literates: that suggests that the graduates are likely to be better informed than the non-literates. Further, those who had graduated 2 years previously did as well as – and sometimes better than – the recent graduates. Forgetting what was learned does not seem to be a problem, then. But on one third of the questions, the gap between the graduates and non-literates was narrower than 10 per cent. The finding suggests that the curriculum was imparting not fresh information, but information that was already known by large sections of the population.

Table 1: Percentages by group correctly answering functional knowledge questions
(correct response shown in parentheses)

Question2 Year
95% CI
1. Which of the following foods gives energy to the body (maize) 3540273625-47
2. Which of the following foods protects the body from disease (vegetables) 48 51 46 48 37-59
3. Which one of the following diseases is brought by flies (diarrhoea) 94 92 77 90  
4. What disease can you not protect by vaccination (diarrhoea) 55 57 37 53  
5. What disease can you catch through not washing your hands (diarrhoea) 93 94 78 91 84-98
6. Can someone have HIV/AIDS without showing symptoms (Yes) 68 78 54 70 59-81
7. When living with someone with HIV/AIDS should you take precautions (Yes) 64 66 33 60 49-71
8. What are the major reasons for planning a family 90 87  64 87 79-94
9. What are the major advantages of breast feeding 87 88 70  84 76-92
10. How often do we vote for the president (every 5 years) 76 79 56 74 64-84
11. How many people are on the (LCI) executive (10) 26  30 13 25 15-35
12. What else, apart from fertiliser, can you use? 57 56 52 56 45-67
13. How can you fight pests? 64  60 71 64 53-75

Table 2 demonstrates two phenomena about attitudes and practices. It takes five of the questions about attitudes and compares them with five corresponding questions on practices. The first clear phenomenon is that larger proportions of the literacy graduates than non-literates tend to express modern attitudes, as well as to adopt modern practices. However, the second clear phenomenon is that higher proportions of both graduates and non-literates tend to express modern attitudes than actually to adopt modern practices. That is, knowledge and attitudes do not automatically translate into appropriate or consistent practices.

Table 2:  Modern responses on attitudes compared with modern responses on practices

Questions 2-year graduates
% ‘modern’ responses
New graduates
% ‘modern’ responses
% ‘modern’ responses
Attitude question 1:

You should not plan your family, as children are a gift from god. //

Practice question 14: Do you practice family planning?

diff. -37diff. -24 diff. -40
Attitude question 2:

Fruits are only for children. //

Practice question 1: Did you eat fruit last week?

diff. +5diff. +11 diff. -2
Attitude question 6:

Men and women should share equally in looking after children. //

Practice question 7: Who usually takes the children to hospital?

diff. -70 diff. -70 diff. -64
Attitude question 15:

If a woman earns money, she should give most of it to her husband. //

Practice question 6: (put only to women): Do you have any income you can use yourself?

diff. +5diff. -8 diff. -7
Attitude question 16:

The best way for us to benefit is to work together rather than in competition. //

Practice question 15: Are you a member of any social group or association?

diff. -23 diff. -41 diff. -65

4th Question: As several approaches to teaching literacy are current, which is the most effective and what are the comparative costs? In particular, how does the REFLECT approach compare with the others? As it turned out, the evaluators were able to compare only a few FAL and REFLECT classes. Tables 3, 4 and 5 present the data from three perspectives.

Table 3: mean percentage scores by type of programme

DistrictType of programme NSimple Comprehension NumeracyComplex ComprehensionWriting (attempts)Writing (everyone)
  Comparator - Total sample 793 93.9 66.6 49.5 52.3 39.3

Table 4: Numbers with different levels of schooling in FAL and REFLECT programmes in Apac and Mubende districts

No schooling3502017
1-4 years173530
5-8 years221243
Total N64242790

Table 5: Mean scores on three tests in FAL and REFLECT programmes according to levels of schooling

No schooling45.3 (n=55)28.4 (n=17)
1-4 years58.1 (n=22)64.7 (n=33)35.652.929.635.8
5-8 years76.9 (n=4)86.3 (n=64)57.673.544.047.3

On first appearances, the REFLECT approach does indeed seem to be more effective in teaching reading, writing and calculating. However, when previous schooling is controlled, REFLECT seems more effective only with the more schooled participants, while the FAL’s method appears more effective with non-literate adults. To illustrate the point, Table 3 sets out the mean percentage scores by type of program and shows that the REFLECT groups clearly outstrip the FAL groups and total sample on all four aspects tested. Table 4 then lays out the sample groups by their levels of education and reveals that the REFLECT groups have enjoyed more schooling than the FAL groups. Finally, Table 5 shows the more complex picture, when achievements are analysed by levels of schooling.

Tables 3, 4 and 5 compare achievements only on comprehension, writing and calculating. Do the graduates of FAL and REFLECT show any differences in the three other important elements of the programmes, knowledge, attitudes and practices? This evaluation suggested that they did not. However, it did point out that some of the REFLECT classes had been in existence for a relatively short time.

Finally, what were the costs of the programmes? The best estimates – taking into account the well known difficulties and cautions in calculating the costs of adult education programmes – suggest that to produce one successful graduate:

FAL requires: US$ 4 – $ 5 per certified graduate;
REFLECT requires: US$12 – $15 per certified graduate;
SOCADIDO requires: US$20 per certified graduate.
Primary School 4 requires: US$60 per pupil completing Primary 4 in four years

The relatively low FAL estimate results from not providing any payment for the instructors; while the estimate for REFLECT may have omitted some significant development costs. The NGO named SOCADIDO pays its facilitators a relatively high monthly stipend.

Discussion of the Findings

The very first observation, to be discussed a little further below, is that some 200-300 hours of instruction by relatively untrained instructors can enable even older, wholly non-literate adults to achieve levels of competence in reading, writing and calculation that equal those of children who have spent three or four years in primary schools. Whatever reflection that fact casts on the primary schools concerned, it strongly supports adult educators who argue that the ability of adults to learn new skills persists well into middle age.

A second very important observation, which is not obvious from the summary above, is that the chief factor explaining the differences between the attainments in the 8 districts sampled was the quality of the implementation of local programmes. It is true that the Uganda evaluation was wholly ex-post facto, and so was not able to look at the actual detailed manner in which each local programme was organised, administered and supported – let alone each learning group – and then undertake systematic comparisons between them. Its observation is simply an inference by elimination after a regression analysis of several other factors. Nevertheless, it is echoed in the long and meticulous preparation and implementation of the more successful local campaigns of India’s Total Literacy Mission, and in the Ajmer experience, and reflected in the extraordinarily organised efforts of Cuba, Ecuador, Namibia and Nicaragua.

A third signal is that programmes run by governments can be as effective and possibly less expensive than those offered by other agencies. It corroborates not only the experiences mentioned above, but also two programmes supported by loans from the World Bank: the 20-year programme run by the government of Indonesia (1977–99), and the 8-year programme of the government of Ghana (1992–2000). This is not to argue in the least that governments should be the only agencies to undertake programmes of adult basic education: the non-governmental agencies in Uganda clearly deliver equally effective programs, albeit on necessarily more restricted scales. Similar examples could be drawn from many countries. Indeed, the potentially equal effectiveness of both government and non-government programmes points the way to the positive partnership attempted by the Government of India in 1978: it offered to help finance the programmes of proven private bodies. That principle operates in the faire faire contractual partnership of the government and non-governmental organisations of Senegal, which the World Bank has supported since 1996. For policy, the strong signal is that frameworks to encourage complementarity and active partnership between governments and other agencies would best serve the people who want adult basic education.

That said, let us underline the value of the NGOs in taking initiatives in possibly neglected areas, exploring fresh approaches and sustaining public awareness and interest in adult basic education. Their role in Uganda has its counterparts elsewhere in ·he world, especially in India – Literacy House in Lucknow and the Bengal League of Social Services come to mind as prime examples – South Africa and many countries of Latin America.

Also, it would be helpful to bear in mind experiences in Indonesia and Namibia. In Indonesia, the government agency was not actively eager to bring in NGOs as allies. On the other hand, in Namibia, it was the NGOs which seemed backward in accepting the government’s invitation to help the national programme. Clearly, the history of relations between a government and the NGOs of a country will affect the possibilities and development of partnership between the two.

The paper will now examine the demand for school education and literacy in societies where schooling is not universal and where large sections of people continue to survive, if not thrive, without schooling or literacy. It will then look at the effectiveness of adults’ efforts to educate themselves, as well as simultaneously to master the skills of reading, writing and simple arithmetic.2 It will also consider the uses that adults make of their new learning. Next, the discussion will move to issues of content: how important to the learners themselves is ‘functional’ knowledge as compared with the basic skills of literacy?

In the light of the conclusions on content, the paper will turn to discussing the importance of instructional methods for effective learning. Finally, the paper considers a practical issue: do the experiences in Uganda have anything to say about the recruitment, training, technical support and recognition of the people who undertake to instruct or facilitate classes in adult basic education?

The Demand for Education and Literacy

A striking finding in the Uganda programmes of adult basic education is that no fewer than 73 per cent of a randomised national sample of graduates from the programmes had actually already had some primary schooling. Even more striking is that half of these schooled people had stayed in school between 5 and 8 years. Further, although these people had graduated successfully from their literacy programmes, they persisted for several months longer in attending more literacy classes.3 These facts have their counterparts in Indonesia and Namibia. The Ministry of Education and Culture found that two-thirds of the sample in Indonesia had had two or more years of primary schooling, while Lind encountered a similar phenomenon in Namibia (1996). In Senegal, a pilot literacy programme, Projet Alphabétisation Priorité Femmes, found in its first year that nearly 10% of the enrolees had been to school. In its third year, that proportion had increased to 18%.

What these observations suggest is that people who for some reason have interrupted their school education prematurely or have not been able to reach personal goals, use basic education programmes as ‘second chances’ or/and as a means of retaining and enhancing what skills and knowledge they have. On the one hand, such behaviour confirms what several observers have noted: the more education a person has had, the greater her propensity to take up further educational opportunities.

On the other hand, it also prompts a question about the strength of demand from the totally unschooled and non-literate population. Even where rates of adult illiteracy are 60 per cent or more, would sufficient non-literates on their own enrol to justify a programme? Or would programmes need proportions of the already schooled simply to make up numbers to satisfy criteria of viability? Alternatively, does the enrolment of people already with some schooling intimidate and deter many of the totally unschooled from enrolling, so that the main purpose of programmes is largely frustrated? As these questions have been insufficiently researched, they cannot be answered yet.

However, it is possible that the demand from poor people with some schooling tends to cause literacy education programmes to address their interests and to neglect the interests of even poorer people with no schooling at all. Where that possibility is strong, programme designers would need to check whether special approaches might be needed to attract the really non-literate and to overcome the factors that cause their diffidence about enrolling.

The main driver of demand seems uncomplicated: most of the graduates simply wanted to know how to read, write and do arithmetic. In this they are not unique, for people in Indonesia, Namibia, Senegal and elsewhere have given the same kind of answer. The observation suggests that, where schooling and literacy become more widespread, they acquire a value in themselves, separate from their potential uses. People who lack them feel at a disadvantage, even though they cannot articulate their practical value.

As for ambitions to pursue education beyond a mastery of the basic skills, the evidence is not conclusive. In Indonesia, they seemed to be modest, for relatively low proportions of learners tended to enter programmes that led to formal certification. By contrast, in Namibia, the numbers enrolling in Stage 2 far exceeded those passing the test for Stage 1 for the previous year, while the numbers enrolling in Stage 3 between 1994 and 1999, exceeded those enrolling in Stage 1 three years earlier. The factors operating in the two situations are likely very different and need investigation.

However, the findings in Uganda do corroborate those in other multi-lingual countries, where only one or two official languages enable people to deal with official signs, documents and procedures, as well as facilitate access to waged and salaried employment. The high desire in Uganda for instruction in English has its counterparts all over Africa and elsewhere.

The tentative policy signals from these observations seem to be three.

First, where primary enrolment ratios are relatively low and the primary schools are both inefficient and ineffective, adult basic education programmes should be designed to attract and accommodate both the totally unschooled and the insufficiently schooled.

Second, although provision for certification and entry to courses of more scholastic education is probably desirable, as it confirms that basic education can open the way to higher things for the more ambitious, it need not be obligatory.

Third, efforts to develop ways of combining basic literacy education in a vernacular language with simultaneous instruction in a desired official language should be encouraged and intensified.4

A final note: as elsewhere, Uganda’s adult basic education programmes attract poor people. In their role as instruments to help reduce poverty, they are self-targeting. In this aspect, they corroborate findings in virtually every country that organises such programmes.

The Effectiveness of Adults’ Efforts to Educate Themselves, as well as Simultaneously to Master the Skills of Reading, Writing and Simple Arithmetic

The charts above make it clear that, on all five tests of literacy and numeracy, even unschooled adults and those who, though partially schooled, could not previously write their names, mastered the skills involved to a greater degree than primary school pupils who had completed three and even four years of schooling. The point remains true even for adults older than 50 years, whose average performance ranged between 7.3 and 39.0 percentage points above that of the Grade 4 primary pupils. Read with the estimates of cost, these facts suggest that adults of all ages can learn the basic core skills better, in less time, at lower cost and with less trained instructors than can children.

Put more provocatively, the Uganda findings suggest that, at least within the limits of simple reading, writing and calculating, adult basic education programmes are both more efficient and more effective than primary schools.5 The observations in Uganda accord with findings in Nepal, where women who had completed 9 months of basic education performed on a par with girls with up to five years of primary schooling.

That said, a word of caution is needed. Although the unschooled graduates coped well with the test of simple comprehension, they did not on average achieve satisfactory scores on more complex comprehension, numeracy and writing. Clearly, 200 to 300 hours of adult basic education classes are sufficient for the average non-literate adult to acquire rudimentary skills, but insufficient to assure mastery.6

A second note of caution comes from the observation that adults who simply stayed on in basic literacy classes for several years did not automatically enhance their skills. On the other hand, every year of primary schooling did enable them to make better use of their literacy and computing skills. The inference for policy in adult education may then be that, like the schools, adult basic education programmes should plan multi-year, progressive and cumulative curricula – on the lines of Indonesia’s Paket A with its 100 booklets, followed by Paket B, or the stages of Namibia’s national program – that aim deliberately to hone the basic skills to higher and higher levels of mastery.

The Uganda findings corroborate the current view in adult education that age is not necessarily a barrier to successful learning. Although the youngest age group, 16-29 years, on average did best on all five tests, the 30-49 year group was not far behind, while the next gap to the average performance of the 50+ age group was wider, but not shocking. Adult basic education programmes can then include all adults, younger and older: agencies offering the programs need not feel constrained to set arbitrary upper age limits on who may or may not participate in a programme.7

Whether there should be lower age limits is an issue which the evidence from Uganda cannot address. The programmes in Uganda did not appear to encounter a phenomenon found e.g. in Bangladesh and Nepal, where classes intended for adults attract large enrolments from children aged between 11 and 14 years who have not been able to enter schools. This evaluation cannot contribute to the discussion on how best to manage mixed groups of adults and pre-adolescents and whether there should be a lower age limit.

The Uganda findings show, along with work all over the world, that adults vary considerably in their capacities to master new skills and to absorb new information: some achieved very high scores on the tests, while others barely scored at all. Despite their ‘average’ success, they signal once again the desirability of designing programmes and instructional strategies that can accommodate such variability.

In terms of gaining new “functional” knowledge, forming new attitudes and adopting new practices, the findings in Uganda, as in Indonesia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere, confirm that participants in basic education programmes do compare favourably with non-participants. However, three points are salient.

First, the differences between participants and non-participants are often not great (see Table 5 above). The possible reasons for this will be discussed below. Second, on some aspects only minorities of the participants are able to show any learning. Third, acquiring new knowledge does not necessarily lead to developing new attitudes, and developing new attitudes does not necessarily lead to reformed behaviours. In other words, programmes of adult basic education can help people add to their information, but do not guarantee dramatic changes of attitude or behaviour in all or even majorities of their participants. This was found to be the case also in the evaluations of the Kenya and Tanzania programmes in 1988-1990. Nonetheless, information does of course at least carry the seeds of change.

Curriculum Content: How Important to the Learners Themselves is ‘Functional’ Knowledge Compared with the Basic Skills of Literacy?

Earlier we noted that many, perhaps most, participants in adult basic education programmes simply wish to feel able to read and write. We also noted that, on many points of information, the differences between participants and non-participants were not large. Taken together, do these two observations imply that much of the information that the programmes offer is already known by the participants, just as it is known by their neighbours?

Do they also imply that the information is not relevant to the effectiveness of the programme? In Nepal, respondents said that, although they did already know much of what the primers were telling them, they put up with it for the sake of the ability to read and write about it. Learners said much the same in Namibia, with the additional reason that the course would enable them to go on to learning the official language, English. From another perspective, the astoundingly successful Total Literacy Campaign in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan used only primary school texts and materials to teach adults how to read and write, and apparently provided no ‘functional’ information alongside. A much older instance occurred in Dezful, Iran, where the four most assiduous and successful learners in a class of farmers, were not farmers, but municipal street cleaners. They mastered a curriculum with ‘irrelevant’ information, because it enabled them to achieve their goal of being certified literate.

Three questions arise from these observations. First, how important to participants is ‘functional’ information in the context of learning the basic skills of literacy and numeracy? Adult educators have long argued that a main cause of the disappointing performance of literacy programmes is their focus on the mechanics of literacy and neglect of what is interesting, useful and immediately relevant to participants. This argument lay behind UNESCO’s Work Oriented Adult Literacy Programme in 12 countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and also behind Freire’s “Reading the word to read the world”, not to mention the several adaptations of Freire’s ideas, the best known of which is the REFLECT approach developed by ActionAid. The Uganda evaluation, corroborated by the findings in Nepal and Namibia, suggests the possibility that the focus on the mechanics of literacy may after all be quite sound. The earlier disappointing performance of literacy programmes may have stemmed from other factors, such as very boring teaching methods.

However, a focus on the mechanics of literacy need not – indeed, should not – entail a regression to the methods of drills and rote exercises unrelated to daily experience. Between that tradition and the focus on functional skills is the third option, practised most radically by REFLECT but present in other approaches also, of teaching literacy through its actual local applications. Examples are using sign-posts, official forms, personal letters, shop bills and the like as materials which both teach and demonstrate the uses of literacy skills. It is as well to note here that some officially non-literate people have in fact used local materials like labels and notices to teach themselves to read and write sufficiently for their own local purposes. The evaluation suggests that the Uganda programmes, like perhaps most others, neither notice nor build on these attainments.

The second question is this: if ‘functional’ information is not crucial to the participants, should curriculum designers spend time determining what information to impart and how best to impart it? Should they not instead focus on designing more engaging ways of enabling participants to master the mechanics?

However, if ‘functional’ information remains important in the eyes of a programme’s sponsors and curriculum designers because of its potential contribution to education and development, and also because of its potential for heightening the interest, engagement and effective learning of the participants, a third question arises. Adult educators have recognised for at least 50 years that adults already know a good deal, so that new learning should build on that, not repeat it. Yet the experiences cited suggest that curriculum designers still do not trouble to discover what the participants are likely to know already. Instead of adding to what the participants know, the designers needlessly repeat it. In doing so, they appear to risk the effectiveness of their own curricula through boring their participants. The third question then is: are adult educators slow learners? Or do the pressures to produce new curricula rapidly prevent them from taking their own advice?

How Important is the Choice of Instructional Methods for Helping Adults to Learn Effectively?

Just as adult educators have advocated using content that is immediately relevant, interesting and engaging for adult learners, so they have advocated instructional methods that are learner-centred, participatory and interactive. Because the Uganda evaluation was ex post facto, it was not able to assess the extent to which the programmes of the government and other agencies observed these precepts, or to undertake assessments of comparative efficiency or effectiveness. It was able to attempt only a limited comparison of two forms of outcomes: test results between the government’s Functional Adult Literacy Programme and ActionAid’s REFLECT8 and responses to questions on attitudes. Within those limits, the evaluation could not judge either programme more effective than the other.

Even if a comparative assessment had been possible, variations in the actual implementation of the prescribed methods may have complicated the issue. Informal observations suggest that not all instructors follow their training and lesson guides faithfully – REFLECT reported a particular deviation in El Salvador (Archer & Cottingham, 1996), while researchers in Nepal and Namibia have noted that facilitators often modify their approaches “regressively”. In part, the problem stems from the difficulties the instructors experience in handling ‘learner-centred’ methods.9 In part, it stems from the expectations of the learners themselves. That is to say, the participants seemed to expect to experience the routines, materials, processes and authoritative handling that their children encountered in school and viewed them as the components of a proper education. Instructions in the facilitators’ guides to stimulate and moderate discussions on particular issues were ignored. Even in REFLECT groups, some facilitators and participants expected at least some conventional texts and reading materials.

In a word, the evidence of the Uganda evaluation leaves open the question whether one teaching method is more effective overall than another, or whether one approach works better for certain learning objectives, while other objectives are more readily attained through other approaches. Perhaps what is more important is the commitment and skill of the instructor and the effectiveness of the training and support that s/he receives.

The evidence from Uganda also leaves unclear the issue of what is sometimes termed ‘post-literacy’. Despite the lack of literature, credit schemes and groups or cooperatives for various forms of development, a majority of the graduates sampled seemed not only to be making use of and maintaining their literacy skills, but also to be improving their incomes and standards of living, however modestly. If anything, the evidence would appear to support the view that the concepts of ‘initial literacy’ followed by ‘post-literacy’ should give way to the concept of ‘continuous, lifelong learning’.

Facilitators/Instructors, their Training and Recognition

The Uganda evaluation also leaves open questions about the facilitators themselves. It contrasts the facilitators in the government’s programme (FAL) with those engaged by other bodies. The FAL facilitators were all unpaid, if plaintive, volunteers – whereas the others received at least honoraria. They had had on average less schooling than the others, less initial training as facilitators, no refresher training at all and very little supervisory support. Yet their learners did as well as those in the other programmes on the tests of literacy skills and in responses to questions on functional information, attitudes and practices. The uncertainty that this engenders about what might be the wisest policy for facilitators is reflected in the conflicting experiences elsewhere in the world.

In India, for instance, all the successful Total Literacy Campaigns relied on volunteer facilitators. In Bangladesh, Nijera Shikhi goes one step further: it requires its organisers to pay a small fee for the privilege of organising classes, while it leaves rewarding the facilitators entirely to the learners themselves. In Ghana, the National Functional Literacy Programme calls for volunteers, but, in its first phases, promised outstanding ones special rewards in the form of bicycles and sewing machines. Indonesia rewarded its facilitators monetarily, but at such low rates as to be negligible proportions of the salaries of primary school teachers. Namibia, on the other hand, contracts its facilitators as part-time employees on annual engagements, and calibrates their pay proportionately with the salaries of primary school teachers, while Senegal has institutionalised honoraria for the facilitators by building them into its contracts with non-profit educational organisations. In between the volunteers and paid employees are the instructors of Nepal, who are paid by results, i.e. the numbers of learners who pass the graduating test.

All the programmes mentioned can claim good rates of efficiency and effectiveness. Also, all have weaknesses. Drawing any decided inference for policy is therefore risky. What might be hypothesised is as follows.

For short-term campaigns, where relatively large numbers of schooled people can be mobilised as temporary facilitators/instructors, relying on volunteers and moral rewards is probably feasible. The willingness of the Uganda volunteers, combined with their hopes of material reward in the longer term, seem to support this view.

However, the widening recognition that lifelong learning is growing ever more necessary to sustain development calls the usefulness of short-term campaigns

Summary of Signals

In summary, the Uganda evaluation has confirmed much of the evidence from elsewhere in the world. It has also left some questions open.

The questions left open are [1] the treatment of the facilitators, [2] the balance to be sought between four elements in programmes of adult basic education: the basic skills of literacy and calculation, functional information proffered by the sponsors, contextual information drawn from local situations and the promotion of awareness and empowerment; [3] the relative efficacy of the various instructional methods on offer; and [4] the strength of demand for education and literacy among the wholly unschooled and illiterate adult population.

The signals that the evidence from Uganda tends to confirm are:

  1. the central importance of careful preparation and sound implementation
  2. the desirability of positive, complementary partnerships between governments and other concerned bodies
  3. the self-targeting nature of adult basic education as an instrument to help poor people
  4. the desirability of accommodating two streams of demand for adult basic education: from the wholly unschooled and from the partially schooled
  5. the ability of adults of all ages to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and calculating at more rapid rates than primary school children; conversely, the desirability of leaving enrolment open to all comers, irrespective of age
  6. the variability in the capacities of people to master skills and knowledge and the need to accommodate it
  7. the need for a longer view of literacy education as part of a progressive and cumulative process to enable the ‘average’ adult to attain adequate mastery of the basic skills and to continue learning how to apply them productively
  8. the challenge to develop ways of combining basic education in a vernacular with an introduction to an official language that makes it easier to deal with the wider society


1 The team who designed and carried out the evaluation are Prof. Anthony Okech, and Mmes. Teresa Kakooza, Anne Katahoire, and Alice Ndidde of the Department of Adult Education and Communication Studies at Makerere University, with Prof. Roy Carr-Hill of London and York Universities. I am indebted to Roy Carr-Hill, Jan Leno, Uta Papen and Anna Pant-Robinson for comments and suggestions for improving the first draft of this paper. Responsibility for any inaccuracies remains mine.

2 The evaluation did not attempt to measure the efficiency of the programmes in terms of the percentage of the enrolees who completed and graduated from their course. However, some of its data suggested that overall some 72.8 per cent of new enrolees may have passed the course, with variation from about 33.9 per cent in the least successful district to 99.2 per cent in the most successful. An average of over 70 per cent would be above the average of the efficiency ratios observed in other countries.

3 It is probably prudent to note that the 'staying on' seems to occur mainly among rural communities. Urban literacy classes apparently exhibit it less, but the Uganda study has no evidence on the point.

4 It is beyond the scope of this chapter to describe, let alone advocate, any particular strategy or method for such efforts. Suffice it to remark that several options are conceivable, from including a minor 'official' component in a vernacular program to offering a program wholly in an official language. The feasibility of any option would be of course depend on the learners and the capacities of their instructors.

5 This observation is no argument for substituting adult education for primary schooling. The primary school curriculum covers much more than most adult basic education programmes attempt, while the hidden 'curriculum' of disciplined, systematic, continuous and long term learning is quite possibly a major source of the social and economic benefits of schooling.

6 The implications for primary schools are not the province of this paper

7 More serious constraints may arise from the norms of the local culture. In Uganda, as in Ghana, Namibia and Nepal, older adults who want to learn how to read and write run the risk of ridicule from relatives, friends and neighbours, as well as from politicians, who feel that investing in such people is a waste of resources.

8 The major difference between the two programmes is that the government's uses primers, while REFLECT in principle works with its participants to construct a customised curriculum out of their own local circumstances, living conditions and environment.

9 Young brigadistas in Nicaragua had difficulty in trying to stimulate and moderate discussions on a number of topics, and much the same has been noted in Namibia.


Archer, D. and S. Cottingham, 1996, Regenerated Freirean Literacy Through Empowering Community Techniques

Lind, A., 1996, Free to Speak Up, Overall Evaluation of the National Literacy Programme in Namibia, Directorate of Adult Basic Education, Ministry of Basic Education and Culture, Windhoek

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