By John Okiror
There is unease about the proposed translocation of agriculture and other vocational subjects from the secondary school curriculum to technical institutes. This comes at the dawn of growing youth unemployment and criticism of the school curriculum as being too elitist with no practical skills to equip learners for afterschool life. The rural exodus by school leavers is fuelling urban squalor and crime as young people who seek livelihoods in towns end up in crowded suburbs.
Most young people who come to town cannot find formal employment and end up in squalid suburbs. Wakiso District is probably home to many of these youths who are trapped between the rural life and the city.
Agriculture development requires movement of people into urban areas to create space for large scale mechanisation of farms and increase productivity per person. Urban migration also creates opportunities for agricultural markets which arise from increased demand for food by town dwellers. Urbanisation creates a higher purchasing power for agricultural produce by wage earners and a demand for better quality due to changing tastes of urban elite.
The downside is that our urban centres still lack the absorptive capacity to provide jobs for the ever growing number of youth that leave school each year. Farmers should be empowered to educate their children out of farming in a sustainable way to the urban sector in tandem with the rest of economy.
The onus to provide jobs therefore rests on government. In South Korea for example, government through public-private partnerships, undertakes the initial investments in setting up industrial hubs in different communities. These are then slowly relinquished to the private sector in order for government to move to other areas. This arrangement rests on the logic it is the government which has the funds and ability to mobilise resources for setting up strategic investments which are then devolved to the private sector in much the same way as it does with infrastructure development.
The other strategy is to vocationalise the secondary school curriculum to produce youth with middle level skills needed by both the private sector and newly set up factories. In an agrarian economy such as Uganda, it is agro-processing jobs that come in handy. The agriculture curriculum would have to change from that of principles and practices of production agriculture, focused on raising crops and animals to one of agribusiness and value addition. Besides raising crops and animal products, students need to learn the associated marketing functions that add value and package them for the final consumer. School exhibitions should then reflect agri-value chain competencies right from production to agri-sales. Secondary school is the cheapest entry point for teaching such skills because they have initial infrastructure like labs and classrooms including school farms, trained teachers, and multiplier effects of large numbers of students.
Secondary schools also lack the stigma technical training as a second rate education pathway. Time, resources and effort are still needed to popularise technical education in the country. For now, the universalisation of secondary education should not have aimed at churning out illiterate graduates but rather the skilled workers who are better prepared for after school life. Instead of more seed secondary schools and basic science laboratories, the priority should have been more polytechnics and vocational-technical workshops in secondary schools. Agriculture needs metal welders, wood workers, machine operators, building constructors, book keepers and accountants, processors and marketers. Such should be the curriculum and not one where students learn to memorise European names of grasses. These can be left to the biology teachers or to systematic botany at a later stage in the education system. As recommended by almost every Education Review Commission since 1925, our secondary schools should be agribusiness schools.
Dr Okiror works at School of Agricultural Sciences, Makerere University.