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Teacher agency in the reform of universal primary education in Uganda

Tom Henry Ogwang, Lecturer at Gulu University

Uganda launched universal primary education (UPE) in 1997 in line with Education for All’s reform programme for basic education (Penny et al., 2008). Introducing a system of universal, compulsory and free primary education for all, UPE entailed extensive reforms to enable free access for all children of school age, the expansion and improvement of school infrastructure, streamlining the supply of teaching materials, the adoption of a thematic curriculum and bilingual instruction policy, and the creation of a child-friendly school environment. These reforms are still ongoing (Tromp & Datzberger, 2019). However, as is widely acknowledged, teachers are agentic players in the school system and actively position themselves in relation to reform (Priestley et al., 2015). They make deliberate choices and compare their personal beliefs and values in work with the demands of the proposed changes and respond accordingly. Thus, UPE teachers similarly responded in diverse ways to these reforms with various consequences. 

My recent study evaluated the UPE ‘teachers’ agency’ (Priestley et al., 2015) – a concept that has not always been well understood or addressed in policy in the Global South (Ogwang, 2018, 2022). The ecological approach to teacher agency (Priestley et al., 2015) was adopted to frame the study. It defines teacher agency as what teachers achieve in the contexts-of-practice of their schools through the interplay of its properties with their professional/life histories and aspirations, which leads either to the reproduction or transformation of its ‘problematic’ aspects. The study adopted a qualitative case study of two UPE schools to elucidate the role of teacher agency on the reforms, the factors that shape it and its implications for curriculum making. Personal and professional interviews, alongside observations, were conducted with three selected teachers in each school to establish their attributes. Their respective head teachers and four local education officers in different capacities were also interviewed, coupled with document analysis to establish the schools’ contextual properties, and thereby interrogate how it interacts with the teachers’ biography in shaping their agency. 

The findings indicate that UPE teachers are strongly achieving agency through ‘resisting’ some policy reforms such as automatic grade promotion, the ban on corporal punishment and local language teaching, which either pose a challenge to their professional capacity, or conflict with their beliefs. They are further ‘mitigating’ their inadequate school infrastructures by delivering some lessons in alternative available spaces such as a chapel, and improvising teaching materials such as charts. They are also ‘cooperating’ increasingly amid their changing relationships. Meanwhile, their agency is being shaped by their biographical attributes, and is being mediated through the affordances and constraints of contextual factors such as cultures and structures. 

The findings are significant for both UPE policy and practice and for similar sub-Saharan contexts, given the global dimensions of Education for All’s ongoing basic education reforms which commenced in Jomtein in 1990 and culminated in the Incheon Framework in 2015 (Ogwang, 2018). On a positive note, the findings indicate that the teachers’ increased ‘cooperation’ and ‘mitigation’ of inadequate materials is helping to maintain learning. However, their ‘resistance’ to some policies like automatic grade promotion is causing over-enrolment which undermines education quality and exacerbates costs. This could be addressed by revisiting some policies/practices which trigger this, such as the publicising of exam results in the media, while investing in more teaching materials to improve education quality (Ogwang, 2018). Thus, the study underscores the imperative of giving greater attention to teacher agency in both policy and scholarship. 

This blog post is based on the article ‘Teacher agency in the reform of universal primary education in Uganda’ by Tom Henry Ogwang, published in the Curriculum Journal.


Ogwang, T. H. (2018). Teacher agency in the reform of curriculum under universal primary education in Uganda and its implications for emerging practices [Unpublished PhD thesis]. 

Ogwang, T. H. (2022). Teacher agency in the reform of universal primary education in Uganda. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. 

Penny, A., Ward, M., Read, T., & Bines, H. (2008). Education sector reform: The Ugandan experience. International Journal of Educational Development, 28(3), 268–285.  

Priestley, M., Biesta, G., & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: An ecological approach. Bloomsbury Publishing. 

Tromp, R. E., & Datzberger, S. (2019). Global education policies versus local realities. Insights from Uganda and Mexico. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 51(3), 356–374.