Learners’ everyday experiences of violence in English medium secondary education in Uganda

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Lizzi O. Milligan University of Bath, UK

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Bebwa Isingoma Gulu University, Uganda

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Tina Aciro Gulu University, Uganda

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Dorica Deborah Mirembe Gulu University, Uganda

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Nadia Krause University of Bath, UK

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Expedito Nuwategeka Gulu University, Uganda

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This paper explores how Ugandan secondary school learners experience schooling in English-medium schools where the use of English only is strictly enforced. We conceptualise the ways that the learners sit at the intersection of direct, systemic and cultural violence that in turn impacts their educational experiences. We particularly focus on instances of direct violence through corporal punishment, and the ways that such violence, and associated fear, are part of many learners’ everyday schooling experiences. We demonstrate this through presentation of findings from thematic analysis of individual and focus group interviews with 64 learners at two public and two private secondary schools in the Amuru and Kitgum districts of Northern Uganda. Our conclusions advocate for greater attention to be paid to the ways that changes to enforced English-only policies could support more positive well-being and educational outcomes.

Abstract

This paper explores how Ugandan secondary school learners experience schooling in English-medium schools where the use of English only is strictly enforced. We conceptualise the ways that the learners sit at the intersection of direct, systemic and cultural violence that in turn impacts their educational experiences. We particularly focus on instances of direct violence through corporal punishment, and the ways that such violence, and associated fear, are part of many learners’ everyday schooling experiences. We demonstrate this through presentation of findings from thematic analysis of individual and focus group interviews with 64 learners at two public and two private secondary schools in the Amuru and Kitgum districts of Northern Uganda. Our conclusions advocate for greater attention to be paid to the ways that changes to enforced English-only policies could support more positive well-being and educational outcomes.

Key messages

  • Strict enforcement of English-only policies in secondary schools in Northern Uganda means many young people experience many punishments, including corporal punishment.

  • Punishments are forms of direct violence and intersect with forms of cultural and systemic violence in young people’s daily lives.

  • Young people are afraid and ashamed to speak in class, which acts as a barrier to their learning.

Introduction

In this paper, we demonstrate the ways that the strict enforcement of an English-only language of learning and teaching (LoLT) policy, in Ugandan secondary schools, places young people at the intersection of direct, systemic and cultural violence. Through this, we respond to the provocation of Paulson and Tikly (2023: 785) that ‘much of the work on the effects of direct violence [in education] is descriptive in nature and rarely seeks to explain how direct violence might be linked to systemic and cultural violence’. We view English-only LoLT policies as clear vehicles of both systemic violence, through the ways that they reproduce broader forms of inequality related to socio-economic status and gender, and cultural violence, through their persistent devaluing of Indigenous languages and learners’ home and community identities. Importantly, as we show in this paper, they are policies that, in turn, act to ‘permit, necessitate, normalize, erase, reprove, and require other forms of violence’ (Standish, 2015: 15), particularly in the form of corporal punishment, manual labour and humiliation.

Osler (2006: 586), in the context of school exclusion in the UK, powerfully argues for the importance of extending understandings of school-based violence to encompass ‘both the everyday violence and incivilities which … [learners] … experience and the institutional and structural barriers they encounter’. Here, we explore the multifaceted ways that LoLT policies contribute to violence in the everyday lives of secondary school learners in four schools in Northern Uganda. While there is a significant body of literature where the role of English as a medium of education has been repeatedly connected with aspects of cultural and systemic violence – more commonly articulated as epistemic injustice (Milligan, 2022; Phyak and Sah, 2022; Kerfoot and Bello-Nonjengele, 2023), epistemic (in)access (Makalela, 2015; Mkhize, 2016) and epistemic exclusion (Kiramba, 2018; Kuchah et al, 2022), we are not aware of any studies that have specifically looked at its association with direct forms of violence. This is, therefore, the focus of the analysis in this paper. We draw on interview and focus group data with 64 learners, which we analysed thematically, first broadly, into a theme related to language, before identifying sub-themes related to the forms of violence.

The research findings presented here come from the JustEd study - a large, mixed-methods study of education as and for environmental, epistemic and transitional justice to enable sustainable development in Nepal, Peru and Uganda (for more details of the project, see Balarin and Milligan, 2024). The project was designed to be comparative but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and different lengths of school closures across the three countries meant that the in-schools aspect of the design was adapted to what was possible in each context. While this impacted the potential to analyse comparatively across the three country data sets, it did allow for adaptation to issues of particular importance, driven by the learners themselves and guided by the research team in each country. In Uganda, this meant a strong focus on the LoLT, a topic that has been shown to be a key dimension of epistemic injustice (see, for example, Westbrook et al, 2023).

Literature review

Overlapping forms of violence in education

Developing from Galtung’s (1969; 1990) seminal conceptualisation of three forms of violence, Paulson and Tikly (2023) describe the different ways that education can inflict, and exacerbate direct, cultural and systemic violence. Direct violence goes beyond just that which causes physical injury to also include any violent act that inflicts psychological and emotional harm on an individual. Cultural violence refers to the norms and practices that privilege some languages, knowledges and identities while simultaneously dismissing and silencing others. In postcolonial educational settings, it is closely connected to epistemic violence in terms of how a dominant knowledge system has silenced other forms of knowledge in formal school curricula and classroom practice (see also, Adebisi, 2016). Systemic violence, developed from Galtung’s term for structural violence, describes the ways that social structures, policies and institutions (in this case the education system and schools) create, perpetuate and exacerbate inequalities between individuals and groups. Importantly, in their broadened definition of violence, Paulson and Tikly (2023: 782) highlight how violence is ‘any act of power, whether directly or via systemic and cultural forms, that results in physical, psychological, emotional, environmental or spiritual harm and that has the effect of limiting the capabilities (opportunity freedoms) available to individuals, groups, other species and natural systems’. It is this broadened understanding of violence that we use in this paper to show how the LoLT in secondary schools exacerbates violence in multiple visible and less visible ways.

Language policies as cultural and systemic violence

LoLT policies, particularly the use of English as a medium of education, are frequently asserted to be a critical part of the neocolonial project across sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the role of English is discussed within an assessment of education systems that ‘ideologically dislocates individuals from their society’ (Adebisi, 2016: 445) while postcolonial education is identified as a key contributor to linguistic genocide (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). McKinney (2016: 12) usefully conceptualises LoLT policies in postcolonial South Africa as ‘Anglonormative’ because it is not just the use of English but the promotion of an ‘English monolingualism in a particular prestige variety [which] is continually constructed as the most prized asset while multilingual repertoires and use of non-prestige varieties of English are conversely constructed as problems’. Uganda is another country that is a very clear example of this, with expectations for British English to be used in schooling practice and assessment, rather than the more regularly used forms of Ugandan English(es), let alone the more ubiquitously and naturally used Indigenous languages in everyday life (Isingoma, 2016; Dako and Quarcoo, 2017; Ssentanda and Nakayiza, 2017). This is important since it suggests two layers to the processes of cultural violence in Ugandan schooling – first, that young people are dislocated from their home selves, knowledges and languages, and second, that they are under pressure to express themselves perfectly in a language with which they are not fully familiar. Crucially, barring learners from using Indigenous languages robs them of vital cultural heritages as natural repositories of values and knowledge. At the same time, the introduction of an exoglossic policy is tantamount to an imposition of an alien culture on the learners, as language and culture are ‘almost indistinguishable’ (Ngũgĩ, 1986: 15). This can be seen as a violation of learners’ linguistic rights (Ngũgĩ, 1986; Namyalo and Nakayiza, 2014). Some recent scholars have conceptualised the impact of learning in English as a case of ‘epistemic exclusion’ (Kiramba, 2018; Kuchah et al, 2022) whereby many children are silenced – both in terms of being completely silent, and/or only speaking in English to repeat words on the blackboard or dictated by the teacher. While these studies have highlighted the role of silence, they have not explicitly linked this to broader concerns about silencing as a form of cultural violence.

LoLT policies that insist on a single dominant language for classroom dialogue and assessment can also be understood as a form of systemic violence, in terms of the role they play in reproducing and compounding systemic inequalities within and beyond education. The largest body of literature related to English as a medium of education focuses on the use of an unfamiliar language as a barrier to children’s learning. This literature has consistently shown over decades of research that an unfamiliar language affects many children’s educational experiences and outcomes (Desai et al, 2013; Milligan et al, 2020). Crucially, the evidence demonstrates that the impact disproportionally affects the children who are most at risk of low educational outcomes and economic and cultural marginalisation. For example, Mohohlwane et al (2023) show that learning to read in English, rather than a home language, leads to particularly poor literacy outcomes for the children that are most at risk of low achievement. Similarly, there is evidence that those with better access to English outside of the classroom perform better in English Medium Education, evidence that broadly maps onto wider socio-economic structures such as rates of rurality and poverty (Fleisch, 2008; Benson and Wong, 2017). One recent study in Rwanda suggests that learning in English may exacerbate existing inequalities for girls in secondary education, particularly for those facing socio-economic challenges and gendered expectations, resulting in a ‘double-burden’ of language and gender for these girls (Milligan et al, 2023). This is a clear example of how an English-only LoLT policy may inflict systemic violence, exacerbating material inequalities in access to, for example, learning materials and revision space, and socio-cultural inequalities. However, it is important to note that we have not found any studies that have consistently used the concept of ‘systemic’ or ‘structural’ violence to explain the impact of English medium schooling.

Direct violence, education and language

Beyond the literature that demonstrates how schools are often sites of violence in conflict and emergency settings (Pherali, 2013; Burde et al, 2019; Capistrano et al, 2022), there are many studies that have shown how direct violence – in terms of corporal punishment and gender-based violence – is often commonplace in schooling experiences across sub-Saharan Africa (Vally et al, 1999; Parkes et al, 2016; Ssenyonga et al, 2022). Recent studies in South Africa (Ngidi and Moletsane, 2023) and Uganda (Parkes et al, 2023) highlight the significant levels of gender-based violence in schools while also noting that shame and silence often means that such instances of violence evade broader conceptualisations of young people’s experiences of schooling. Regarding corporal punishment, while illegal in many countries across sub-Saharan Africa, its practice remains prevalent. In Uganda, where laws and guidelines prohibit the use of violence in schools – including the revised teachers’ professional code of conduct (Government of Uganda, 2012) and the amended Children Act (Government of Uganda, 2016) – a recent study found that 92 percent of 702 secondary school learners in 12 public secondary schools in south-western Uganda experienced teacher-initiated violence at least once. Examples of such violence included being hit on the bottom with an object or bare hand and being slapped on the hand, arm or leg (Ssenyonga et al, 2019). Harber (2004) and Adzahlie-Mensah (2022) further show how teacher-initiated violence needs to be understood within the broader framing of schools as a site of punishment and regulation, for example, in the strict enforcement of keeping to a timetable in Ghana to promote habits of obedience. Parkes (2007), in fact, shows that young people in South Africa did not view corporal punishment in the home or at school as violence, rather seeing it as a legitimate form of control.

Adamson (2022: 12), writing about secondary education in Tanzania and in one of the few studies that have particularly focused on fear and shame related to learning in an unfamiliar language, eloquently argues that ‘the prevalence of fear and shame in learners’ experiences of schooling goes beyond acting as a learning constraint and, in fact, has a much broader impact on learners’ self-concept and educational experiences’. Similar findings are discussed by Roemer (2024), who conducted interviews with multilingual Tanzanian university students who reflected on their experiences of secondary schooling, concluding that the process was more a case of cultural acquiescence than language acquisition. Kiramba (2018), through lesson observations and interviews with primary-school children in Kenya, further describes how a bone monitor (who places an animal bone on a learner who uses any language other than English) is used to enforce the English-only school policy, a practice that leads to humiliation and ultimately silence. In Uganda, Namyalo and Nakayiza (2014: 13) report that learners who are caught speaking Indigenous languages at school are subjected to a range of punishments: ‘The punishments include caning the offenders, making them wear a sack, making a necklace out of an animal’s bones which is worn by the offender, etc. These punishments are meant to humiliate the offenders, which is an indication that the languages they spoke are not good’. In fact, Ngũgĩ (1986: 11) recounts that, in his schooldays in Kenya, those caught were made to wear a placard around their necks with the inscriptions ‘I AM STUPID’ or ‘I AM A DONKEY’. In other cases, Ngũgĩ (1986: 11) reveals that ‘the culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks’, a situation that has not changed much both in Kenya (Nabea, 2009) and Uganda (Namyalo and Nakayiza, 2014; Isingoma, 2016).

The postcolonial context of LoLT in Uganda

Understanding the English-only LoLT policies that we discuss in this paper necessitates contextualising the education system within its colonial history and neocolonial present. While the precolonial land consisted of different independent kingdoms and chiefdoms, with multiple languages, these were amalgamated into one country, Uganda, with one government in the new era, thereby marking the dawn of new socio-cultural, political and economic changes. Education was important in facilitating the assimilation process (Mart and Toker, 2010). Scanlon (1964) observes that, before the inception of formal education by the missionaries in Uganda, education was offered informally within the various tribal groups. Basic education involved learning the accepted social, economic and political behaviour patterns in the community. Crucially, Western education was primarily a process of conversion to Christianity, with the requirement of the ability to read and write before individuals were accepted as converts. The Mill Hill Fathers were the first to open a school in Namilyango, mostly attended by the Kabaka’s (king of Buganda) family and other royalty from the country. The curriculum was designed to educate potential leaders, with heavy emphasis on English grammar and reading of English books and was the prototype for subsequent schools. Mart and Toker (2010) assert that colonial education imposed on the population a foreign language supposedly related to modernity, sophistication and social status, which we would argue is a clear example of cultural violence. Education became formal with the initial teaching of the 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) in English. In subsequent developments, the country witnessed the Phelps-Stokes Commission’s report enabling the involvement of the Ugandan government in education, and thus empowering it to restructure the system. The formal education system is structured with seven years of primary education, four years of junior / lower secondary, two years of senior / upper secondary, and three to five years of post-secondary education.

Notwithstanding the reconstitution of formal education and the attainment of independence, Uganda still upholds in high regard the colonial legacy in education. This includes the policy that requires the use of English as a medium of instruction in schools. The purported rationale behind this choice is the multi-ethnic nature of the country – having a diversity of Indigenous languages, which makes it difficult to attain universal education and national unity. In addition, English is viewed in Uganda as not only the language of prestige and modernisation, but also as a linguistic asset for international communication (Isingoma, 2016; Nakayiza, 2016). However, the Government of Uganda (1992) states that the mother tongue of an area or the language of wider communication in the area should be used as a medium of instruction up to Primary 4 (the fourth year of primary education), with English as a subject taught from Primary 1, and as a medium of instruction from Primary 5 and onwards in rural areas. In urban areas, the policy states that English should be used as a medium of instruction throughout the primary cycle. From Senior 1 (Form 1 in secondary schools) onwards, the policy requires English to be used as the medium of instruction at all schools.

Uganda is said to be home to 41 languages (Isingoma, 2016), although the nature of multilingualism is complex since there is no clear boundary between a language and a dialect, not because of linguistic factors, but due to socio-cultural and historical factors (Trudgill, 2003; Isingoma, 2016). Languages in Uganda can be categorised in the following ways:

  1. Indigenous languages (such as Acholi, Luganda, Rutooro), that is, non-exoglossic languages, used mainly for intra-ethnic communication. These languages belong to four language subphyla, namely Bantu, constituting 66.4 per cent of all the languages in Uganda (Luganda, Runyankore, for example); Nilotic, 27.2 per cent (for instance, Ateso, Acholi); Central Sudanic, 6.3 per cent (such as Lugbara, Ma’di); and Kuliak languages, less than 1 per cent, with only three languages – Ik, Nyang’i and Soo (Isingoma and Meierkord, 2019: 295; Eberhard et al, 2023).

  2. One endogenous language (Kiswahili), which originated from the coast and is used as a lingua franca in the East African region, as well as a language of wider communication among communities with multilingual repertoires in border areas with Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  3. One main exogenous language (English), which was inherited from colonialism and serves as the major official language. Despite the prestigious position of English in Uganda, only 15.4 per cent of Ugandans have an intermediate or advanced level of proficiency in English and the main loci for its acquisition in the country are educational institutions (Isingoma and Meierkord, 2019). Other exogenous languages such as Chinese, French, Arabic and so on are only used in domains such as diplomacy, business and religious functions or as academic subjects in educational institutions (Isingoma, 2016).

Methodology

The findings in this paper are drawn from the qualitative part of an exploratory sequential mixed-methods study (Creswell and Plano Clark, 2017) conducted in Amuru and Kitgum Districts in Northern Uganda. The districts of Amuru and Kitgum were selected in line with the broader project’s aims to explore the intersection of environmental, epistemic and transitional (in)justice in secondary schooling in Uganda. The districts were purposefully selected because they are sites of historical and contemporary injustices. For example, many households in the districts are economically marginalised and rely on burning trees for charcoal despite the widespread recognition of the negative impact of this on the natural environment. The districts also faced over two decades of insurgency perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army. This brought with it a lot of physical and psychological torture to the people of Northern Uganda, and the impact still lingers on in the lives of those who survived and, possibly, of generations to come (Mugizi and Matsumato, 2021). In these districts, the Nilotic language Acholi is spoken natively. Acholi is one of the five languages that form the Luo cluster (others are Lango, Alur, Dhopadhola and Kumam) – a term that was adopted in the early 1990s to ease the teaching of these mutually intelligible languages at Makerere University (Isingoma, 2016).

Schools were stratified based on the urban–rural and public–private dichotomies, and thereafter, they were randomly selected (see Table 1). The schools herein referred to as public schools are government-aided schools. The government funds these institutions, although learners are still required to pay school fees/tuition. There are also government-aided schools under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme, which provides free education to learners, who are only required to pay examination fees. Such schools are therefore affordable for most families. Besides, they accommodate most learners since the cut-off points for joining them are lower and there is automatic promotion, which allows learners to progress from one class to another regardless of their performance. By contrast, private schools are not government-funded, with higher fees. However, there are differences in fees for private schools. For example, the private school Karatac in Kitgum District has significantly lower fees than Buk in Amuru District.

Table 1:

School details

School (pseudonym) District Urban/Rural Public/Private Population English stipulated or not in the school rules Boarding/Day
Kalam Amuru Rural Public Mixed Yes (Rule number one) Day
Buk Amuru Urban Private Mixed Yes Boarding
Karatac Kitgum Rural Private Mixed Yes Day
Kicar Kitgum Urban Public Girls only Yes (Rule number one) Boarding

Some 16 learners (female and male) ranging between 13 and 17 years, in Senior 1 to 3, were selected from each school using snowball sampling (64 learners in total). All the selected learners participated in individual semi-structured interviews and one focus group. Ethical considerations were followed, including consent forms signed by the school and later individual parents (through appending their signatures or fingerprints), assent forms signed by learners, and providing participants with information sheets and debrief forms.2 All the documents had English and Acholi versions, for the persons concerned to choose a language they understand best to learn about the study and its intentions. Learners were provided with refreshments during the interviews and time compensation in terms of school materials (books, pens, rulers and mathematical sets).

During the interviews and focus groups, learners were at liberty to choose which language was used. After self-introduction, learners were asked which language they would be more comfortable to use – Acholi or English. Most first chose English but later opted for Acholi in the discussions. We think some chose to use English partly because the context of the interaction was school-related (and English is part of the education system) but that this may also reflect language hierarchies in relation to how the learners wanted to position themselves to us as the research team. We note here that learners whose interviews were conducted in Acholi seemed freer while expressing themselves and they provided detailed responses to the questions asked because they had a better understanding of what was being asked. Their ability to act at will was also due to the assurance of confidentiality and their rights to withdraw at any point of the exercise, as well as the fact that the researchers did not present themselves as teachers. However, given the topic of violence, it was evident that some learners did not feel comfortable talking about direct violence. We, therefore, suggest that there may be many more instances of violence than is accounted for in the data set.

During the individual interviews and focus groups, learners were asked about several epistemic justice-related subjects. One of the aspects was related to the language of instruction and the interviewers probed into which language(s) is/are used during teaching and learning, and whether learners faced any challenges with any of the languages teachers used. The questions also delved into experiential learning, assessment, equality/inequality and learners’ aspirations, as well as learners’ contributions in class and how these are handled by teachers and their fellow learners. After punishment came up spontaneously in several of the initial interviews, this was something that the interviewers probed in subsequent interviews. Therefore, while the study was not necessarily focused on language and violence, its findings revealed different forms of violence instigated by the policy of using English only in learning institutions.

All data was transcribed and, where necessary, translated into English as this is the shared language of all the authors of the paper. The data was first analysed inductively using thematic analysis, where each theme was colour coded. The initial themes identified were violence, punishment, language, knowledge and justice. Over time, themes evolved when patterns became apparent and the intersections between the different themes emerged. The final themes generated from the data were: violence in the community, violence in school, violence and fear, language and violence, language (general), fear (general), alternative knowledge (taught or learned in school or at home), justice system/hierarchy (in school or community), support, justice/injustice (the learners bring attention to) and teacher behaviour. Identified data were transferred into Excel spreadsheets, by school to show participants and themes for organisation purposes. It was only after the themes were identified and when the amount of data related to different forms of violence became apparent that we added on the theoretical framing of physical, cultural and systemic violence. In the following section, we present our findings of the themes – violence in school, violence and fear, language and violence (all related to direct violence), fear and language (related to cultural violence) and support and teacher behaviour (related to systemic violence). Given the volume of data for language and violence, we start with and give more space to this theme.

Findings

Before discussing the different forms of direct violence and punishment related to language use, it is important to note that these are part of broader and consistent patterns of everyday violence at all four schools. There are instances mentioned of gender-based violence at Karatac but the most persistent form of direct violence that learners at all schools discuss is that of corporal punishment. Examples of corporal punishment include being stripped of their clothes when they were not wearing the right uniform, being beaten or caned, being made to stand holding bricks, being soaked in water, and being made to sit in the midday sun (when temperatures are often more than 40°C). This is alongside other forms of non-corporal punishment – in relation to language use and more broadly. These include being made to clean or sweep the compound, clean the toilets, dig the latrine, being sent to fetch water in the tank for washing hands, writing lines, writing a letter to the headteacher, and getting suspended from school.

During the interviews and while conducting data analysis, we were all struck by the mundane ways that the learners talked about such violence, as though it was an everyday occurrence. For example, Boy 9 (Buk) remarked that the English teacher ‘teaches well but will slap you if you make a mistake’, while Girl 11 (Kicar) suggested that teachers ‘may get carried away with doing punishments … caning learners in public for other learners to see’ and Girl 5 (Kalam) said that ‘when you fail then you are beaten’. The everyday nature of these instances of violence are compounded by the fact that they are not only associated with direct physical violence but also emotional and psychological violence, as two learners discussed in the focus group at Karatac:

Learner 1:Sometimes when the lesson is going on students can discuss within themselves to understand certain things. So, we were discussing with a classmate and unfortunately, he saw me. He shouted and abused me. He told me I was not even fit to be in the class. Another time I raised up my hand and mentioned an answer which I was sure was correct, but he said it was very wrong. He thought I was fooling him, and he abused me.
Learner 2:There is a teacher who asks questions in class and if you don’t answer, he just abuses you. [Like saying] You are a fool.

(Focus group discussion, Karatac)

At all four schools, an English-only policy is stipulated in the school rules and regulations. At two of the schools (Kalam and Kicar), it is the first rule in the school rules. Of the 64 learners, 30 discussed their schools’ expectations regarding the English-only policy, not only in the classroom but also across the school compound. In fact, Boy 5 from Kalam noted, ‘As soon as you enter the gate you should speak in English’. This is particularly significant given that Buk and Kicar are boarding schools and so there is an expectation that young people will use English at all times of the day.

At two of the schools, prefects are used as a form of surveillance to enforce this English-only policy, meaning that ‘learners fear other learners will hear you speaking Acholi’ (Girl 11, Kicar). One language prefect went on to explain that s/he was punished and made to mop the teachers’ latrines because other learners were ‘using vernacular … this made me to also start punishing fellow learners’ (focus group discussion, Karatac). The fact that there is a ‘language prefect’, whose sole role is to monitor and punish those who speak Indigenous languages, is quite revealing. There are examples from all schools of learners citing punishments, such as manual labour and cleaning the compound, for not speaking in English when asked or once caught talking in Acholi. As Girl 6 (Karatac) explains:

Using vernacular can get learners punished, they are made to sweep, or beaten two strokes, or your name will appear in red book. We used to call it the red book for the vernacular speakers, [if they go in it] twice, they are going to give you one week suspension. One learner was punished for using vernacular, they had to write an apology letter to the head teacher. I fear being given suspension, so I don’t speak [even in] English.

What is particularly interesting in this quotation is the combination of different types of violence that are mentioned – including emotional/psychological violence related to the shame and fear of being put in a ‘red book’, direct violence of being ‘beaten by two strokes’ and cultural violence of being made to write an apology letter, which confirms the language hegemony within the school and in the learner’s own mind.

There were multiple examples from Kicar and Karatac of violence related to language use including where ‘learners are caned if they don’t speak English’ (Girl 14, Kicar) and ‘punished in the sun if they are caught speaking in Acholi’ (Girl 1, Karatac). However, it is learner interview data from Kalam – the rural, public school – that particularly showed a culture of fear and violence in relation to language use. All 16 learners discussed issues related to language use in their interviews. Ten of these talked directly about both punishment and violence in relation to not being able to speak English and being caught speaking Acholi, for example: ‘There are stubborn learners who are no longer liked by the teachers who have not done anything [yet] they still get punished. Sometimes when people are speaking in Acholi, they are the ones who are always beaten’ (Boy 4, Kalam).

At Kalam, there are also examples of acquiescence of this language-related direct violence. Boy 3 (Kalam) is a very clear example of this. He spoke at length in his interview about punishment, including caning, for speaking Acholi but also said that ‘it is fair to force people to speak English because it is the official language of Uganda’. Boy 2 (Kalam) similarly talked about an embarrassing incident when he was told to wear a bone to show that he had been speaking in Acholi, but then goes on to say that he thinks ‘it is right because you must follow the school’s rules’. Such acquiescence can be seen as an outcome of cultural violence, in which, the young people have accepted the language hierarchies that place English as more important, and the related practices of shaming and violence needed to maintain such hierarchies within the school. However, there are also examples from across the schools of learners who talked about the rules that insist on English only but the ways that they, and their peers, circumnavigate the regulations, talking quietly in corners and taking the risk of punishment.

The clearest form of systemic violence that learners discuss is in the ways that several teachers teach to the ‘fast learners … [who] could understand very fast while others are left behind … until the end of the lesson’ (focus group discussion, Karatac). We refer to this as systemic violence because it is an example of how teacher enactment of the curriculum systemically excludes some learners over others, exacerbating existing inequalities. Learners from all four schools also suggested that the size of the curriculum and teachers’ rush to complete everything that is required means that it is the learners who do not understand English well to be particularly affected. Boy 5 (Karatac) went on to explain that ‘some learners have a hard time understanding the English … making some learners drop out’.

The new competence-based curriculum expects learners to be actively engaged in the learning process through discussions. The teacher is only expected to improve on the knowledge and experiences of the learners by designing learning activities that will help them understand and apply what is being learned to practical situations. Besides, learners are expected to critically think and solve problems both at school and in their communities (NCDC, 2019). Activities described in learners’ books necessitate them to speak (as they share ideas) and write to come up with a product. However, many learners discussed how the use of English as the LoLT precluded many learners from speaking, clearly pointing out that the use of English as the only language of instruction impeded learning and affected some learners more than others. As Boy 6 (Kalam) details, ‘many learners don’t speak in class because they don’t know how to express themselves in English and fear speaking in Acholi will get them in trouble … they have things they want to say but they don’t’.

There are similar examples across the learner interview data that show that many learners are reluctant to speak, often because of feeling ashamed and/or fearful. This is frequently associated with language and fear of ‘speaking up in class for not understanding’ (focus group, Kicar). At Buk, learners particularly noted the discrepancies between how teachers and learners use languages other than English in the classroom. While learners spoke about several teachers who used Acholi to help explain concepts to learners, they also said that the same teachers would not allow them to respond in any language other than English. Girl 14 (Kicar) also pointed to these discrepancies, suggesting that teachers use Acholi to support some learners to understand but felt pressure to use only English herself, fearing being caned if she did not speak well in English or was caught using Acholi. This helps learners to access curricular content, but it points to a broader form of cultural violence in the ways that it silences learners and devalues their languages. There are also some learners at the four schools whose home languages were not Acholi, and they further noted that they can be further excluded if teachers use Acholi. It is also clear that it is not only being able to speak in English that is expected, but a particular form of English, and that this expectation comes from classmates as well as teachers. Being subjected to laughter and bullying from classmates ‘if they use the wrong English words’ (Girl 4, Kalam) is cited frequently as a source of reluctance to talk.

Discussion and conclusions

Our findings have first shown that the enactment of the English-only policy brings instances of both cultural and systemic violence. As Kiramba (2018: 302) has previously shown in a study of primary education in Kenya, Indigenous ‘languages that might otherwise serve as a resource or vehicle for expressing culture, voice, and identity instead are illegitimatised at school, transforming an asset into a liability’. We have presented clear examples of how such illegitimisation serves to dislocate learning from the language that children are most familiar with and reinforce the linguistic hegemony of English. These are clear forms of cultural violence. Similarly, we have shown some evidence of systemic violence, through the ways that the English-only policy leads to limitations in some children’s talk in the classroom and their ability to keep up with the delivery of curriculum content. Although there is no evidence in our findings that it is particular groups of children who are excluded, the broader evidence base across Uganda and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa would suggest that this is a form of systemic violence in impacting some learners more than others (Vuzo, 2018; Milligan et al, 2023).

Although the Children (Amendment) Act (2016) prohibits all forms of corporal punishments by persons in authority in institutions and that anyone who exposes a child to this kind of violence is subject to imprisonment (see section 25 of the Act), our findings also show a range of excessive and violent punishments being used in all the schools – encompassing both private and public and rural and urban schools. These schools are clear sites of direct violence. This adds further qualitative evidence to support other recent quantitative studies across Uganda that highlight the continued prevalence of corporal punishment (Ssenyonga et al, 2019; 2022), an area that needs policy intervention.

Furthermore, our findings suggest that learning would be more effective if learners were taught in, and allowed to speak, a language with which they are most familiar. We therefore recommend that LoLT policies be relaxed to enable learners to have equal access to knowledge. The policy that English should be a medium of instruction also conflicts with the expectations of the new curriculum. Learners are required to discuss activities with each other in class. However, those who do not understand or fail to express themselves in English are systematically shut out. Moreover, due to the size of the curriculum, teachers tend to teach quickly to complete their subject syllabi on time. Consequently, some learners are left behind because they cannot cope with the speed.

Some other studies in Tanzania (Roemer, 2024) and Kenya (Kiramba, 2018) have discussed incidents of punishment, including some that include physical punishment, in relation to language use. Our findings very clearly show that the strict enforcement of an English-only policy includes multiple punishments and surveillance as a means of control (Harber, 2004). Further to this, the prevalence of violence, and associated fear of violence, clearly supports such control. For the children in this study, the socio-emotional, psychological and physical impact of learning in an unfamiliar language is evident. Following Adamson (2022), we would suggest that this evidence supports the need to increase attention paid to the experiences of learning in an unfamiliar language, alongside the more common focus on learning outcomes.

Most significantly, the findings presented in this paper have shown multiple ways that direct violence is linked with both cultural and systemic forms of violence. For Galtung (1990), cultural violence refers to the cultural norms and practices that contribute to, and legitimise, other more direct forms of violence. Our findings are a very clear example of how cultural violence – in terms of an English-only language policy, which effectively erases other languages from the educational space – fuels direct violence in formal schooling. However, we further have shown that direct violence – and the ways it contributes to a culture of fear of punishment – sustains the English-language hegemony. To draw on Galtung’s analogy of cultural violence nourishing more direct forms of violence (1990: 294), we suggest that the different forms of violence in fact provide nutrients for each other through a two-way mutually reinforcing relationship that perpetuates both forms of violence in the school (Figure 1).

This figure describes the intersections between the different forms of violence discussed in the paper.
Figure 1:

Learners at the intersection of everyday manifestations of violence

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 2024; 10.1332/27523349Y2024D000000008

While there are examples of direct violence that are acute, such as caning and being stripped, the power of the violence we see in the findings is in its everyday and pernicious nature. Most learners discussed different types of punishment and violence but few suggested that it was unfair or harmful. Such normalisation and justification of violence adds to its legitimacy, echoing the findings from Parkes (2007) with students in South Africa. The young people in this study are living at the intersection of these forms of violence in their daily experiences of schooling. This is an injustice that merits far greater attention among national and global education policy makers.

Notes

1

Corresponding author.

2

The study was given favourable ethical approval at both the University of Bath (in line with the funders’ requirements for ethical review at the Principal Investigator’s institution) and at Gulu University.

Funding

This work was supported by UK Research and Innovation and the Global Challenges Research Fund under Grant ES/T004851/1.

Acknowledgements

‘Education as and for Environmental, Epistemic and Transitional Justice to Enable Sustainable Development’ was a collaborative, multi-country project based on the values of kindness, fun, collegiality, creativity, justice, rigour, transparency and respect. All project outputs represent the collective endeavour of the team. The international JustEd team includes: Tina Aciro (Gulu University, Uganda), Patricia Ajok (Gulu University, Uganda), María Balarin (Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), Peru), Mrigendra Karki (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Daniel Komakech (Gulu University, Uganda), Lizzi O. Milligan (University of Bath, UK), Dorica Mirembe (Gulu University, Uganda), Carlos Monge (GRADE, Peru), Ainur Muratkyzy (University of Bristol, UK), Expedito Nuwategeka (Gulu University, Uganda), Alvaro Ordonez (GRADE, Peru), Mohan Paudel (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Julia Paulson (University of Bristol, UK), María Fernanda Rodriguez (GRADE, Peru), Paola Sarmiento (University of Bristol), Sushil Sharma (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Robin Shields (University of Bristol, UK), Ashik Singh (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Ganesh Singh (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Nese Soysal (University of Bath), Srijana Ranabhat (Tribhuvan University, Nepal), Alithu Bazan Talavera (GRADE, Peru) and Rachel Wilder (University of Bath, UK).

For more information, please visit our website: JustEd (https://www.bath.ac.uk/projects/justed/) or contact the Principal Investigator, Lizzi O. Milligan at e.m.a.milligan@bath.ac.uk. We are also grateful to all the participants in the study and to anonymous reviewers who gave very helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Figure 1:

    Learners at the intersection of everyday manifestations of violence

  • Adamson, L. (2022) Fear and shame: students’ experiences in English-medium secondary classrooms in Tanzania, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, online first. doi: 10.1080/01434632.2022.2093357

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Balarin, M. and Milligan, L.O. (2024) Education as justice: articulating the epistemic core of education to enable just futures, Global Social Challenges, XX(XX): XX. doi: XX.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Isingoma, B. and Meierkord, C. (2019) Capturing the lexicon of Ugandan English: ICE-Uganda and its effective complements, in A.U. Esimaje, U. Gut and B.E. Antia (eds) Corpus Linguistics and African Englishes, Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp 293328.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerfoot, C. and Bello-Nonjengele, B.O. (2023) Towards epistemic justice: constructing knowers in multilingual classrooms, Applied Linguistics, 44(3): 46284. doi: 10.1093/applin/amac049

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuchah, K., Adamson, L., Dorimana, A., Uwizeyemariya, A., Uworwabayeho, A. and Milligan, L.O. (2022) Silence and silencing in the classroom: Rwandan girls’ epistemic exclusion in English medium basic education, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, online first. doi: 10.1080/01434632.2022.2159031

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Makalela, L. (2015) Translanguaging as a vehicle for epistemic access: cases for reading comprehension and multilingual interactions, Per Linguam, 31(1): 1529. doi: 10.5785/31-1-628

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mart, C.T. and Toker, A. (2010) How did British colonial education in Africa become a reason for decolonisation?, paper presented at 2nd International Symposium on Sustainable Development, 8–9 June 2010, Sarajevo, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/153447455.pdf.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Milligan, L.O., Desai, Z. and Benson, C. (2020) A critical exploration of how language-of-instruction choices affect educational equity, in A. Wulff (ed) Grading Goal Four: Tensions, Threats, and Opportunities in the Sustainable Development Goal on Quality Education, Leiden: Brill, pp 11634.

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Lizzi O. Milligan University of Bath, UK

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Bebwa Isingoma Gulu University, Uganda

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Expedito Nuwategeka Gulu University, Uganda

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