Al Kags

Stop! Let’s take a moment to think about education

Boy, it has been an eventful decade since “the second liberation”, hasn’t it? President Mwai Kibaki is coming on to the sunset of his presidency and perhaps his 5-decade long political career. In his portfolio as he retires to his 1000 acre Sasini Estate farm in Mweiga, Nyeri will be a legacy unmet by his predecessors – ranging from education to the transparency in government.

We however need to pause from all this activity and reflect on these major legacy points as we go into the next elections so that we can make sure his successor takes it to the next level. Take education for example. President Kibaki has been credited with seeing through the Free Primary Education programme, which has increased the attendance of school by all children significantly.

While attendance has been increased, two important questions are then brought to bear. First and perhaps less importantly, studies have shown – particularly a study by Justin Sandefur, Tessa Bold (both of Oxford University), Mwangi Kimenyi (University of Connecticut), and Germano Mwabu (University of Nairobi)  – that thanks to the Free Primary Education programme, the equality in education access has increased nationally, even though enrolment rates for public schools have actually declined. According to their report, as poor students come in, richer students have fled to private schools in greater or equal measure.

More importantly is the eye-opening (although one is not certain why we were so shocked by it) report by Uwezo, which is a must read for any literate parent. In this report, children aged 6-16, were given a Class 2 test to check for literacy to surprising results.

According to the Uwezo report, 10% of children in class 4 and 5 cannot comprehend a class 2 story in Kiswahili, even when they read it. It becomes worse, when 18% of children in those classes cannot comprehend an English class 2 story, even when they read it.

10% of class 8 students are unable to do division. Even if we dismissed these as the group in class that don’t apply themselves, it is disturbing to hear that 8% of kids in class 8 cannot recognise number 10-99!

How do we then reconcile that with the number of hours that children spend going to school? I was recently shocked to encounter a young child of about 10 years walking in uniform at 5:45am. I was compelled to stop him (let’s call him Gerald) and ask him why he was up at that time.

Gerald (age 10) told me that has a busy schedule at school every day. He wakes up at 5am and prepares himself to go to school. His school is across town and he has to be outside his neighbourhood gates by 5:45am, where he will be picked by the school bus. He gets to school by 6:50am (the school bus has to pick other kids along the way). At 7am he has a 45 minute extra tuition class, followed by assembly (or “parade” as he called it).

At 8am, classes start and he can only take a 15-minute break two and a half hours later. At 10:45am he is back in class till his 1 hour, 15-minute lunch break at 12:45pm.  At 2pm he is back in class till 3:45pm when he breaks for sports. At 4:30, when ideally he should have gone home, he resumes class for a 45 minute extra tuition session. He gets home at 6:30pm, has his dinner and spends at least an hour every day finishing his homework.

Gerald is in Class 4.

The time has come for us to stop for a moment and think about how we are educating our future workforce. Are we equipping our kids with the ability to think and creatively solve problems that would make Kenya a competitive country by 2030? Gerald told me that during the extra tuition time that he spends in school, they don’t go over what they have learnt but instead focus on running through the loaded syllabus for the year. They just cram as much as they can into their minds and one only hopes that some of what they memorise (rather than read) is learnt.

Is it any wonder that even now, employers find that they have to spend the first few months training entry-level staff on such things as writing letters and communications literacy? How prepared are we as a country to be competitive in the global “flat” world when graduate level students have to wait to depend on what they were taught to face the exams.

President Kibaki’s successor has a hard task ahead of him or her. Any future administration must dismantle the conveyor belt that our education system has become and begin to create real thinkers. At the very least, 10 year old children should play more and not have to live 14-hour days. There’ll be time enough for long hours when they become president.

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