Thursday, January 20, 2011


I didn’t know what the title of this article should be and so I went with what felt right.

Free primary education is a very noble idea. Such a good idea it was that Kenya was lauded globally for its introduction. Truly, nothing can affect more people, more beneficially than free education. I absolutely loved the idea. I still do, but I believe it must be done right. When the idea of free primary education first came up, I supported the lets-start-first-and-fix-later implementation philosophy (used again in the constitution thing) because I was tired of the empty rhetoric and vapid promises of yesteryears. The only reason I supported it was because I had an absolute belief in our leaders to then go about fixing the problems that would inevitably arise.

The problem that most concerned me, as it did most Kenyans, was that of a decrease in the quality of education. I posited that, after 8 years we would see a decrease in the performance of KCPE pupils to the extent that the Minister would have to create some sort of quota system (This is no 20-20 hindsight, it was obvious) for high school selection. I also envisaged a situation where more Private schools would be opened by the more entrepreneurial to take advantage of the parents fleeing from the now crowded public schools.

All this has happened. And it started a lot sooner than you think. What do you suppose the real reason for no longer ranking schools by performance was? What did he say it was? He said it was to avoid pressurizing teachers into cheating. Tell me you saw through that BS.

So that you don’t think that this article is no more than a chest thumping, self preening “I told you so”, let me tell you what will happen next. There is a headline in one of today’s papers that proclaims “Form one selection blow for rich schools”.

First off, the wealth of the school is nowhere as important as the collective wealth of the parents (I will explain later). Secondly, the wording of that headline reeks of classism (IMHO). An “us-versus-them” type of thinking that pits the poor against the not-so-rich so as to muddy the debate. Thirdly, wth? A blow how?

Walk with me this way a second and imagine yourself as a parent. You have saved and sacrificed to have your child transfer from the crowded school he was in before to a private school. Your decision has been vindicated because your child has performed way above the average and your only concern now is raising the Form 1 fees. Then comes that announcement. You are understandably mad but you soon focus on what to do next. Since your child cannot qualify for the 1st rate public high school or maybe even the best provincial high school around, you opt for the next best thing. You try the middle tier private school. Now multiply this reaction 100,000 times.

No big deal you say? The biggest factor in a high schools KCSE performance (not the only factor by any means) is the quality of students it receives as entrants in Form 1. That is why the KCSE top 10 list is a lot more static/predictable than the KCPE top ten list. If this is true, then in the next 4-6 years, private schools will begin to match and outperform public schools much more (Look, I know there are already private schools on there but let us be generic, for the sake of argument). And what will the Minister do then? Tell the Universities Joint Admissions Board to pick mostly from public schools? Likely. But if you have been following my argument, you must realize that that will only serve to postpone the problem and make it that much more difficult to fix.

How so? The whole scenario will replicate itself at the University level leading to employers shying away from public university degrees. At that point, the entire public education system will suffer a confidence crisis from which there is almost certainly no return. So although the sensational headline “Form one selection blow for rich schools” may be true, it will only be true in the very short term. There will be a mushrooming of new high schools, especially the “academy” types where the secondary school is only a continuation of the primary school e.g. Makini primary vis-à-vis Makini secondary.

Again, you may see this as no problem. My main issue with this scenario is that it increases the gap between the rich and the poor even further. “So, storm crow, what then?” I hear you ask.

The main problem, and one that the government is trying to solve even while trying to direct our attention elsewhere, is that of understaffing and poor facilities. The solution is simple but not easy.

I started this article by stating that I support free primary education. I do. Wholeheartedly. And where education is concerned, half a loaf is certainly better than no loaf at all. My point is that for this project to actually be successful, it must serve to offer benefits and opportunities to everyone and not just be another gold brick on a gold road leading to unrecognized certificates and qualifications.


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