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Tough options as State weighs early schools closure

By Augustine Oduor | Updated Wed, July 17th 2013 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Augustine Oduor

Nairobi, Kenya: The government was Tuesday weighing the early closure of public schools to face down striking teachers as the turmoil in the education sector reached boiling point.

A senior education official, who offered to speak off record owing to the sensitivity of the information, revealed that this had emerged as one of the options authorities are toying with to break the standoff with striking teachers affiliated to the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut).

Public primary schools are scheduled to close around August 9, according to the second term calendar, but senior education officials are reportedly contemplating an earlier date should teachers dig in.

Authorities have threatened to fire teachers who defied the directive to resume duty but experts have questioned the government’s ability to replace 278,000 teachers who are Knut members.

Tuesday, the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) invited trained unemployed teachers to enroll at their nationwide offices for “employment to replace striking teachers.”

TSC secretary Gabriel Lengoiboni issued the notice instructing those interested to take up teaching jobs to register by Friday.

Teachers have ignored successive orders by the TSC to resume classes in compliance with the July 1 Industrial Court order, for which top Knut officials are facing contempt of court proceedings.

Knut leadership maintained that they will press on with “the spirit of the National Executive Council (NEC)” that demanded all allowances be paid at once- a condition the Government has flatly rejected.

But although Knut maintained that the strike is on officials announced they would make a “major communication” Wednesday.

It is unclear whether they will press on with their hard line demands or soften their position.

“We shall make a decision tomorrow (Wednesday) with or without a court ruling on our case,” said Knut national chairman Wilson Sossion.

TSC wants Sossion and the secretary general Mudzo Nzili jailed for disobeying the court order to call off the strike and the hearing of the case will continue Wednesday.

It emerged authorities are contemplating closing primary schools earlier to buy time.

Buying time

“The best option would be to close down schools to buy the Government time to deal with the crisis. But that is a decision that will be taken at higher levels,” a senior education official told The Standard on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Officials reckon the strategy will ease the pressure on the impact of the strike with the perception of ‘normal’ holiday, and also extend the economic sanctions on teachers.

Striking teachers will be without pay for three months since TSC froze their salaries in June.

“Some of the teachers are yet to pay rent for the month of June. They also have bank loans to service and none of them would entertain a three months pay freeze,” said a senior government official.

Tuesday, Lengoiboni said TSC had released June pay for secondary school teachers represented by Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) that recently reached a deal with the Government.

“We have made the payments and we expect all of them to have received their salaries by end of the week,” he explained.

Behind schedule

But the early closure of schools will worsen the crisis for public schools that are already behind schedule to cover the syllabus. By the end of this week, students will have lost 108 lessons translating to some 72 hours study time.

Schools are yet to write their mock examinations and other second term school activities have also been suspended. This will have a spillover effect into the third term possibly disrupting national examinations. The third term had earlier been planned to have 11 weeks, starting from September 2 to November 15.

Last year’s strike saw examination time pushed forward by some three weeks. Parents have expressed fears that performance of public schools could be affected. The Government has flatly rejected teachers ’ demands for house allowance equal to half of the basic salary because other civil servants whose allowance compares with that of teachers will demand a pay rise.

There are more than twice as many civil servants as teachers and should they press for equal allowances the public sector wage bill would balloon.  Tuesday, TSC, the teachers’ employer, asked all qualified teachers who are not in employment to register with the staffing officers at County and Sub-County levels in districts they wish to work.

Lengoiboni said teachers of 45 years and above will be given priority in the exercise that starts immediately. “All those who wish to be put in the TSC inventory should register with staffing officers by Friday, 19th July, 2013,” he said.

He said interested teachers should be holders of minimum of P1 for primary school teachers and diploma in teacher education for secondary teachers. “Teachers who are qualified but have not been registered with the TSC as required under the TSC Act, 2012 and wish to be considered will be advised on how to apply online at the County and Sub-County level.

Relevant subjects

Lengoiboni said secondary teachers must have at least two teaching subjects relevant to the curriculum. A senior Knut official protested the strong arm tactics by the Government, including the court case claiming the State is keen to have the two officials jailed to slow down teachers strike.

‘They know that once Sossion is jailed the union will be demoralised. Teachers will react but for how long will they do that? That they will eventually go back to class,” said the official, who is also a member of Knut steering committee.

He however declared even if Sossion and Nzili are jailed the union has set a “ring of battalion” to lead the teachers’ strike.

The union Sunday turned down a negotiated offer that would have earned their members the disputed allowances in two phases starting this financial year.

Knut demanded Sh47 billion to fully implement their allowances as per the 1997 agreement.

However, the union negotiated a deal with president Uhuru Kenyatta, through the secretary to the cabinet Francis Kimemia and labour secretary Kazungu Kambi and even drafted a return to work formula that was rejected Sunday by the union’s National Executive Council.