Does ranking of schools in Kenya make economic sense?

The Ministry of Education has brought to an abrupt end school rankings, a time-honoured tradition that set the nation alight twice a year with publication of KCSE and KCPE results.

The reason given for the ban on rankings include the use of unscrupulous methods to raise the school ranks and cheating in the exams. But I think, there is another reason that no one wants to say aloud; ranking is used to advise private schools and give them an edge over the public schools.

Is this banning a good decision? Does it make economic sense? What I find paradoxical is that as we ban ranking at lower levels, we are actively encouraging it at upper levels, with the Commission for University Education promoting ranking of the Uuversities. A better question should be, why rank? Ranking serves as a signal to the market on performance of the schools and help parents decide where to take their kids.

Students use ranking to decide which schools to apply for when graduating from primary school to high school. They use the ranking, particularly in developed countries, to decide which university to apply for, depending on their ability, and often their parent’s level of income. It so happens that highly ranked schools and universities are also more expensive. Parents are willing to pay for the perceived value. Don’t we do the same for highly rated hotels?

Without ranking, how do we differentiate schools? Ranking has a great economic value, ensuring that information on good and bad schools is available publicly. The argument that schools use unorthodox methods to raise their ranks is an indicator that quality and compliance systems are not working. Should we stop putting price tags on items in the supermarkets because of pilfering?

If we ensured that cheaters in rankings are exposed, there is no reason why rankings should not continue. The ministry has not given another criteria to differentiate schools. It is not enough to classify schools as county or national; to students and parents, that is immaterial; it’s performance that matters.

Without ranking, we can predict what will happen, and the unintended consequences.
Private schools will use the media to inform the market of their performance. We shall still know the bad and good private schools. The public schools, shielded by the ban on rankings, will continue declining in performance. Headmasters must be smiling because they can’t be held accountable by the public.

No more bad publicity. Already, nothing is done to head teachers whose schools fail, I have never heard of a teacher who was sacked because a school failed, unless it was done secretly.

The big divide between public and private schools will widen. Those who can afford will take their kids to schools, they know about. The public schools will be left to wallow in self-pity, with employers shunning them. One would have thought that ranking forces competition between schools and raises the standards of education. One wonders if ranking of students within schools will also be banned.

Is it fair to shield our kids from competition when they know they will compete all their lives? In fact one reason why the Kenyan economy has done so well in the last two decades is because of competition. Ever since the economy was liberalised in the 1990s, meaning competition was allowed, growth has been higher and faster. Consumers have more choices and higher standards of goods and services. Even on the political front, we have more choices, beyond Kanu, which I was forced to join to get my National ID. I still keep that card and will soon demand a refund with interest.

The success of East Asian economies from South Korea to Singapore is based on competition with the best students and graduates becoming the leaders. One of the least publicized success of Singapore, is how the brightest end up working for the public sector, not private sector and NGOs. Don’t we boast that our economy is bigger than our neighbouring countries because we are more competitive?

The natural world is also about competition, with animals and plants competing with each other for food, and other resources. Don’t we even compete to get wives? Why do we want to go against nature? Students should not face the reality of competition, after school; it’s too late. All we need to do is to give competition a human face.

Why do we want to reverse the gains of competition when the results are there for all to see? There is no doubt that rankings put a lot of pressure on teachers, parents who pay through tuition and students, particularly those who are not intellectually endowed. But shouldn’t rankings be used to get us students who need help instead of focusing all our energies on the top few? Is working hard not Godly, the basis of Protestant Work Ethics?
The ban on rankings is a sign of our propensity to overreact to issues and events. My suggestion is that we should rank schools in different categories and punish the cheaters. On average, the economy is worse off without rankings than with ranking.

Parents and all other stakeholders need to know what is happening in our schools, and if the billions we pour into education have any returns.Should we also ban ranking of hotels from one star to 6 stars? Should the Nairobi Securities Exchange stop ranking stocks from the best to the worst performing? Should we stop ranking counties from poorest to the wealthiest?

Let us rank schools and put the ranking to good use; from demanding accountability from school heads to providing parent and kids with information to make choices. Give me a better alternative to rankings and I will pay for it...

—The writer is a lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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