We must improve the quality of teaching in public primary schools

This week, we went through the annual ritual of KCPE results release. Other than the early release of results started by the indefatigable Matiang'i, everything else about the results was predictable. As a product of the public school system, my interest in the KCPE results has always been to track the performance of students in public schools.

Every year, my heart breaks as I observe the same disappointing news; private schools continue to outperform by far the public schools.

My sadness emanates from the realisation that for a well-functioning public school system, many of us who grew up in relative poverty would have been condemned to eternal destitution. Education was always the great equaliser. Shoeless, lanky students from dusty villages whether in my Mananga, or Dr Ekuru’s Kappedo had an almost equal chance of performing as well as the few students in the various academies in existence. Because the majority of students were from public primary schools, it followed that the majority of entrants in the elite secondary schools, and eventually into elite universities, were products of public primary schools. It also meant that at some point in the school system, whether in high school or in university system, the children of the poor villager and those of the privileged got to interact and cross-pollinate experiences and ideas, producing a better citizen. Not so today.

Upon the virtual collapse of the public-school system, the opportunities for children whose parents cannot afford the fees charged by private schools to escape the poverty cycle have greatly diminished. While the public school system has been deteriorating over the last three decades, a bad situation was worsened by the introduction of free primary education. For the avoidance of doubt I am an avowed supporter of the free primary school policy for it rescued many students from a life of absolute illiteracy to some modicum of education. However, its implementation, through which previously well-performing public schools like Olympics’ Kibera were inundated by hundreds of students without a corresponding enhancement of learning infrastructure, killed the possibilities of poor students ever accessing elite public secondary and university education.

This year’s results told the same sad story. Other than a few schools in Machakos, Meru and Kirinyaga counties, the vast majority of students performing well enough to access elite public secondary schools were from private schools. While Kenyans must be lauded for investing in education and giving parents who can afford an opportunity to get their children a good education, the reality is that private schools represent a small minority of the student population and yet they will occupy all the elite public secondary school places. The vast majority of students, particularly in the rural areas will be condemned to poor quality public secondary school education thus missing entry into quality college education. Starting out disadvantaged, they will go through a disadvantaged system and end up as the wretched of the earth. There will also be little or no mixing and cross-pollination of students of the affluent and the disadvantaged for they will hardly cross paths.

Dusty outpost

All is not lost however. It is clear from the performance of private schools in dusty outposts that children growing up in rural Kenya have the same intellectual capacity as those in the metropolises. I have visited many of these rural academies which perform as well as their urban, well-equipped and well-lunched counterparts. There is little by way of infrastructure or equipment that explains their good performance. The only difference between them and the public school across the fence is quality of teaching. We must therefore find a way to improve the quality of teaching in public primary schools. Whatever oversight it will take to reduce absenteeism and other malignancies, whatever incentives we will need to give the public school teacher, we must give. Government policy must now focus on the teacher. The popular bursary system could have a component that incentivises teachers and gives them a reason to give their best to our students in public schools. Failing this, we are widening a divide that is not consistent with a more equitable Kenya.

- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya