Let’s support teachers in nurturing learners

I spent the past week in Kisumu and Homa Bay to learn how secondary schools are faring with the massive changes taking place in the country and the education sector. This month, over 410,000 students were admitted without consideration for the strengths of their grades. While the 100 per cent transition policy effects Jubilee’s election promise, what challenges does it bring to an already stretched system?

Schools in Kisumu and Homa Bay experience some of the greatest challenges. Comparatively high levels of poverty, defilement, adolescent sex and unrest conspire to disrupt learning. Eleven schools were closed in the wave of arson attacks last year. At least one had to hand over their boys to the police for attempting to burn down their school. The nine schools I visited are not among the top performers.

With exam cheating now largely under control, the failure rate has been staggering. In 2018, nearly half of all secondary school students scored a D and below. The poor results are not a match for the Sh20 billion spent on secondary students in the last 4 years. What’s missing? Our curriculum developers say it is creativity, innovation and values.

The new competency-based curriculum promises to focus on skills not just knowledge. Among the seven areas of focus are communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, digital literacy and citizenship. It is the last of these that brought me to these two counties. How can our schools raise ethical, empowered and engaged citizens? What narratives must we interrupt and start among our teenagers? These two counties have much to offer the rest of the others.

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Deepening rights awareness among students and their parents is critical to ensure all children enjoy their constitutional right to education, full self-expression, safety and participation. With the additional Ministry capitation of Sh22,224 per child, students must not be prevented by additional levies to attend school.

Registration is now digital. Uploading every child’s details on National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) enrols them in an NHIF scheme, extending to them their right to universal health-care. Pregnant girls can no longer be locked out of school. Children can no longer be arbitrarily expelled or suspended for longer than 14 days for breaking school rules.

In 1997, the right to education was widely considered as mere “NGO speak”. Pressing the Education Minister to include this in the Master Plan on Education and Training (1997-2010) earned me many bemused smiles and screen-saver looks. While we have come far since then, the challenges of implementing the right to education remains. Adequate and timely transfer of funds to schools such as Homa Bay High School who just accepted 500 new students into Form One is one challenge. Increasing the number of teachers by 47,576 to maintain the preferred 1:40 teacher to student ratio is another.

The bigger risk to realising the right to education is behavioural. Children from low income communities like the Ober Boys Secondary, Kisumu Day High students and Oridi Girls are bravely reaching beyond their parent’s current academic status. Without effective age appropriate and consistent sex education, life changing decisions are being made casually.

Human rights education is key to reversing this. Schools with human rights education clubs have recorded open and constructive student-teacher relations, less aggression and violence and stronger leadership capabilities among students. Students have been able to negotiate for treated water in the sick bay, access for disabled children, uniforms for administrative staff, alternatives for vegetarian students and write letters of solidarity and friendship to children in Dabaab refugee schools.

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Understanding how our digestive, excretory, respiratory and nervous systems work is important. So too is understanding and nurturing young leadership to create and protect our social justice system. We must support teachers and students to be on the frontline of our collective enterprise to ensure no child is left behind and every child becomes a leader.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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