Let’s invest more in county schools to break poverty cycle

A class session at Vuyika Primary School in Lugari in 2018. [File, Standard]
Many of my peers and I, who have escaped the debilitating poverty cycle, are products of public school education. Consequently, many of us consistently track how public schools, particularly those in the lower ranks of the school system, perform because we know, and are living examples of how these experiences impact the distribution of life opportunities. But for a working and facilitative system, many of us would be wallowing in dusty villages, some as clients of Stanley Kamau’s Ahadi Foundation. We worked hard yes, but the system was structured such that our efforts were rewarded. That is increasingly not so for many students particularly those in poor rural areas and the urban vitongojis.

Accordingly, as happens every year, as students who had received their KCPE results in the middle of December trooped to the numerous high schools to commence that portion of their journey of life, I was engrossed with the statistics of the KCPE and KCSE exams, trying to read beyond the “top 100 schools” and “best performing students” to understanding implications of these results.

Like years before, majority of the few places in elite national and extra county high schools were taken by students from elite academies. The bulk of students, about 55 per cent, emanating from public primary schools in rural and urban poor zones, were admitted into what are called sub-county schools while about 15 per cent have gone to county schools. Ten percent went to private schools, and will most probably exist in a parallel academic universe, attending private universities here and abroad never to interact with their poor cousins. These numbers and their impact on distribution of opportunities become worrying when one looks at how these respective classes of schools perform in KCSE. That performance has a direct link with students getting a university education. While one recognises that university education is not the ultimate key to success, there is no question that entry into university greatly expands possibilities of a student breaking out from that evil debilitating cycle, including through the expansion of their peers’ circle.

Statistics on schools’ performance this year show that of the students that will be admitted to university, about 55 per cent will come from national and extra county schools even though they only absorbed 20 per cent of the primary school leavers! Sub-county schools, the least invested in, and which absorbed the bulk of students, will only get 20 per cent of university places. In real terms, only 1 of every 10 students who attended sub county schools will go to university. Being the minority, these few students who make it to university from these sub county schools will have the lowest peer network in university, which has implications on future connections and success. You many also want to know about 80 per cent of students in sub county schools got grade D and below. National schools only contributed 1 per cent of D graders.

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Why does this matter? It is clear that the vast majority of our students are failing examinations by virtue primarily of the schools they have been absorbed in. Since there is no dumbness gene associated with being poor, it cannot be that the 80 per cent students obtaining grade D and below, who happen to come from poor families, are just dumb. They are just not being exposed to the facilities and resources, including teachers, that students in better schools are being exposed to. This is unacceptable and requires emergency solutions. It is irrational to be talking about equity, curing historical injustices, and ensuring the equality of opportunity while the bulk of our students are condemned to a life of poverty purely by virtue of the schools they attend.

There is no doubt that greater investment in sub county schools would enhance their performance. That must be one of the core focus areas in our future investment in public schools. Failing this, we are creating a despondent generation who will increasingly recognise that there is no way out of the prison of poverty in which they have been incarcerated. That is a powder keg in which revolutions simmer and eventually explode.

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

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