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Why Kenya needs to look East for ideas

By | Feb 22nd 2012 | 5 min read


For decades, economists have been urging sub-Saharan Africa to emulate economic models of East Asian Tigers - Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan - to unlock the region's economic development potential.

Now, Kenya stands to benefit a lot if its education experts gazed to the east and learned how secondary school students in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai, China have managed to upstage their counterparts in most countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) ranking, students from the Asian countries ranked ahead of those from the US, UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Australia and Canada in reading, maths and sciences.

According to Pisa head of Governing Board Lorna Bertrand, greater national wealth or very high expenditure on education does not necessarily guarantee better student performance.

"What matters more is how the resources are spent," agrees OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in a statement.

But as Education Minister Sam Ongeri prepares to release the results of last year’s KCSE in the next few days, it is vital for stakeholders and more so parents and teachers to ask, which way forward for education in Kenya.

First and foremost, is to recognise that school is where most learning takes place and that what happens in school has direct impact on learning. As for Kenya, what happens in school is influenced by resources, policies and practices approved by the Government.

Attitude factor

That is the reason it is vital to evaluate the veracity of some of the recommendations of the Taskforce on the Re-alignment of the Education Sector to the Constitution 2010 in relation to the findings of the Pisa surveys that are acclaimed globally. According to Pisa surveys, a school system’s attitude towards teachers and students has a greater impact on student performance and later academic achievement.

If the past is anything to go by, the results that Prof Ongeri will announce will show more than 70 per cent of last year’s KCSE candidates will have scored mean grade of C and below. In the previous year, 72 per cent of the total candidature was in that bracket. Majority of those students were from public district and low-cost secondary schools most of which lack basic learning resources such as labs, libraries and classrooms.

A recent study on education in sub-Saharan Africa with special reference to Kenya showed public district schools constitute the broad base of the secondary education pyramid. Those schools are at the bottom of the secondary education status hierarchy, and make 70 per cent of all public secondary schools in Kenya.

"Unlike the national and provincial schools, district schools do not as a rule have adequate facilities and they recruit local pupils," says the study.

Similar studies by Dr Moses Oketch, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London, only one of 200 pupils in district schools score C+ (plus) and above. In this case, only 0.5 per cent of pupils in public district and low-cost primary school get chances for varsity education.

However, the taskforce appointed to review education failed to outline a comprehensive plan to reverse low academic standards in district secondary schools. Whereas Pisa surveys suggest money cannot buy good education, successful education systems invest in high expectations for all their students.

"Schools and teachers in such education systems do not allow struggling students to fail as they believe all students can achieve and give them an opportunity to do so," says Bertrand.

Diverse student populations are given personalised remedial teaching without having to repeat grades. The strongest performers in Pisa are also from countries where teachers are well paid.

Generally, education systems in South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, among other good performers in Pisa’s rankings offer teachers higher pay and greater professional status. Subsequently, they are able to attract best students into teaching profession.

But that is not the case in Kenya, where teachers’ status and prestige has suffered over the decades as a result of protracted disputes with the Government over pay and other terms of service. Recruitment of teachers for primary and secondary schools had not been able to attract best school leavers and graduates.

Being aware of the underlying conditions in most public schools the Government has never been able to demand high student performance from the schools.

Even with the suggested structural reforms, the quality of education in most schools might not change as there seems to be no deliberate drive to provide adequate facilities.

Years vs skills learned

According to Elizabeth King, the Director of Education in the Human Development Network of the World Bank, what matters most is not the structure of an education system or years spent in school but skills learned.

Such sentiments are also held by Sha Zukang, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, in-charge of implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.

Some years ago when Shanghai and Hong Kong Chinese provinces realized the need to reform their education systems, they did not spend too much time wrangling on which structure to adopt but without much capital relied on the expertise of its best principals and teachers to reform the failing schools.

"Authorities promised career development advancement for teachers who improved their schools," says one Pisa report.

While pushing for reforms, the taskforce headed by Prof Douglas Odhiambo took too much time reviewing education systems and structures of countries that had little to offer for Kenyans to borrow. The taskforce studied education systems of Uganda, Ghana and South Africa whose pupils’ performance in reading and maths are ranked below their Kenyan counterparts by the Unesco’s Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality.

Whichever education structure is finally adopted in Kenya, stakeholders should realise what ailing our education system since colonial times till now is not years spent at a particular segment of education but factors that impact on access, costs and quality. Our problems had been anchored not on structure but on how to democratise education with strong and equitable learning centres.

Added advantage?

In this aspect, successive governments have failed as only narrow elite of students attending national schools had been achieving high levels of education.

The glaring inequality in learning outcomes among students from different schools should be of major concern to all stakeholders, simply because if the trend continues, Kenya is likely to increase the number of the emerging educated underclass.

As Ongeri announces the results, the traditional top performers will be there to be feted at the apex of the ranking index, a grim reminder that although good secondary education has value, it is only a sub-set of the nation’s children are benefiting from it.

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