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Good schools are a scarce national resource

By XN Iraki | December 8th 2019 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Student sitting for their exams. [Courtesy]
Selection to secondary schools for 2019 KCPE candidates is over, with top scorers getting to their first choice institutions.

For those who scored less, the choices are limited. The good thing is once out of school, other factors matter beyond your ability to pass exams. That is why average exam performers excel in life, perhaps because they are less encumbered by idealism of school.

Truth be told, national examinations are one of the few remaining monopolies in Kenya. Their closest rivals are the police and the military. One could argue that parents have choices; they can take their children to alternative education systems such as British or American. Why not Chinese?

But that’s for only a tiny minority of Kenyans. We hope one day our children will have choices of different examinations just like political parties, churches or restaurants. After all, one of the pillars on which the economics discipline stands on is choice. But most students of economics are more familiar with another term - scarcity.

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The Form One selection shows in apocalyptic terms the scarcity of good schools in Kenya. To show how scarce, we can compare the selectivity of Kenya’s top national schools with America’s top universities - the Ivy League.

Kenya’s top national schools beat Ivy universities hands down in selectivity (see table). How can it be harder to get into Harvard, established in 1636, than schools less than 100 years old? If we used all the students who selected the national school irrespective of first choice or last choice, the schools would beat all Ivy League universities.

The popularity of these schools shows the power of the brand. The top schools have produced Kenya’s prominent people in public and private sectors. They have been there for long. Examples include Maseno, established in 1906 or Alliance in 1926.

Interestingly, their selectivity makes them even more popular. Gold is precious because it’s scarce, unlike water. If schools admitted all who applied to them, they would lose their appeal and coolness. That is what the parallel programme did to public universities.

To reduce competition for the original 17 national schools, the Ministry of Education promoted some formerly provincial schools to national schools. The best alternative would have been to build new schools, not promote old ones.

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Where will the less performing children who used to get admitted to the newly promoted schools go? It takes time to build the school brand - except for Starehe Girls that rode on the boys’ school name.

When did the government last build a high school from scratch? Increasing the number of national schools had unintended consequences. The popularity of the old schools soared!

The large number of national schools diluted their brand. Children and parents therefore prefer known brands. Given too many choices in a restaurant, we often go for what’s familiar. That is why five-star hotels and Java have ugali in their menu nowadays.

The number of children applying for the top national schools, which are filled to the brim, shows how scarce good schools are. How does a school admit 528 students in Form One? Few secondary schools are this big.

We have argued earlier that private investors have shied away from building secondary schools. If they do, they seem to focus on high-end or girls-only schools.  Retired President Moi was ahead of his time in starting schools like Kabarak.

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How do we reduce scarcity of good schools? Let  me spin your head first. There are no good schools, they only have good brains. If you took all the students at Alliance High School and transplanted them to Shamakhokho High School, the latter would top KCSE next year.

The surest way to reduce scarcity of good schools is to assign KCPE candidates to all secondary schools randomly irrespective of their performance. After all, we have 100 per cent transition. Every school will have an equal chance of getting good and bad students. The schools can now compete as equals.  We need this model because education seems to defy laws of economics like supply and demand.

As long as selection is based on performance in exams, which itself is based on natural intellectual endowment, good schools - good brains - will remain scarce.

It is unlikely that my random model will ever be adopted despite its fairness to teachers, parents and students. We shall continue being Darwinian, being selective, favouring those already endowed by nature.

Think of it, who needs Alliance and its facilities more; a student who scored 200 marks out of 500 or one who scored 442? The latter will excel in any school.

Selectivity in education systems based on performance in standardised exams is a time-honoured tradition. It cuts across poor and rich countries and political systems. Even countries like USA without national exams have aptitude tests like ACT or SAT. Most countries have special schools for the selected, from Ivy League universities to Oxbridge.

We hope CBC will address this selectivity and its illusion of scarcity. Will KCPE be replaced by another exam as children transit from junior to high school? What will happen to our highly coveted schools once CBC is rolled out? These are hard but important questions to answer.

Till the questions are answered, the rituals of releasing exam results and selection to secondary schools and beyond will continue. Paradoxically, selectivity of schools goes on as affirmative action and “Face of Kenya” are increasingly becoming standard in job placement in the public sector.

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