By Kiundu Waweru

A report by Uwezo Kenya that revealed that many Standard Eight students could not tackle arithmetic meant for Standard Two pupils shocked Kenyans early last year.

The reality that the education system is failing many students was further evident in the fact that over 8,000 candidates scored less than a 100 marks of 500 in last year’s KCPE.

In the report, the NGO said the problem could be due to large classes and high enrolment rates. According to the report, Government efforts to improve quality appear to not have brought the success that was envisioned.

The class of 2010 was the first beneficiary of the free primary education programme that saw increased student enrolment, which teachers blame for the underperformance. But one head teacher has refused to pass the buck, and has taken the bull by the horns. Education visited his school, New Thigio Primary in Limuru, Kiambu County, which had a large number of pupils with the below 100 mark.

For years, New Thigio, formerly Thigio, Primary School has been one of the poor performers in Kiambu District. Parents had lost faith in the school and spoke ill of it. Pupils from other schools chided it.

New Thigio Primary School Principal Thaara. [PHOTO: KIUNDU WAWERU]

Hard task

In 2008, Mr Thaara Ngugi was appointed as the new principal with the mandate to transform the school, improve grades and win the community’s approval, a hard task.

The first thing he noticed was rampant absenteeism among teachers and students. A majority of class eight pupils were unable to read and some could not tackle a class four problem.

"At Standard Three, a child should read fluently. What I found here was worrying but I discovered that the problem was due to a number of reasons," says Thaara.

Among the reasons he cites was an influx of internally displaced pupils and orphans.

"Orphans or children from poor families stay long at home, and when they are brought to school, they are too old to be taken to lower primary, where writing and reading skills should be developed," he says.

He says the rising number of family break ups and alcohol abuse by parents affect children class attendance and consequently performance.

An author and educationist, who has just released a groundbreaking book on study and life skills, How to Make Straight As, Doris Foxworth Odito, says that schools underperformance is not only related to school work, understaffing, or low teacher morale, but also problems from home.

"My research for 13 years in Kenya shows that children are stressed and depressed from family issues and challenges," she says.

Odito says when the children carry the stress to the classroom, they do not concentrate, are easily distracted and excited.

Thaara says the first thing he did was change attitudes among pupils, teachers, parents, and the community. "The attitude towards the school was that it is a failure. It was unkempt, the fence had caved in, there was no gate. I have made the school child friendly and it is beginning to bear fruit," he says.