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Dilemma as schools churn out illiterates

By | Jul 23rd 2011 | 4 min read
By | July 23rd 2011

By John Oywa

What would you do if you discovered your child who is preparing to sit the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education cannot solve a simple Standard Two math question?

Or how would you react to a situation where a Standard Four pupil can hardly read a paragraph in a Standard Two English storybook?

These are the hard questions Kenyans have been grappling with in the past few days following disclosure that majority of children graduating from primary schools have low levels of literacy and numerical competence.

Imagine a Standard Three pupil who cannot name any part of his or her body in any language. Yet these are the sad realities in schools as Kenyans brace themselves for the Vision 2030 miracle.

In what is likely to drive education policymakers back to the drawing board, the report by Uwezo Kenya, an NGO, paints a gloomy picture of the education system, whose future has been subject of debate.

But just how can a Standard Eight pupil fail to solve a simple sum such as four divide by two (4/2)? What have they been learning from Early Childhood Education? or during holiday tuition?

The Uwezo survey, whose findings were launched early this week, has sparked fresh debate over the future of the 8-4-4 system, widely criticised by a section of education scholars. The system has been faulted for allegedly churning out university graduates who can hardly write employment application letters.

Rot in schools

But is the 8-4-4 system to blame? When exactly did the rain start beating Kenyans? Experts interviewed by The Standard On Saturday said the survey could just be a tip of the iceberg on the rot in schools.

"I fear the state of learning in some parts, especially the arid north, could be worse than depicted in the survey. The report has given us the opportunity to swiftly look for interventions," said David Kariuki, a retired education officer.

Sarah Ruto, Uwezo’s regional manager for Eastern Africa, said her team was shocked at some of the findings, which she describes as real and accurate.

"Kenyan children exhibit low basic skills in literacy and numeracy and this is worrying," she said. The report, Are Our Children Learning?, has data from the 47 counties.

It found out nine of 100 Standard Eight pupils cannot tackle a simple Standard Two mathematics problem. It also found out that nationally, seven out of ten pupils in Standard Four cannot do Standard Two work, raising questions on just how they managed to get to their level.

"The level of learning was lower in semi-arid and poverty ravaged regions," it says. Ironically, the survey found out many parents continue to dig deep into their pockets to pay extra tuition fees in public and private schools even after the Government banned the practice.

Although more than 90 per cent of pupils are promoted to new classes every year, the Uwezo report shows seven out of every ten lower primary school children lack competency to move to the next class.

This mass promotion, according to teachers interviewed, was due to the Government’s directive against forced repetition besides pressure from parents.

"Most parents are ready to go to court to ensure their children don’t repeat classes," said Mark Onduru, a teacher. Moses Ouko, a parent, said he tested his son’s literacy skills after reading the Uwezo report and was shocked.

"He is in Standard Five but I realised for the first time he had a lot of difficulty reading a sentence in a newspaper. I think I share the blame with the teachers," he said.

Absentee teachers

But in what could shed light into the sad situation, the Uwezo report says many teachers were always absent from their workstations.

The chronic absenteeism coupled with a biting teachers’ shortage, has worsened the situation in many schools. "Thirteen of 100 teachers were not in school at any given time. Most of them were engaged in private businesses," says the report. It says most primary schools had an average shortage of four teachers, although those in the hardship and insecure north faced severe shortages. The national teacher-pupil ratio stands at 1:52 while in Western Province; the ratio averages 1:64, according to the survey.

"Counties with worst teacher-pupil ratio also have the lowest learning levels. The report says despite a ban by the Government, two out of every ten pupils in public schools and six out of ten in private schools still pay for extra tuition.

Another revelation is a sizeable number of children in public schools take their lessons while seated on dusty floors.

"In NorthEastern Province, 43 of 100 children in public schools take lessons while seated on dusty floors," the report noted.

This, according to education experts, was unacceptable given every constituency had a Constituency Development Fund that could be used to build modern schools.

The report says most teachers, especially those handling lower classes, did not use the curriculum. "Half of Standard Two teachers in Nyanza were not following the class timetable, as opposed to one out of four nationally," it says.

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