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Why it’s easier to get into Oxford, Harvard than top Kenyan schools

By XN Iraki | June 21st 2021

Some of the top performers in the 2020 KCPE examinations celebrate after results were released.[Standard]

According to the recently released results on Form One selection for this year, more than 150,000 students applied for only 384 slots in one high school.

If you calculate the acceptance rate, it is less than that of top Western universities like Harvard and Oxford.

Even if you divide the number of applicants by four because students must choose four national schools, the acceptance rate is still less than that of Ivy League and Oxbridge universities. 

Some might argue you can’t compare oranges and mangoes. But both in the West and Kenya, students seek a better life through education. Students compete for very few opportunities in school and thereafter.  

Remember good schools open up doors to good jobs and a better life, often with less struggle, ring-fenced by society and its institutions. There is also the privilege that comes with having graduated from such institutions. 

But how did we get here? Why do so many students apply for the same school? More curiously is why the most sought-after schools is now Kabianga High and Nanyuki High and not the traditional giants like Alliance and Kenya High. 

The location might be one of the factors. These schools are the only good schools in their neighbourhood, and students in primary school see them as beacons of hope.

It is also possible that the market is self-correcting. Students have seen the folly of applying for admission to top-notch schools. 

But this should not distract us from the key issue. Why are our public schools more competitive than century-old universities in the world? I deliberately used universities because they are better known than the top high schools in the UK, US, and even China and India.

But let me bring in some well-known schools in the West.  

Eton, UK’s best known private school’s acceptance rate is around 23 per cent. Philip’s Academy at Andover in the US has a 13 per cent acceptance rate, while Philips Exeter Academy’s is 15 per cent.

But these are private schools. One would have expected that based on their age and brand recognition, their acceptance rates would be much lower. Presidents and princes have passed through the gates of these schools.  

Back home, the choice by a majority of the students shows that we have not invested enough in good schools.

If the number of good schools went up, their competition would reduce. Promoting 105 schools to national status did not increase the number of schools. It just redistributed them with more spaces for the top performers. Which child does not want to attend a good school irrespective of intellectual ability?  

Remember we shifted to a 100 per cent transition without commensurate investment in infrastructure.

In Nairobi, primary and secondary schools share land.

Why can’t the National Government or the counties buy more land? Are businesses and individuals not being compensated for land taken by roads and the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)?  

We need investments in schools that mirror that of the expressways, the SGR, ports and superhighways.

When did we build new schools from scratch like the SGR? Expanding existing schools has a limit after which schools suffer from diseconomies of scale.

Eton, built in 1440, has only 1,300 students. Some schools are admitting over 700 students in one class. 

Social distancing apart, such big schools fail to develop the social part of the students who get lost in the masses. They become “anonymous.” 

Two, despite all the hype about land, education remains the conveyor belt to upward mobility. Joblessness has paradoxically created a demand for education and good schools. 

Three, why have private investors not responded to the demand for good schools? They have tried with high-end international schools.

There is a missing middle for affordable good high schools. Only a few schools like Kabarak are in that group.

Running a high school is different from running a primary school. Remember even children from academies end up in top public high schools. Who wants to build a school for “leftovers“, for lack of another term? 

Where do we go from here? The first cycle of 100 per cent to high school is ending with the students getting into university next year.

We expect the same competition for few slots in the university as the population grows espoused by the high number of high rise residences in Nairobi and other towns.

Schools are rarely high-rise, they need a lot of space, which capitalists see as a waste. Our children are losing because they can’t lobby like adults, and do not vote. 

President Moi built many schools - one of his lasting legacies. We need another wave of new schools.


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