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Why chase red herrings when 8-4-4 system has failed?

By Ken Opalo | Mar 8th 2014 | 3 min read

By Ken Opalo

Human capital development is perhaps the best way to fight poverty and ensure income mobility in society.

With good schools and universal free minimum education, the sons and daughters of peasants can grow up to become engineers, doctors, or lawyers. Unfortunately in Kenya, we are yet to begin treating education with the seriousness it deserves.

This week Kenya National Examinations Council released the 2013 KCSE results in which a mere 27.46 per cent scored C+ and above.  In other words, less than a third of secondary school students passed the exam, and even fewer will gain admission to university.

Furthermore, looking at the list of the top 100 students published in The Standard there is clear evidence of regional disparity in performance. Only 16 of the 47 counties were represented in the list of the top 100 students. The top five counties on this score were Kiambu (22 students), Nairobi (15), Kisumu (8), Nakuru (8) and Vihiga (7). Kisii (6) and Siaya (5) also came close.

Although a crude measure of the state of education in the counties, what this list tells us is that instead of serving as a tool of equalising opportunities for Kenyans, the education system continues to reinforce the historical disparities that have divided Kenya since the colony was established. There was not a single student represented in list of the top 100 from the northern half of the country.

So this is where we are as a country. More than two thirds of our students fail the national secondary school examination. Less than a quarter get admission to university or tertiary institutions. Whole regions are being left behind in the quest for human capital development.

With this in mind, it is unfortunate that instead of taking care of the fundamentals of education provision, the Ministry of Education keeps chasing red herrings in the name of education policy. A case in point is the proposed language policy.

Are students in Mandera, Maragua and Migori failing because they were not taught in their mother tongue when they were younger?

Think about the processes that will be required for curriculum development and the training of teachers under the language policy. Materials and syllabi will have to be translated into different local languages. And then there will be need for education inspectors to also be trained to ensure that our pupils are being taught well. Given the government’s legendary capacity for messing things up, is it hard to imagine how many things will go wrong? Is this the best way to address disparities in education across the country? What happens when the ministry of education starts channeling all the money to the politically important top six languages and ignores the rest?

The Cabinet Secretary for Education has pointed out examples of developing countries that have used their native languages to advance education achievement. This is true. What he missed, however, is the fact that the same countries have used a uniform language. All South Koreans get taught in Korean. Introducing 42 different languages in our schools, in the context of already deplorable school and teaching conditions is a recipe for a catastrophic disaster.

Furthermore, the minister forgets that before places like France, Germany and others became monolingual, they had lots of local languages. It is the education system that standardised the language system and led to the demise of the smaller local languages.

In Kenya, we are lucky in that we already have a national language that is widely accepted and has co-existed amicably with our other languages. Therefore, we should be promoting a Kiswahili language policy.

And in this regard, he should go beyond lower primary. There is no reason why we can’t teach the social sciences and humanities in Kiswahili. If such a policy were implemented properly, Kenya has potential to become a truly nationally bilingual and well-integrated nation-state.

The quest to save and give cultural meaning to our many local languages is not a task that belongs in the ministry of education. Their job is to create an enabling environment for the development of Kenyan human capital that can compete with the very best in the world.

The problems with the Kenyan education system are legion. Why complicate everything by introducing 42 new moving parts? Why not fix the problems of dilapidated schools, absentee teachers, outdated curricula, and poor student performance first?



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