Striking teachers, TSC should think about learners

The teachers' strike enters its third week today with 12 million learners from public schools staying home since their tutors downed their tools when the month began.

For many Kenyans, the aggrieved lot has been the teachers — some blame the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) for ignoring various court orders which restated that the country’s 280,000 instructors are entitled to a pay hike of between 50 and 60 per cent, negotiated by their unions and their employer.

Regrettably, too many people have forgotten the plight of learners in public primary and secondary schools who have missed class because their teachers are absent. More than a million learners who are sitting at home are candidates who will be sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations in a few weeks.

Public attention has been riveted to the humorous but childish antics displayed by teachers as they prostrate themselves on the ground or dance themselves lame in protest against TSC's refusal to pay them their increased salaries. But this is no laughing matter for parents with learners in public schools, especially guardians of learners who are candidates in the national examinations. These parents are worried that their children will be expected to compete for Form One places with learners from private schools whose learning has been uninterrupted since the strike began. Form Four candidates in public schools will also find themselves greatly handicapped at the expense of students in private schools. To these learners in public schools, many of them from poor families, the quest to improve their prospects in life has been made a more steep uphill climb.

With all this going on, we sometimes fail to appreciate just how much disadvantaged pupils in public schools are when compared to those in private schools. And with the strike, their prospects for advancement is further diminished.

There is no denying that the competition for placement in schools has become more intense in recent years. On average, 85 per cent of children attend primary school. After Standard Eight, 75 per cent of those who had enrolled advance to secondary school. The number of those who advance to institutions of higher learning such as business and vocational institutions or universities falls to about 60 per cent.

These declining numbers are higher in public schools which have to contend with a host of other problems. They are underfunded and poorly resourced. By 2012, the teacher shortfall was 80,000 and this shortage was mostly felt in public schools, which experienced an influx of student enrollment when free primary education was introduced in 2003. The shortfall of teachers is partly a result of the rising number of schools — from 6,058 in 1963 to more than 30,000 in 2010, and rising. The enrollment rate of students has also doubled between 2005 and 2009 from 4.4 per cent to 10.5 per cent, and most of this enrollment has been in public schools where the quality of education has been compromised owing to growing student numbers.

As the lot of learners in public schools deteriorates, the performance levels of learners in private schools has inversely improved. Data from the Ministry of Education indicates that this increased performance is spurred by several factors. To start with, teachers in private schools are more committed and better motivated than teachers in public schools because they earn better pay. The study conducted by the Ministry of Education notes that one in 10 instructors skip work in any given day, meaning that only about 70 per cent of tutors report to work each day.

The upshot is that even without a strike by teachers to disadvantage pupils in public schools, the odds are stacked against them. Therefore, as we contemplate what comes next, we should think about these students languishing at home with no hope in clear sight.