Thanks to stiff competition for good secondary schools, a good number of candidates suffer mental anguish and psychological torture.
Two weeks ago, 15-year-old Clinton Okech Ojunga, a Standard Eight pupil at Olodo Primary School in Homa Bay County, committed suicide for losing his number one position in class.
Why was such a brilliant mind overcome with frustration to the extent of taking his life? While there are so many teenagers in primary schools not contemplating to act irrationally, a good number suffers mental anguish over their uncertainty to get good grades in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams and secure places in high-performing secondary schools.
And pupils suffering psychological torture is likely to persist, even as the Ministry of Education promises to implement a broad transition rate from primary to secondary. The problem will not be solved merely by opening the flood-gates to secondary education, as most pupils are concerned about quality of schools they join.
Like most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya inherited from colonialism an education system that only allowed a minority to continue with secondary and further education. Nonetheless, even with efforts to increase the number of secondary schools, challenges remain in providing quality education that would form the basis of improving one’s economic and social status.
Going by past record, no candidate would happily join the secondary wing in his or her current primary school, or be admitted in a sub-county public or a low cost private secondary school with no history of sending students to public universities.
If someone were to investigate the reasons behind Ojunga’s suicide, a starting point would be to find out the number of KCPE graduates Olodo sends to national and extra-county schools.
Possibly, Ojunga would not have been frustrated to the point of hanging himself if the school were a high performer.
The crux of the matter is that in Kenya, as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, the quality of a primary school is measured in terms of the number of students it sends to high-performing secondary schools whose quality is also measured in terms of the numbers they send to elite public universities annually.
Unfortunately, high performing secondary schools are few -- only about 250 schools that comprise the best in the national and extra-county. These schools account for about 60 per cent of all students joining public universities and 80 per cent of those studying medicine and engineering degree programmes.
But while KCPE and other school-based assessments should not be taken as an end of all education, education officials, teachers, parents and their children erroneously regard results of such tests as central indicators of future progress.
Consequently, pupils put so much effort in preparing for KCPE, especially in their last two years of primary schooling, to the extent that classrooms have been turned into academic boiler-rooms.
“In the end, the backwash effect of KCPE has entangled the whole primary education system and it is not surprising that teachers in standard one encourage pupils to practice multiple choice questions, once they have mastered the basics of the 3Rs,” says Keith Lewin, a professor of international education and development at the University of Sussex and a keen observer of Kenya’s education system.
In the quest for their children to succeed, some parents have unsubtly created pressure cooker schooling environments by consistently praising their kids on how smarter they are than their peers and should always take first position in class.
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But according to a team of educational researchers that include Dr Gail Heyman of the University of California San Diego, Dr Kang Lee of the University of Toronto and others, praising a child’s innate ability instead of highlighting the child’s effort, usually puts a child under intense pressure and reduces his or her motivation to learn or deal with setbacks.
“Quite often, it makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well,” say the researchers in their study, published in the recent issue of the journal, Psychological Science.
The intense race for admission to national and extra-country secondary schools in Kenya is similar to the Ghanaian situation where junior high school students fiercely compete for entry into 10 per cent of senior high schools that account for over 90 per cent of students who join university. The situation could also be compared to the ordeal of education in South Korea where parents are fixated on getting their children into the best secondary schools to improve their chances of being admitted into Seoul National University or Korea Advanced University of Science and Technology, among other top universities in the country.
Subsequently, most of the Korean pushy parents whose children fail to enter best secondary schools use private tuition cram schools, locally known as hagwon, where students are coached and drilled on how to pass the eight-hour multiple-choice entrance examination for university.
But whereas students in South Korea have an alternative of joining highly valued vocational and technical education, the situation is quite different in Sub-Saharan Africa where formal vocational education and jua kali apprenticeship training have failed to produce skilled workforce to meet the needs of the job market.
Hence, in most schools, teaching has been reduced merely to assisting students to pass examinations and not to master specific knowledge and skills as specified in the objectives of the curriculum, says Woki Wachira, a former deputy secretary at the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec).
Although the proposed three-legged Basic Education Curriculum Framework -- which is anchored by values, theoretical approaches and guiding principles -- is expected to erase high stakes testing, there is no guarantee that academic pressure on students will go down.
Basically, high stakes testing refers to examinations such as KCPE whose results have real impact not just on selection of pupils to secondary, but to also judge the quality of schools and teachers. According to Merryn Hutchings, a professor of education at London Metropolitan University, most high stakes tests put too much pressure on pupils and creates a dull and repetitive curriculum.
Nonetheless, for Kenyans the focal point of academic pressure might seemingly shift towards an academic sector that would hold promise of providing quality jobs.
As already pointed out, in Ghana, academic sweat-rooms have shifted to junior high school where most students compete for entry into high performing senior high schools which are considered as a safe road to good future prospects. The situation is almost the same in Nigeria, Mauritius, South Africa and so many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where everything in education is centred on passing high stakes tests.
To accommodate more students, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Kenya in particular need to expand the quality of educational institutions that teach knowledge, values and skills necessary for life and put less emphasis on passing of exams.