Why Kenyan nurses flunked a simple English test

The mass failure in English by nurses who wanted to take up job opportunities in Britain is a signal that Kenya’s basic education has significant gaps going beyond curriculum reforms.

According to a World Bank report “Kenya Economic Update: Rising Above the Waves”, launched in June this year, most Kenyans with secondary education are functionally illiterate in English although it is the language of instruction.

Even worse, about 25 per cent of those with university education are considered functionally illiterate — meaning they can speak some English but they lack literacy skills which are necessary for coping with most jobs and some everyday situations.

Thus, it was not that the nurses who failed the English tests could not speak the language.

They had only rudimentary literacy skills that could not have allowed them to work in a country where English is the dominant language.

According to the World Bank report, Kenya has made great strides in providing primary and secondary education, but the main worry is that both education and skills remain low among the current stock of workers.

Quoting a skills survey conducted in Kenya some years ago, the report noted that most white collar-job workers lack basic reading, writing and computer skills.

But the situation is worse among workers who are not formally employed, an indication that they rarely use basic skills like reading and writing in their occupations.

The report stated that lack of elementary skills that could have been obtained in lower schooling was contributing to low success in the school-to-work transition.

This, is effect, was the main cause of out-of-work youth and the rise of vulnerable workers.

Those shortcomings, as per the report, have pushed many university graduates into poverty especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The ‘new poor’ have a different profile from the existing poor in the rural areas, as they have higher education, are younger and quite often living in urban areas and mostly engaged in informal employment,” stated the report.

To reverse the situation, it is good to acknowledge that with rapid expansion of education at all levels, availability and quality of key inputs had become too low for an effective learning environment, a situation that calls for rethinking of education delivery beyond the curriculum.

The issue is that whereas the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) describes the curriculum as the engine of any education system, what matters most is the learning design in terms of content, teachers, and learning facilities such as core textbooks, libraries, laboratories, safe learning environments and educational governance structures.

Competency-based curriculum

Unfortunately, in the Kenyan context, the curriculum in the form of the highly resource-based competency-based curriculum (CBC) appears to be the primary objective, but there are no resources allocated to drive that curriculum in comparison from where the system was borrowed from.

According to Brahm Fleisch, a professor of education policy and education leadership at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, less ambitious curricula often have stronger impact on learning and teaching than “the big idea” reforms of the CBC’s composition.

“While less ambitious curricula reforms seldom lead to fundamental change in teaching and learning, they can improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of basic education,” said Fleisch in a study, “Curriculum Reform, Assessment and National Qualifications Frameworks.”

Even as access, retention and completion rates in both primary and secondary education improve, it is the duty of educators to find out the reasons why learning had been minimal.

According to the Kenya Economic Update, mastery of basic skills and competencies in reading, writing and mathematics are quite minimal.

This problem is cascaded into secondary and finally to the universities and other tertiary education institutions.

The crux of the matter is that all children should be able to read and do basic mathematics before leaving primary schools while the lower secondary should consolidate those skills.

According to Dr Alex Sienaert, a senior economist for Kenya at the World Bank and one of the authors of the report, quality improvement should focus on supporting teachers by improving their career development, establishing greater accountability of school and system leadership.

Steps should also be taken to motivate students by ensuring a steady supply of key inputs such as single ownership of core textbooks while the overall school environment should be safe and nurturing the overall learning conditions.

But in the last two decades, this critical benchmark necessary to learning has either been forgotten or completely lost, by education stakeholders.

For instance, in the past week, the Ministry of Education announced time off for all students to go for a mid-term break.

The main reason given for that decision was that students needed time to be with their parents, but in essence it was in reaction to the growing number of school fires.

In this aspect several questions emerge: Was that mid-term not properly anchored in the academic year? Why do fires break out in public secondary schools mostly in the dormitories? Who are the perpetrators of those crimes?

The issue is that since 2000, there have been sporadic fire outbreaks in public secondary schools, too often started by students to air their grievances but whereas causes are sometimes known, or unknown, the profile of arsonists has not been established.

In the past, such cases occurred when school mock tests, or the national examinations were about to be held.

In 2001, the government appointed a task force to investigate student indiscipline and unrest in schools. The findings highlighted competition for resources, political differences, sexual discrimination and non-tolerance to cultural diversity. 

The Wangai Report (2001), named after Naomi Wangai, then Director of Education, collated data from a sample of 341 public secondary school students and 88 teachers from 22 secondary schools in Nairobi.

It concluded that peace values should be inculcated in students in public secondary schools.

“Through peace education, the better well behaved the students are likely to become; hence no or limited school unrests will be experienced,” stated the task force in their report.

In retrospect, this was not the first time that students in public schools had taken to starting fires in their schools to express their grievances.

In early 1970s, students in the former “harambee” secondary schools, staged acts of arson and violence as they sought attention to have the government provide educational facilities in those institutions.

But today, there is little motivation for students to learn as most public boarding schools are overcrowded and are nothing short of academic slums.

A school originally meant to accommodate 500 students, now has almost double that capacity.

The situation is worse in schools where construction of classrooms and dormitories was done through the Constituency Development Fund.

In most cases, buildings are shoddy and some of them have limited lighting and ventilation.

Whereas that could be part of the problem, instead of taking too much time manicuring the CBC, educators and other stakeholders should find out why most students are not too motivated to learn.