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How name-dropping Magoha lost the plot on schools crisis

By Daniel Wesangula | October 1st 2020

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

For a man whose professional foundation stands on the strictest tenets of science, facts and decisiveness, Prof George Magoha is fast moving away from the bedrock of his existence.

Instead, he has over the past months steered the country towards confusion, doublespeak and indecisiveness that would make patients stay away from his stethoscope.

Even worse, he is quickly cutting the image of an uncompromising general who gets counsel from four people only: George, Albert, Omore and Magoha. While this stubbornness may cut it for a suicidal army unit, guiding a country’s education sector through such a crisis requires a little bit more guile and a less combative temperament.

But, like any other court jester who believes he is closest to the king, the professor has, since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, kept reminding Kenyans that his words alone are not enough, but must be supported by reminders whatever he says comes straight from President Kenyatta.

On July 7, while addressing the press on dates for re-opening of schools, Magoha mentioned the president eight times in his 15-minute address. This means he was name-dropping every two minutes.

Two minutes

In fact, the first two minutes were filled by anecdotes from a conversation between him and President Kenyatta.

When did things go south for the professor who had painstakingly cut an image of a no-nonsense decision-maker?

In that July address peppered with hallowed references to the president, the Education CS told the country there would be no more classes this year and that secondary and primary schools would only re-open in 2021.

To the shock of many parents, he went ahead to tell the country all pupils would repeat the year they were in when the pandemic struck. Magoha also said there would be no national exams this year. He said schools would have to deal with overcrowding through double intakes.

Soon though, it emerged the news he was relaying at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development didn’t have the backing of all the experts that flanked him.

A considerable number of people were not for this directive because patterns in other jurisdictions showed otherwise. But, as the trusted lieutenant of the king, and acting in the name of the kingdom, his decree was final.

The only other person who could contradict him was President Kenyatta whom, as Magoha likes to remind others ‘has empowered me on behalf of all other stakeholders.’

Super spreaders

But were Magoha to keep it scientific, a few things would have stood out in his July decision: At that time, the jury was still out on whether children would be super-spreaders they were feared to be when the virus first broke out.

Secondly, he would look at data from some of the hardest-hit countries that had no tangible evidence opening schools was responsible for any spike in virus infections. Also, he could have been a bit more receptive and let his decisions be peer-reviewed.

If they were, he would not have his tongue in a knot just a month later, announcing a near reversal on what he’d told the country the previous month.

“We’ve looked at all aspects and we have come at the consensus that it is time to re-look our decision,” he said at a September 16 press briefing.

Sensing this was in contradiction to earlier statements, he added: “I have not told you any decision has been made. You are the ones confusing people.” He walked away, telling the press there will be no room for questions.

That September 14 address was crucial. In a couple of weeks, Magoha and his team were supposed to present a proposal to President Kenyatta on a well thought out proposal to re-open schools.

The proposal was as a result of months of back and forth between the technocrats at the Ministry of Education under Magoha’s direction.

The findings were to be the highlight of Uhuru’s address to the nation on Monday. But the good CS choked. The proposals his team made were not clear enough. Gaps existed where none ought to have been. The recommendations lacked the scientific backing for them to sail through. For instance, a stakeholders forum had proposed that new classroom blocks be put up at a time of constrained government expenditure.

There was little involvement of teachers in seeking solutions to chronic problems such as overcrowding in classrooms and the lack of basic hygiene facilities such as running water. The report was full of proposals and few solutions.

And at the end of hours-long presentation and exchanges at a national event, the report from the ministry was just not good enough.

While there was considerable movement in other sectors, such as hospitality where pubs were re-opened with conditions, curfew hours reduced, stay put on a raft of social protection measures, the education sector was the only one that mark timed.

Magoha, the general, had done little to convince his commander his plan for an attack would work. He was sent back to the drawing board.

“The lives of our children and their health is not a matter of debate. Learning institutions should only be reopened when we can guarantee the safety of all our children,” the president said. “I call upon on the CS, once we have agreed on how he’ll issue a calendar for re-opening.”

Kenyatta’s orders came just hours after teachers had been ordered back to school by the ministry, many of them under the assumption they’ll be back in class in a few weeks’ time after a seven-month hiatus.

Training colleges

Even then, the next day, the CS announced that final year students in universities, teacher training colleges and vocational institutions will resume classes on Monday next week. Still, there was no mention of primary and secondary school reopening dates.

“The respective universities councils and senates, boards of Teacher Training Colleges and Technical and Vocational Training colleges will announce dates for resumption for students in other classes/academic years,” Magoha said in a statement.

After years of presenting himself as a Mr Fix It, Magoha is increasingly finding himself between a rock and a hard place — and cannot bulldoze his way through to a solution.

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