Unbridled deterioration of education standards across the African continent, Kenya included, is projected to eat into whatever is left of its ability to compete globally unless tamed by pragmatic policy interventions to have it revved up.
From collapsing infrastructure, increase in school enrolment, rising cost of education, high teacher shortages in both primary and secondary schools, and reduced public funding for basic and higher education, the song is the same from Alexandria in the north to Cape of Good Hope in the south, and from Hargeisa in Somaliland to Dakar in Senegal.
Teacher morale is at an all-time low across the continent, public spending on education has reduced, tensions persist between governments and teachers often leading to recurring strikes, and generally, people have lost faith in both their education and their countries.
This picture was painted at Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Freedom Café last week in an incisive policy paper titled “Educating Africa for the future” presented by former Zimbabwean Minister for Education, Senator David Coltart.
“Right across Africa, massive challenges are presented in the education sector. Even relatively competent governments are overwhelmed by Africa’s young population. Education systems simply are not keeping up with population growth. We are not training enough teachers; we are not building new schools quickly enough to keep up with the population growth,” he submitted.
The Café, attended by Dr Sam Ngaruiya, a deputy director in charge of partnerships and policy at the Ministry of Education, Margaret Wawira, the CEO of Regional Education Learning Initiative Africa and Stefan Schitt, director FNF East Africa, discussed possible solutions advanced by Coltart.
A lawyer by training, Coltart had been opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s shadow minister for justice, and MDC secretary for legal affairs since 2000 when he won Bulawayo South Constituency seat by a landslide, and reclaimed it in 2005.
In 2008, he was elected MDC Senator for Khumalo and was consequently appointed Minister of Education, Sports and Culture of the transitional inclusive government brought about by the Global Political Agreement entered into by MDC (T), MDC and ZANU (PF).
A fairly progressive man, Coltart was thrown into the deep end to revive a largely dysfunctional sector which ignored vocational training, and whose value chain was sagging under the weight of corruption cartels.
“In large part, I was able to do a lot of the reforms. I did because of the immense support I received from President Robert Mugabe. He was a teacher himself who valued education, but was disproportionately focused on academic education,” Coltart told the Café.
From his experience in Zimbabwe, African governments pay lip service to education as a priority. And although the education docket receives the most budgetary allocation in most African countries, the reality is that this hardly reflects the actual state of affairs.
In Kenya, for instance, education gobbles up 29 per cent of the budget, with most of it going to recurrent expenditure and very little of it to development. In his paper, Coltart said African governments are spending way too much on national security and self-preservation of ruling parties than on education.
“If you look at the budget announced in Parliament, the education sector tends to be the biggest theoretical recipient of budget money. But my own experience as a minister is that in practice, this isn‘t so. The reality is that the Ministry of Defence, other security ministries and the Office of the Cabinet, get the lion‘s share of finance in real terms,” he said.
Adding swell to the problem of under-prioritisation of education spending is bloated governments, wasteful spending and the reality that investment in education does not produce immediate returns for politicians.
In Coltart’s paper, for a sustained transformation of African educational systems to succeed, there needs to be a long-term financing policy. The fruits of such investment will not be seen in one parliamentary or presidential term of office.
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“We need to develop a deep-rooted national consensus and understanding that successful investment in education needs to be a generational project,” the paper says.
The second issue identified in the paper, and discussed at the Café was the devaluation of the teaching profession. In post-independence years in Kenya and all the way into the 80s, teaching as a profession was held in high esteem, attracting the best talent, and paid well.
In the last two decades, however, teachers sit amongst the bottom of the food chain, paid less, attracting the least good of talent, and people using it as a stepping stone to better careers.
Coltart says the situation in Zimbabwe is not any better: “My experience in Zimbabwe shows that teaching now attracts many people who aren’t able to study for other professions, or the profession is taken as a backstop until better opportunities in other professions come along. Teachers are poorly paid and cannot afford to adequately educate their own children. They live in squalid conditions.”
In contrast, their counterparts in countries which truly value education are taken care of.
In Finland, one must have a Master’s degree to become a teacher with a World Bank report saying teachers over there are “highly valued, the career prestigious, demanding and reserved for the most talented and hard-working.”
In Singapore, students wishing to study teaching must score highly in secondary school, are paid a stipend during their training, are bonded for three years and have professional development programmes to upgrade their education.
“In other words, the Singapore government treats the teaching profession in the same way most African countries treat engineers and doctors,” Coltart observed.
The third issue raised on Coltart’s paper is the need for African governments to identify and nurture their best talents.
Talent spotting, especially among disadvantaged children, has become difficult due to the inefficiencies of the education system, he submitted.
On this, he talked of his attempt, as well as Kenya’s initiative to set up “centres of excellence” schools but which never went far. In the paper, he says one of the greatest tragedies in Africa is that there are millions of highly talented children, who are getting little or no education and whose talents are unexploited.
“There are bright children living in squalor, who aren‘t identified and even if they are noticed, there is no mechanism to nurture them, to channel them into good schools,” he says.
In Kenya, Starehe Boys Centre was set up on a similar mission, but ended up being the only institution of its kind for many years even as population surged, and needier but bright students wasted themselves in the villages.
The fourth issue identified in the paper is the optimisation of the use of technology to improve access and use of educational materials. Kenya launched the digital literacy programme during the Jubilee government’s reign, but the project was poorly planned and executed, leading to near-massive failure.
The paper advocates for increased access to internet services for schools, at basic learning levels to complement text books. He also calls on African governments to collaborate to negotiate reduction in unit cost of digital devices for schools.
In other of his proposals discussed in the paper and at the Café, Coltart proposes that intentional balancing between academic and vocational education, more public participation in policymaking, greater focus on the girl child and greater autonomy for schools rather than centralized control.
“While ostensibly there is a new vocational curriculum in some of these countries, due to teacher shortage, lack of equipment and inadequate funds, some institutions teach these practical skills in theory, and therefore students come away with limited, or non-existent practical skills,” he submitted.
Kenya’s new Competence Based Curriculum leans more to practical skills, but has equally been criticised for making a lot of assumptions on equity, training of teachers and access of learning materials.
The Kenya Kwanza government, in its manifesto, promised to revive the collapsed vocational training ambitions of the previous government. President William Ruto claimed the agenda was jammed for political expediency.
In his paper, the ex-Zibambwean education minister says a whole new generation of teachers with practical skills needs to be developed. He concedes that lack of meaningful public engagements before implementing drastic policy changes in education works against them.
He provides another view on the importance of focusing on the girl child, saying mothers play crucial roles in the outlook of their children.
If girls are deprived of education, their children are by extension deprived of a primary motivator to explain to them how important education is for life.
“If mothers themselves have had a deficient education, they are at a disadvantage. They may not inspire their children to learn. It follows that giving the girl child a good education goes far beyond what that single child will benefit from - it is in fact a foundational prerequisite to ensure that future generations do the same,” the paper says.
Coltart says the centralised control of education undermines the critically important role of parents in the education of their children. Where parents and local communities are encouraged to get involved in developing their schools, quality of education is most likely to be improved.
“Governments throughout Africa need to involve parents in the development of education policy, and the location, running and maintenance of schools,” he submitted in the paper.