More needs to be done to reduce mandatory school learning duration

A round up on the safety of school children waking up at dawn in Eastlands, Nairobi to go their various schools. [Elvis Ogina.Standard]

Last week’s warning by Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu to schools to stop extending learning hours beyond the official stipulated time had a weary ring of déjà vu.

Across the country, many public and private schools start their school days well before 7am and end after 5pm. In addition, they make it compulsory for learners in upper primary school and those in secondary, including the new kid on the bloc —junior secondary — to report to school on Saturdays. The sight of ubiquitous revving buses draped in yellow, scrambling to pick up learners on the streets just after dawn is as commonplace as the wild and disorderly bodabodas. It’s more pronounced in these cold July days when the learners are dressed like onions with layers and layers of clothes and hats.

For Mr Machogu, the issue is simple and straightforward: The Basic Education Act says all-day public and private schools should operate between 8am to 3.30pm and that learners should get into extracurricular activities from 3.30pm to 4.45pm. It says no day school should require learners to report earlier than 7.15am.

Yet, if the law on the issue is as clear as crystal, why does Mr Machogu have to reiterate it to headteachers? And why did most of his predecessors in the education docket try to enforce it and fail?

Since the 8-4-4 system was introduced in Kenya in 1985 to replace the 7-6-3, an unspoken justification for a mad rush to complete syllabi in as short a time as possible kicked in. Headteachers in secondary school saw the need to take liberties to extend learning hours ostensibly to cover syllabus that was previously being taught in 6 years (from Form one to Six) to four. This argument failed to consider the structural changes that the new system introduced that made it reasonable to take a span of only four years as opposed to the A’level system.

 And if this argument were to hold, it should have been expected that primary schools which got an extra year (standard eight) would have relaxed their learning hours because of the extra year. However, that did not happen and they soon took their cue from secondary schools.

Coupled with the break-neck competition for top positions in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education which replaced the Kenya Certificate of Education and the Kenya Advanced Secondary Education, the justification for learning time extension was complete. This race for top places, which also caught up in primary schools, was driven by the ranking of schools in national examinations, a process that created a clique of prestigious public and private schools which were much sought after by parents.

 Private schools cashed in on the ranking to build successful brands that saw them not only expand but raise fees exorbitantly. This also created room for schools to engage in unscrupulous practices such as forcing weak or average learners to repeat grades so as not to water down mean scores and creating satellite schools where weak students would be registered to sit the national examinations.

These lowly schools would be registered under different names but were run by the owners of the esteemed schools. Meanwhile, learners would be put through punishing study schedules that reduced them to parrots with little or no intellectual curiosity.

Sensing the danger of having a school system that created zombies and enhanced inequalities in teaching and learning, the Government banned ranking in 2014. But there was no let-up and the envisaged relaxed learning atmosphere was not realized because parents were paying for these extra learning hours which were baptized “remedial lessons” and which would illegally gift teachers with hefty allowances.

If schools ever needed a justification or reinforcement of the extra-learning-hours arrangement, the Covid-19 epidemic came in handy in 2020, forcing school closures for about almost a year. When normalcy resumed, many schools imposed even longer learning hours to make up for the lost time.

In a nutshell, extended learning hours have been normalised and accepted in schools. Teachers gain from them and it would not be in their interests to end them although they have been blamed for taking away the fun in learning and leading to mental fatigue and burnout, leaving learners to sleepwalk through the education system with minimal gains. Schools in developed countries such as Finland, Australia, Italy, China, US and others start their school days from between 8.30am and 9am to 3.30pm. And even in Kenya, private schools such as Samaj in Lang’ata, Nairobi, start their days at 9am and religiously end at 3.30pm even for A levels under the International General Certificate of Secondary Education system.

This is why Mr Machogu must do more than merely declare the extended hours illegal. He must make use of quality assurance departments both in Jogoo House and the Teachers Service Commission to end them once and for all if for nothing else but to bring back fun to learning.

The writer is a consulting editor. [email protected]