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Exam ranking not good for learners, but good for private schools

  Parents at Kings Academy celebrate top 2022 KCPE performers on December 22, 2022. [Daniel Chege, Standard]

Failure by the Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu to name top performers in the 2022 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination has been met by mixed reactions.

While announcing the results, the CS started by congratulating all the candidates for securing a place in the secondary school. He then went to statistics, which indicated a slight improvement compared with the performance of the last year. He concluded by announcing, without giving the name, that the highest candidate had attained 431 marks.

Immediately after the speech, Kenyans trooped to social media to ventilate on the manner the results were released. Some criticised the CS for not naming the top performers but others applauded him for treating all children as equal and capable of proceeding to the next level.

Examination ranking has taken root in our education system. Efforts to stop this divisive, unhealthy and retrogressive practice have not succeeded due to resistance from education stakeholders with vested interests.

Proprietors of private schools look at the release of KCPE results as an advertisement platform. It is in their interest that the release of the results is turned into showbiz, some sort of a parade where top performers from academies are used as a bait to have more Kenyans enroll their children in these schools.

Middle-class parents, who patronise private schools where rote learning as opposed to holistic education is the order of the day, are also comfortable with ranking because the publicity gives them snob effect sort of satisfaction.

I have previously argued that we have made education to take the form of what economists call a positional good - a good whose utility is derived from the fact that someone else can't afford it. What we call meritocracy as a basis for ranking is nothing but a system that has been rewarding and celebrating a tiny minority of candidates who can afford certain privileges only found in some equipped schools. Worse, ranking of candidates fuels cheating as head teachers use all schemes to ensure their schools bask in the limelight.

Education must serve a public good, not a private good. That is why the CS rightly remarked that as the country awaited the release of the results, each homestead had an expectation which, in my view, the CS managed very well. This expectation has, in the past, been mismanaged with cases of suicide among candidates who felt unworthy for failing to match "celebrity candidates". What we forget is that public schools, which are the victims of the dramatised ranking madness, are the only social institutions that can't by law turn away a child irrespective of the economic status of parents. We must therefore protect the interests and the self-esteem of such a child.

If indeed the private schools are keen to advertise their schools, the best thing to do is buy spaces in the newspapers and media platforms. They should not use a national public exercise to serve a private, business end.

Exam ranking does not serve any educational purpose. Naming top performers reduces education to mere exercise of selecting or sorting out who is worthy and who is not.

Mr Musanga is a philosopher

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