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Scramble for top schools indictment of our system

St Anns Mumias student Jacinta Khasungu shes carried shoulder high by her teachers as they celebrated KCPE results, she scored 427 marks. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

It probably doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world except in Kenya, where 150,000 students scramble for 400 slots to get into high school.

And that happens every year. Elite private schools and universities in the West would envy this data.  

It leaves my head spinning that such data was not in the headlines or trending online. Or have we accepted that exclusivity is part of our lives? Why do all our children want to join only a few schools? 

First, this data can be contested. Children are ‘forced’ to select schools irrespective of their intellectual capabilities.

They will select national schools even when their track records show they are unlikely to qualify. If they were given the freedom to choose randomly, without restrictions on the number of national, extra county and county schools, that data would be different.  

The data represents the dreams and aspirations of our children: the school you get into determines your career trajectory and the prestige you will enjoy in life.

Listen to children after the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) or Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) talk about their career aspirations, including becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers.

But sadly, no one talks about becoming an entrepreneur, a job that needs more brains than these other prestigious professions.

Get angry over the previous sentence if you wish! Hopefully, our top students will create the next Google, IBM, Toyota, Safaricom or Equity. 

The reality is that there are few spaces in the top schools. And calling these schools top is a misnomer. They are top because they admit top brains. If you transferred all the students from Alliance High School to Shamakhoko High School, it would easily be among the top schools in Kenya. 

National schools distil the best brains from every county, leading to their superior performance. Sadly many never return. This selection is the seedbed of brain drain from the countryside.  

Let me get your head spinning. Njeri Thorne, a lawyer and a communications consultant recently shared her thoughts on “top schools” on X (formerly Twitter).  

She argued, and persuasively so, that international schools are in the top tier represented by the likes of Turi, Banda, Peponi and the International School of Kenya (ISK).

Second-tier examples are St Mary’s, Msongari and St Austin’s. Third-tier schools include Alliance (Bush), Mang’u and Lenana.

Ms Thorne added some thorny observations.  “Tier-1 is about being globally cultured, and leadership, moulding kids to contribute to humanity. Tier-2 is rich people’s kids, but the parents are not open-minded and exposed. Tier-3 was built with a view to transitioning Africans into modernity, to create managers, not free thinkers.”

I am still analysing this. Please help. Ms Thorne is an alumna of St Andrew’s Turi and the 500-year-old King’s Bruton School in England. 

Enough digression. How did we get into the current state of affairs? Any exit strategy?

Let’s accept the fact that we do not build more schools like President Moi did. A good example is: when did Nairobi County last build a public primary school? It’s no wonder the private sector has been filling the void. 

When did we have an equivalent project to the Thika Superhighway or the Nairobi Expressway targeting the education sector, specifically infrastructure?  Education ought to be a private good with commensurate public investment. 

One approach has been expanding existing schools into mega schools with 3,000 students or more. Can we cap the size of schools so that students don’t get ‘lost’ in the masses?   

In Nairobi, primary schools are giving birth to secondary schools on the same piece of land, leading to overcrowding. If we can compensate landowners to build highways, why not acquire land for schools?

What’s the solution then? Beyond building more schools, we need to devolve national schools to the counties so that each county can be proud of its elite schools. We used to have such schools, but they were ‘promoted’ to national status without replacements. 

Let’s also invest in soft issues like inspiring students. That can be done by linking schools with other stakeholders. Our schools are too closed to outsiders, except to preachers and motivational speakers.

Some of the greatest inspirers in my former high schools were public figures like Dr Robert Ouko, Mutiso Menezes, and Fred Ojiambo, among others.  

Whom do schools invite as guest speakers on prize-giving days or graduations nowadays? With enough inspiration, even ‘small’ schools will surprise us. 

Also, let’s go beyond academics. That will be the Competency-Based Curriculum’s (CBC) biggest strength. Students have different talents. We ignore drama, music and sports. Have we invested in these in CBC?  Think of Nairobi schools and their limited land.  

We should focus more on inclusion, not exclusion. Every student, whether in top schools or not, should be given a chance to flourish. The school should identify the student talent and nurture it. A good example, I studied science and technology but my schools allowed me to pursue my interest in writing.  

To KCPE graduates: you may have missed your first choice school, but I hope you will flourish in whichever school you join. Happy holidays! 

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