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It’s easier to join Harvard than our top schools

By XN Iraki | March 18th 2017 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Parenting is one of the least appreciated professions, yet one of the most important in the world.

That is why countries with declining populations worry. Parents bring forth the key economic players - human beings. Bringing up children is a big joy. But once they reach class 8, worry sets in as parents seek a good secondary school.

Primary schools, from academies to public institutions, are plenty. But good secondary schools are rare. The recent outcry over bullying at Alliance High School has a lot do with the scarcity of good schools. A good school having problems is one too many.

Recently, the government promoted some provincial (extra county) schools to national to increase the number of good institutions. It, however, would have made more sense to build new schools to increase their number and give more opportunities to Kenyan children. But sadly, we seem to only care about the top performers.

Where will the low performers, who would have been admitted to top provincial (extra county) schools go? Is there a scarcity of good schools in Kenya?

We calculated acceptance rate for a few Kenyan schools and compared it with top learning institutions elsewhere. Acceptance rate is the percentage of applicants who get admitted to a school. The lower the rate, the more exclusive or competitive the school.

Data from the Ministry of Education show that in 2015, about 137,000 girls chose Alliance Girls as their first choice. Only about 400 were picked, translating to an acceptance rate of 0.29 per cent. Alliance High School (there is no Alliance Boys) had 136,680 choosing the school, leading to an acceptance rate of 0.292 for a class of 400.

Mang'u had 136,870 applying. With about 400 admitted, the acceptance rate translates to 0.292. If the government had not expanded these schools, the acceptance rate would be even lower.

Now compare this acceptance rate with prestigious universities like Harvard or Stanford.

The demand for space in Kenya's few good (or elite) schools is unbelievable. Getting to Kenya's top high schools is harder than getting to top US schools like Philips Exeter Academy or even Harvard. The data seems to suggest that getting an admission to Kenya's top national schools is harder than winning a lottery.

But how can schools like the Alliances and Mang'u be more competitive than the most elite schools in the world?

Michael Mwangi, a graduate of Maseno School and a don at the University of Nairobi (UoN) suggests that the data above is the best evidence of the value Kenyans place on education. Not surprisingly, and despite high joblessness, education still remains the best conveyor belt to a better life.

The popularity of the Alliances, Mang'u and the original 17 national schools -- before they were expanded to 105 -- may be historical. We have been talking about these schools all our lives. Their brands and their alumnus are well known. It is no wonder that from the table above, the most prestigious schools are old, a fact that gives them recognition across generations and countries.

That is why starting a school or university is so hard, even if you have the money. You have to wait for years for the brand to be recognised and for your graduates to proof themselves.

Advertising dilutes your brand, surprisingly. Could this explain why churches sponsor schools because their brands are already well known? Even Harvard once had religious affiliation.

Inversely, the low acceptance rate simply shows there are few good secondary schools in Kenya. Fact; we have not been building new public schools. The last time lots of them were built was during the Moi era, through harambees. The new secondary schools established over the last few years are private, most of them girls' schools.

One unexpected consequence of these low acceptance rates is that it raises the incentives to cheat in examinations, notes Prof Kimura. We could correlate KCSE grades with GPA at universities to investigate the "cheating effect."

Dr Henry Kiplangat, the acting Vice Chancellor of Kabarak University, attributes the low acceptance rate for top schools like Alliance to "forced choice." Students sitting KCPE must choose a given number of high schools they wish to join. Those in private schools have more discretion as their parents can afford more good schools.

But is low acceptance rate the only indicator of a good school?

Good schools defy the laws of economics. The law of supply and demand breaks down. If we admitted all those who wanted to go to Alliance or Harvard, the mystic and prestige would go down. Expect no one from these schools will say that loudly.

How do you keep numbers low? Simple. Use exams and other requirements like legacy admissions. In most elite schools, you are more likely to get admitted if your parents are alumni -- the so-called legacy admissions. A good example is that about 15 per cent of current boys at Harrow School, where Winston Churchill schooled, are sons of Old Harrovians.

Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper of Harvard University, noted in 2011 that Harvard's acceptance rate for legacies has hovered around 30 per cent — more than four times the regular admission rate.

Most schools in Kenya have no ingredients of a good learning institution. Physical infrastructure is the least critical. It is the intangibles, the traditions, the heritage and community that matter. Does anyone wonder why the standards of education are so low in Kiambu despite the county hosting the highest number of national schools?

The big debate on bullying in Alliance was about the school traditions and rituals which are common in all great schools. Students at Harvard touch the right boot of the founder's statue. They believe such an act gives you good luck in exams.

Think of all the great public schools you used to hear of. They faded because leadership, context and changes in law/regulations killed their traditions. How are head teachers selected? Why does TSC post teachers to their villages? How motivated are the teachers? What is the effect of democratising selection of prefects? Will affluent children become prefects just like in our politics? If students can vote for prefects, why can't teachers vote for the principal?

One creeping problem in our public secondary schools is the rise of totocracy, where students run the show. Teachers spend all their time appeasing their students. And it becomes worse if the school has influential parents. Torn between losing their jobs, being taken to court or ensuring there is discipline, teachers keep quiet. They can't punish their students and the parents can't either. Discipline dies and schools decline. Parents are forced to fight for the few remaining good schools; some even willing to bribe their way in.

Did you notice that in all the debate about bullying at Alliance, no teacher was quoted in the press? Teachers are the new magicians. Their work is to get you A grades, maintain discipline and solve all societal problems. To succeed where parents failed. Noted how new regulations are making their life harder? Does anyone care about the emotional health of our teachers? It will soon be hard to get good teachers.

The other reason why good schools are so rare is because they defy "uberization". Age, brand recognition and huge alumni network make it very hard to disrupt great schools. That is why bench-marking rarely works. It is all mental. Meeting a parent at Alliance and hearing him narrate that his father left Alliance in 1947, when he got there and that his son is now there can't be copied.

Add the alumni network, and it becomes clear why good schools remain good. Example; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is an alumnus of Philips Exeter Academy. George W Bush and his father schooled at Phillips Academy Andover. Harvard has produced 48 Nobel laureates, 32 heads of state and 48 Pulitzer Prize winners, according to its website. When will Githaka-ini High School boast such?

What of the founders and their legacy? Four churches sponsor Alliance High School, which boasts famous teachers like Carey Francis and Rev Welch and his wife, all buried in the school compound. Geoffrey Griffins is buried at Starehe, the school he founded. Who are the founders of the other schools? Would parents allow them to be buried within the school compound?

Great alumni keep the dreams of the school. They give their time, money and inspiration. Do we need any further debate on why there are so few great schools in Kenya?

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