The State of Kenyan Education

Kenyan children are expectantly waiting for their laptops. Children across the republic sit for dinner and look askance at the parents who voted in a government that promised them laptops. This (looking forward to laptops) is, for me, symptomatic of what ails Kenyan education.

An obsession with technology as the be-all and end-all. Show me a person who does not think that the laptop scheme is brilliant and I’ll show you five people baying for their blood. Technology will not solve all of our issues. It will not solve the rates of literacy, the rates of transition, and the number of children who are done with primary school but only have skills commensurate to those expected of children halfway through that stage of school.

Most children in Kenya attend a public school. These children are nameless and faceless; unimportant people just like their parents. They go to public hospitals when they are sick, go to public universities when they are successful, and they seek public funds to get ahead. It is these children who are getting a raw deal and technology will not cure their ailment.

There are innumerable children walking to school on horrible roads each day. Getting to a place where they study al fresco (without the luxury of the knowledge of such fancy terms) and sometimes going hungry. I want to talk about education for these children, about the technology they need; not the one people in air-conditioned offices think they need.

The children of Kenya need good teachers. Teachers who are smart, knowledgeable, interested in the course matter, teachers who are curious and who want to be in the classroom. The strike is a sure sign that our teachers do not tick some of those boxes. I do not go in for suffering. I think it is an ugly colour for anyone to wear and I do not believe there to be dignity in it. I know that Kenyan teachers are suffering, are living on a wage that would shame this country if we possessed a sense of shame. I believe that a raw deal for teachers is an even worse one for children.  Because their terms are so dismal, they no longer want to be in the classroom. A pay rise would make a big difference to the lives of the children they teach. The exchequer has shown that it has money. What it seems to have an issue with is holding up its end of an old bargain. A bargain that after all the time it has been ignored, now represents the bare minimum of basic need and human dignity.

Children need a smart teacher. One who can think up new, exciting ways to teach the same old subject matter and who has the tools to do that. The government grants each school KSh 1,020 per annum to cater for one child. Even a cursory glance at that amount is enough to give one a sense of just how little that amount is. I speak from personal experience; one that some foreigners I have spoken to are hard pressed to understand. This 1,020 is supposed to cater for stationery, text books, exercise books; the bare essentials. Realistically, that leaves little in the way of funds for story books, for craft supplies, for sport equipment. Even the smartest teacher has little to work with. Sadly, your average Kenyan teacher isn’t terribly imaginative. This is a great misfortune for the nation’s children.

Children need a knowledgeable teacher. A mathematics teacher who can do more than add 1 to 2, a science teacher who can dissect the most complex concept and make the class own it. A teacher who, to speak as the youth do, ‘knows their stuff’. For a variety of reasons (pay, terms, chances of advancement, societal expectations) no young person with any self-regard wants to be a teacher. Yet there are teachers being churned out by teachers colleges every day. Who are these young people?

There is no other way to say this: they are the runts of their academic lot. Take a look at the entry requirements for the colleges producing teachers and weep. The vast majority of Kenyan children; the ones whose schools receive a measly 1,020 a year because they are nameless, faceless, nothing but statistics, are being taught by young people who do not grasp the subject matter. Have you scored a C or a D in your KCSE? Worry not, you can still be a primary school teacher! What this means is that there are mathematics teachers in this country whose KCSE mathematics grade was nothing to write home about. Somehow, this very person is expected to prepare a young soul for high school and the tech-reliant world ahead. It beggars the imagination.

One will notice that I started this essay by talking about technology and haven’t spoken ill of it, or said anything whichever way. Technology, or its absence, is not what makes for a great education. People make a difference. People who are equipped with skills, with knowledge, people who are motivated, driven to succeed and to bring out the best in their charges.

Do not be fooled. This obsession with technology is a worldwide sensation. It is easier to buy gadgets than to fix a human resource problem. I do not believe that there is a perfect country that we can use as a model but I shall reference Finland for the purpose of elucidating my point.

Finland demands a Masters degree of its primary school teachers. Not because an MA or MSc makes you smarter but because it shows a certain dedication to one’s subject and also, invariably, some smarts. It looks out for all its children; rich, poor, able, disabled, whatever their race, seeking to ensure that each child has a fighting chance at success.

I speak only shortly of the Finnish example because it requires an essay of its own to unpack. I speak of it to highlight its focus: people. In a first world country with access to all manner of technology, the focus continues to be on people. This, without a doubt, is the secret behind its high ranking in numerous measures of academic performance. Finland currently ranks first in a new global league produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit for Pearson and has consistently been among countries measured to have the best educational standards in the world.

We need to re-calibrate what is important in Kenyan education; we need to put children and their tutors first. Let us get the smartest students from college and university interested in sharing their knowledge with children in public school classrooms. It will mean changing everything we have come to think of the teaching profession with regards to training, pay, respect and importance. We need to make more funds available for schools so that the learning experience is enriched. We need to do all this now, because lives are at stake and these actions will be the first step towards preparing our children for a world bursting with possibilities.

41 Replies to “The State of Kenyan Education”

  1. This article made me almost cry. Our education sector is in such a sorry state….Those of us who made it need to find a way to lend a helping hand to the children walking the same path, since it has evidently become harder for them. The government seems to care more about keeping a stupid campaign promise than the millions of lives at stake.I feel for these children. Well written girl.Right on point.

    1. First, off, I’m humbled that it moved you; Brainstorm hopes to do more of that in the days ahead.
      Maybe one way of lending a helping hand would be agitating for policy change so that children get a great education. Before then, every small act counts for a lot. Thank you, Mideva,for reading and the comment.

      Come back soon, and often!

  2. Excellent post! Learning, on one extreme is the magic of presence – with peers and teachers. Another is the almost infinite access to peers and experts in the virtual world. We need to pay more attention to both, and accelerates learning by taking the best of both worlds. More on blending of learning! And there is a need for education to be available to people just beyond the walls of an institution and the government & private sector (entrepreneurs) need to provide learning opportunities for people looking for ongoing learning and development.

    Here’s a post on the laptop project that you may find worth checking out.

    1. I couldn’t agree more on the need for blending and access. That sounds like a topic for another post. Essentially, the practice of education in Kenya needs some re-invigoration.
      Thank you for stopping by and the kind words. I shall be sure to check out the post and get back to you.
      Come back soon, and often!

  3. Education for who? For what? By who? How? These are the basics from which we must start. The education policy continues to advance that which was propagated by the colonialists and there has never been a radical attempt (well, save Moi’s attempt in the 80s) to radically alter its objectives to suit the aspirations of the people. Ours reflect what Noam Chomsky quotes as…

    “The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

    For the record, I neither support the laptops project but I really don’t have sympathy for teachers either

    1. Charles, have I sympathy for teachers we have? Not really, too many feel no need to do a great job. My issue is the children they teach.
      Hence the basic premise of the article: that the teachers children are exposed to need to improve. We need solutions more than sympathy, I think.
      Chomsky, as you have quoted him, truly captures the spirit of our education system. Essentially, we need to go back to basics. The questions you ask are critical and I hope we can continue to have a conversation along those lines.
      Thank you for stopping by. Come back soon, and often!

  4. First off, brava! Melikey el blog del new! Tres nice!!

    Next, Technology will not solve ANY issues. The mindset MUST foremost change, before we even think that technology stands a chance. A visit 6 hours away from Nairobi is all it takes to see just how perturbed the Kenyan mindset is. Or, a walk onto the very same streets of tech we call our enlightened social media headspaces.

    I enjoyed the piece thoroughly! Keeping it locked like I do in the throne. Ahem, could use a bit more anger though. But maybe that’s just me.

    1. I agree with you, Fred. The issue of mindset change is paramount to the transformation of the education system. That, I hope, will be an ongoing conversation.
      Thank you for the compliment. What anger I possess (not a little) I channelled here. I shall continue to write on the issue so that it has a productive vent.

      Thanks for visiting the blog and your kind words. Come back soon, and often!

      1. Here I am, back again. And this time I bring with me a spanner. Apart from talking about it, what are YOU doing? Not that I think you are not doing anything, but if you aren’t, that would be sad. But because I hope you do, and would like to join you when next you do. (That gives you enough time to make up something we can do 🙂

        1. Yule Mbois I couldn’t agree with you more. The fundamental problem we have in Kenya is that we are ALL experts at pointing out problems and much better experts at then pinpointing who bears the brunt of the blame. We ‘seem’ to major on the minor which is blaming, rather than major on the major which is problem solving. Problems abound in life even a 3 year old can perceive this.

          What is lacking is a spirit that seeks to point out the problem, offer a viable solution in the same breath and then implement that solution. Anything short of this, we will find ourselves in 2050 in the same predicament perpetuating the same problems. Nyambura, I commend you in your response for clarifying that much is in the pipeline where this problem is concerned. I echo your sentiments and also acknowledge that I am of the same mindset, not just talking about the problem, but strategizing to be the change I want to see in Kenya. Good job Yule and Nyambura and God bless you.

  5. Nice piece, I don’t want to believe that the politicians don’t see where the problem is; i just wonder what is it they want with our countries.
    Situation is even worse here in Tanzania to the extent that we had a sixty percent failures(zeros) in the senior 4 national exams and sadly the only solution they thought fit was standardizing.

    1. Alex, I read about this (fail) and was quite appalled. Standardisation seems to be the go-to solution everywhere standards are bad (a serious case of irony!).
      I would imagine one of the things politicians seek is a malleable electorate. Education doesn’t further that goal. A decent education, especially. The system we have in Kenya and Tanzania ticks the EFA (Education For All) box without setting the nations’ children on a path to progress.
      With people like you thinking, writing, speaking about education, change may be nigh.

      Thanks for visiting the blog and your kind words. Come back soon, and often!

  6. Why do I feel Like this should be a newsletter sent to the ministry of education and our dear generous president proposing said laptops. Simply put, its been a while since someone just said the truth and the article does that. The problem lies not with their salaries or the laptops, its the lack of drive and passion for the job. I highly propose that this be sent to the local newspaper because it has a powerful message. One that if read by the right people, can end this insane loop.

    1. Sylvia, a newsletter is a thought!
      Re: passion and drive, is it possible for Kenyans to come together and deliberate on a way to foster this in teachers and their pupils? I believe that the right people, as you put it, are you and I. If each of us thinks, writes, speaks, reads, about these issues (education in this case), action will be that much closer.
      Last question: Would a newspaper publish it? I’ll mull over the things you have said.
      Thanks for visiting the blog and your comment (I love that you’re fired up! Keep at it!). Come back soon, and often!

      1. I second Sylvia on the newspaper part…..ask and you shall receive….check out the local dailies..maybe one will give you a column for a day 🙂

    1. Wakathenya, I believe gadgets is THE solution to the human resource problem, especially where the human resource refuses to fix itself. Gadgets introduced in the educational sector in the U.S have not only enhanced the quality of education, they have also cut down costs. It is cost effective from a supply chain point of view to cut educational costs through digitization. Think of what the advent of online learning did for education in the U.S. Reduced overhead costs for colleges and universities, reduced personal costs for commuters not to mention time. Now think of how a shift in the way Kenyan children learn would revolutionize education. Think of the advent of cellphones in Kenya and how it revolutionized not only communication, but banking. Now go back in time and think of the old phone lines we had. Our children are operating with old phone lines instead of cellphones where their education is concerned.

      We complain about not having good schools. “What if” early introduction of laptop sees a fundamental shift in how we learn? “What if” the capital used in maintaining the traditional brick and mortar schools were diverted by mere fact that in 10-15 years time once all the ‘kinks’ in electronic learning are eliminated, there is less need for brick and mortar schools but education is conducted online? Imagine the cost savings. It is why I believe gadgets (laptops and by extension an IT savvy workforce and culture) holds the key for unlocking the fertile landscape that is our children’s minds and bringing out the best in those minds to solve the worst of the problems that currently enslave us. Of course key to all this is good policy, good governance, good management. My two sense.

  7. It’s a nice read which seeks to work with less chaff and more content. As a country, we have suffered from the promotion of mediocrity and sectors such as education, security are suffering due to this. If we work on the human element and build enough capacity, as a country we’ll have gone a long way in changing the future generations.
    Great for you to focus on education!

    1. I agree with you, we need to build the human element so that all the aids (technology, for example) build on it. We have ourselves a case of the cart being put ahead of the horse. Building capacity will definitely go a long way towards making our education system effective.
      Thank you for your comment, Sportskenya, and for reading. Come back soon!

  8. I like that you have stated so well what the root issue is. Where do you think the solution should start? I think it should begin by paying teachers better and revising teacher training policy. Then creating a new system with the long view in mind

    1. Mel, I think we need to restore the dignity of the teaching profession. Pay, terms, training (and especially, in my opinion) recruitment need a massive overhaul. Though the first three will realistically attract some of the best talent to teaching. These would be fairly easy to implement.
      A rethink of the education system is needed, too. If the issues of pay and such are sorted, we will end up subjecting some of the best minds to the drudgery of our education system and fighting a losing battle. The question is, how do we craft an education system and policy that is responsive to the needs of a world so many of us can barely imagine? This would be a great conversation to have. Interested?
      Sorry if this was a bit of a ramble. Thank you very much for your comment and let’s keep this conversation going!

  9. We need to make sure that we can all walk (and not just enable some people to walk while leaving others out) before we can run. While technological advancement is a noble goal, it should not be achieved at the cost of leaving the country reeling under the debt of what may turn out to be a white elephant.
    Also, I like what you said about the teachers, and how they need to be first and foremost competent before they ca be entrusted with the teaching and shaping of the kids’ minds.
    Brilliant article.
    Now let’s hope someone who can make a difference in this situation reads this.

    1. It’s a bit of a loop, isn’t it? Teachers, pay, competence, the art of teaching. I believe we can make a difference (we have read, we have thought) and may just have a plan. I shall give you and all of Brainstorm’s readers a heads-up soon.
      Thanks: for reading, for your comment, for the compliment. Please come back to Brainstorm soon!

  10. A brilliant piece Nyambura!

    The late Dr G.W. Griffin, the first educationist anywhere in the world to introduce computers as a core element in the teaching/learning process at high school level (in 1981), steadfastly maintained that technology can never be a substitute for a good, dedicated, inspiring teacher.

    He often said that it is the teacher’s role to give the student/pupil ‘soul’, something which technology cannot do. It is of course extremely important that we enhance, grow and develop our education systems through technology – but it is of even greater importance that those systems be staffed by focussed and inspiring teachers!

    1. I couldn’t have put it better, sir! I love this ‘technology can never be a substitute for a good, dedicated, inspiring teacher’; it shall stay with me.

      Thank you for reading and for the wonderful compliment. Please come back to Brainstorm soon!

  11. A great piece Nyambura.
    The children of Kenya need good teachers!
    Children need a smart teacher!
    Children need a knowledgeable teacher!
    These teachers are (mainly) found in private schools where our leaders take their children. Where the teachers are paid “money” .And where gadgets complement the work of the teachers.
    It is sad that the nameless/faceless children and their parents are only votes which count during elections! What we need here is a change of attitude. Leaders who care enough to think through their decisions and brave enough to take responsibility.
    This is a good starting point. Let s keep the discussion going

    1. High praise from you, Florence. Thank you!
      “It is sad that the nameless/faceless children and their parents are only votes which count during elections! What we need here is a change of attitude. Leaders who care enough to think through their decisions and brave enough to take responsibility.” I couldn’t have said it better
      “This is a good starting point. Let’s keep the discussion going” Thank you, and we shall. I shall keep you updated as the conversation progresses.

      Thank you for visiting Brainstorm. Come back soon…and often!

  12. My high School English and German teachers did more than just relay information to me and the rest of my class. They built relationships with us and tried to connect with us. Only inspired teachers would do this, and only teachers whose dignity has been protected would do this.
    I will never forget them and even after high school, I am still greatly impacted by what they did for me. But as you have so plainly put it, we have lost any sense of dignity for the teaching profession, by lowering our standards on who should teach, and throwing technology at the problem, when relationships between teachers and pupils are what we need to build.

    Unfortunately its the nameless, faceless and voteless students who will pay for this. We need a revolution in the way we approach the scared field of education.

    ps great article

    1. Kibobo,

      One of my greatest influences in high school (in terms of language and self-expression) was, strangely, my CRE teacher. Like your German and English teachers, she and other members of staff (as you put it) built relationships with us and tried to connect with us. That, for me, demonstrates the very power of inspired teachers you write so well about.

      A revolution is needed, I couldn’t have put it more succinctly. Hopefully, it shall be in this generation.

      Thank you for visiting Brainstorm. Come back soon…and often!

      PS Many thanks on the kind words.

    1. Thank you, Muthoni.

      There is much we can do, whatever our occupations. Lobby government, be engaged in the workings of public schools and demand more from our representatives. I’m sure if we all pitch in, change shall soon come.

      Thank you for reading Brainstorm and for your comment. Come back soon!

  13. I went to a public school in a slum.
    I know all too well what you are talking about
    Teachers make or break students
    The reasons as to why their training and pay is a non issue to the government is that none of the concerned parties have ever taken their children to a public school.
    Their logic is simple : if it does not affect me,why should I care?

Leave a Reply