The beatings will continue until morale improves

Michael Onsando
23 July ,2019


“There’s no honour in being a plumber, the honour is in going to university. To go to university to do what?”

I’m not sure I know how to feel about his smartyness professor Magoha. Having been in University of Nairobi during the Babu Owino years there’s enough whispered about how he handled the university money for me to keep him at arms distance – or maybe even further.

That being said, when this video came across my timeline it threw me into a spiral of education googling. This, of course has been a centre of conversation with the new syllabus implemented, stopped, implemented and ultimately leading to a point where Grade 3 students may or may not be sitting for an exam in September.

That 8-4-4 has an overemphasis on a certain type of knowledge and has led to a devaluing of more technical and practical oriented subjects is not necessarily a new thought. And this focus not only has an effect on how people are educated but on what kind of people we create in society. It affects their biases and ambitions. Take this from Laila Le Guen:

“This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society?”

The Blindspots of a Stem Focused Education Reform

Which is what makes this such a critical time in many ways. An education system, once set in place, is almost impossible to alter and it carries with itself the implicit biases. Biases that then continue to live on as psychological scars, unemployment or just that nagging question at the back of a child’s mind – “is something wrong with me?”

On the necessity of parental involvement, Wandia Njoya writes:

“It’s one thing for prejudice to be written into policies, and it’s yet another for public officials to be so unaware of it. But the most tragic part of this story is that some middle class Kenyan parents have dismissed the ramifications of this parental involvement, thanks to the effective mainstreaming of capitalist, racist and evangelical attitudes towards the family. The most common rebuttal to our concerns has been parents expressing how much fun they are having with their children.”

Of course the bias in the new system is not only when it comes to the classist trappings of having your parents at school every second of the day. The system has been criticized as being too expensive (another classist trapping?), not just for the schools but for parents, teachers and administrators. There is little said about where the money will come from (and it’s not like Kenya is balling out of control). Also, the 13-14 subject lower secondary segment has been questioned  as maybe being too heavy for the young mind. On the positive though, the system seems to make more room for a wider range of academic orientation.

“A country that is at war with its young people is a country that has no future.”

Johnson Sakaja

What’s ironic is that while the effort to redignify is at the core of these reforms the tone that has been taken with the rest of the country is not one directed at a dignified people. CS Magoha has been heard threatening teachers opposing the new system, going as far as saying he will crush the new system’s opponents.

Crush? Are these crushed teachers then to go on and be the ones to implement this education system? And is shoving this new system down their mouths with no option for feedback really the way to go? For all the flowery language in sessional paper number 1 – how much have the teacher’s been heard in this process? Ever since Mr Matiang’i came with this “let’s pound this policy into submission” leadership style that seems to be the way we want to go. But what becomes the difference between this system and any other if it isn’t implemented in a way that allows for all stakeholders to participate, come on board and for their concerns to be heard? If we are really doing the work of restoring dignity to careers that had lost them – wouldn’t it start by listening?

Or would we rather call people fools on TV and hope for the best? After all, it’s only the future at stake.

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

Michael Onsando
27 November ,2018

“The European Union, or a body like the World Bank, should build and run cities in Africa in order to boost job creation and development on the continent, Germany’s Minister for Africa, Gunter Nooke, told the BBC in an interview in which he outlined his thinking on how to stem migration to Europe. 

This will mean African countries leasing their land to a foreign body to “allow free development for 50 years”, Mr Nooke said.”

Matters land are always sensitive. Being a finite resource and one whose use affects most of the people who have to live with the consequences. A large number of communities are only now coming into leases that were signed in the colonial times, with some having to wait another 90 plus years for leases to run out before they can challenge for pieces of land that were signed over (for whatever reasons) almost a hundred years ago. Earlier in his first term Mr Freedom was giving out title deeds at the coast and then again in his second term (were they fake? No one knows). Then there’s the 50,000 he is set to give out to Eastlands residents.

And this is even without touching the caricature that has been mentioning Ruto and land in the same sentence (ati plane za Ruto hu-arrive ju zikiland zitagrabiwa?)

So when we’re asked to put aside land for foreign cities I’m forced to ask – why?

“‘I just want you to be happy’. How does this speech act direct the narrative? To answer this question, we need to describe the conflict of the film, or the obstacle to the happy ending. The film could be described as being about the generational conflict within a migrant Indian Sikh family living in Hounslow, London. Jess the daughter is good at football. Her idea of happiness would be to bend it like Beckham, which requires that she bends the rules about what Indian girls should do. The generational conflict between parents and daughter is also represented as a conflict between the demands of cultures: as Jess says, ‘anyone can cook Alo Gobi but who can bend the ball like Beckham’. This contrast sets up ‘cooking Alo Gobi’ as common place and customary, against an alternative world of celebrity, individualism and talent.”

I’m often challenging our generation’s constructs of happiness, how we build these ideas and what forms our images of success and failure. A friend of mine quips often about how we were “raised for export” and I don’t think they are far from the truth. Our studies, or classes our efforts were all geared towards finding an opportunity – opportunity was often defined through leaving in one form or the other. And this search was amidst the class that could afford school and such pursuits. For most the desire to find happiness would come through finding another way to make it to greener pastures. These ideas become easily apparent when we look at a cross section of top selling African novels. In most of these books we see protagonists leave. It happens in Americanah, in We Need New Names, Behold the Dreamers, and Ghana Must Go – to mention a few contemporary examples.

This, of course, comes from much criticized “west is best” narratives that have not only plagued us for a while but have also been over analysed ad nauseum (decolonize your mind anyone?)

“A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.”

The “but shouldn’t we deserve a stake in lands that we built?” calls into question the ethical issues around immigration, slavery, labour and conquest. Having been pulled across the seas to build cities, fight wars and serve households, what does it mean to say, now that the cities have been built and wars won, that the same people have no claim to the space? Issa tricks.

Perhaps it is with all this in mind that led Mr Paul Romer to argue that “foreign-run cities could be a model of efficient governance and offer a good quality of life, stopping people from migrating for economic reasons.” Because the problem must be that local cities are run by the state – and the Kenyan state is vastly incompetent (this last bit was supposed to be sarcastic, but I suppose it is also true). Still, in the age of Trump and Brexit it becomes increasingly apparent that the king has no clothes – not since we stopped fashioning them and dressing him hundreds of years ago.

Which is what makes me question the logic here. Of course building foreign (west inspired) cities seems to follow the same “west is best” logic. Of course it came following the path that “if they want Europe to come, maybe we should take Europe to them.” But there’s already a lot of evidence that the extractive capitalism that drives Western nations depletes natural resources faster than they can be replenished. And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own (do we need to exploit our naturally giving environment as hard as they did for example?).

But what happens in the meantime?

I am not sure, but not foreign cities which will “operate under a set of laws separate from the host country” which basically makes them little protectorates. Nor is selling Nairobi to Chinese billionaires an idea (so happy this was thrown out faster than it came in). Perhaps the answer lies in restating the end goal. Rather than seeing New York –like or Amsterdam – like as the result, we understand that the strongest societies work for their citizens, encourage trade and create systems that are not imposed upon but drawn from the societies themselves. And, in realizing this, understanding that the real value lies in the people and finding ways to create dreams for people to thrive here – here dreams.

(Libraries might be a good place to start)

Let Them Play Golf

Brenda Wambui
6 March ,2018

While handing the flag to the Kenyan national boys and girls golf team, which was heading to Casablanca for the All Africa Junior Golf Championship, Uhuru Kenyatta said he wanted golf introduced in public schools as a way of developing the sport. He urged the ministries of Sports and Heritage, Education and Interior to finalize the development of a curriculum that will see golf introduced to public schools.

I could not believe it – our very own Marie Antoinette with a 21st Century “let them eat cake” moment.

Golf is an expensive sport to play. Golf clubs are expensive. The proper clothing and shoes are expensive. The set up and maintenance of golf courses is expensive. Everything about golf worldwide sets it up to be exclusionary. Golf club membership is expensive. Learning how to play takes time and money. Golf is thought of as a businessman’s game because chit chat about “business” is what tends to happen on the course.

Contrast that with the state of public schools. The Kenyan government under Mwai Kibaki introduced free primary education in January 2003 in order to make primary education accessible to all children irrespective of their economic backgrounds. However, this endeavor has been fraught with challenges. The unavailability of physical facilities, school furniture, equipment, teachers, and other resources has led to overcrowding in classes and overburdening of teachers. This has a negative effect on the quality of education, and further deepens inequality between those who attend private and public schools.

The Kenyan government under Uhuru Kenyatta introduced free secondary education in January 2018. This was one of the pledges the Jubilee party made while campaigning for re-election. Schools selected for this program, such as Kenya High School, Lenana School, Buruburu Girls High School, Dagoretti High School among others began accepting day students as part of this effort to increase secondary enrollment (the goal is a 100% transition from primary to secondary school), and delink admission from bed space in order to increase form one enrolment. Students are not required to pay tuition fees – they only buy uniform, pay for lunch (and those boarding pay boarding fees ranging between KES 40,000 and KES 53,000). However, just as with free primary education, there aren’t enough teachers, classrooms and materials at secondary school level. This will lead to a poor standard of education.

Arguably the most important aspect of a school, other than its infrastructure, is its teachers. Kenya currently has a pupil to teacher ratio of 57:1 (according to UNESCO, this should be no more than 40:1). Primary schools have a shortage of 40,972 teachers, while secondary schools have a shortage of 63,849. We need 104,821 more teachers if we are to meet our education goals as a country. This is expensive. To begin with, the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) asked the Treasury for KES 16 billion to recruit 68,000 intern teachers as a temporary measure to address this shortage created by government policy. They also asked for KES 5 billion to recruit 12,000 teachers to address the current shortage and an additional KES 3.6 billion to hire another 5,476 to cater for the 100 per cent pupil transition from primary to secondary schools. These budget items have yet to be approved.

Perhaps the starkest indicator that the president is getting ahead of himself is the implementation of the new curriculum, which was supposed to be rolled out in January 2018. The 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum involves children spending two years in pre-primary and six years in primary school. In lower primary, they will learn Kiswahili, English, Literacy, and “Mother Tongue”, Science, Social Studies and Agricultural Activities. In upper primary, they will learn Kiswahili, English, Mathematics, Home Science, Agriculture, Science and Technology, Creative Arts, Moral and Life Skills, Physical and Health Education, and Social Studies, with an option of a foreign language (French, German, Chinese and Arabic).

Junior secondary will take three years, and students will study Mathematics, Kiswahili, English, Life Skills, Health Education, Social Studies, Integrated Science, Business Studies, Religious Education, Agriculture, Sports and Physical Education. They will also select one or two subjects that suit their career choices, personalities, abilities and interests. Senior secondary will also take three years, and students will focus on either Arts and Sports Science; Social Sciences; or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). After this, students can either go on to three years in university, or three years in a vocational training centre.

As is to be expected, the rollout of free secondary education at the same time as a resource intensive new curriculum, while requiring 100% transition from primary to secondary school without investing in school infrastructure and the hiring and training of teachers, has caused a mess. The teachers have not been trained adequately on the new curriculum, and TSC’s budget for doing so has been affected severely by budget cuts of up to 75%. Teacher training had been estimated to cost KES 900 million, while training and monitoring implementation of teacher performance appraisal in all public institutions was estimated to cost KES 200 million. However, their budget for this was reduced by KES 423 million of the operation and maintenance budget, limiting service delivery.

Schools have yet to receive teaching materials for this curriculum, leaving teachers confused. Since the government is distributing text books directly to schools, they have no option but to wait. Why? Because the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) relies on four printing firms to publish curriculum designs, and their printing materials are exhausted after the bulk printing of new curriculum materials. The paper used to print these materials is imported, and has taken long to arrive. So the children and their teachers can either wait, or revert to using 8-4-4 materials.

Even as all this happens, Uhuru Kenyatta, perhaps as a catalyst of some kind of Kenyan revolution, thinks it is important for golf to be introduced in public schools. The tragedy that is Kenya continues.

What About The Children?

Brenda Wambui
10 January ,2017

I remember sitting my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams vividly, mostly because it was a period I wanted to be over and done with as fast as possible. My first paper was English (Paper 1), and my exams went on for almost three weeks. I sat my final paper, Business Studies (Paper 2) on a midweek morning in mid-November, after which I debated on whether to promptly go and start an academic bonfire, or just pick up my things in peace and wait to be taken home. I went with the latter. What followed was a tense two and a half month period of waiting for my results, which thankfully made me happy. Many Kenyans who have been through the 8-4-4 system and have graduated from high school remember this period vividly as well.

A lot in Kenya is hinged on one’s grades in national examinations. 84% of Kenyan children enroll in primary school, yet only 32% of them go to secondary school, after which only 20% complete Form Four. Out of this number that completes Form Four, only 40% goes to university. The cutoff grade for universities is a C+. This year, only 88,929 students (15.41%) scored between an A and a C+, as compared to 2015, when 169,492 (32.23%) students got enough marks to secure a spot in universities. This marks a drop of over 50%.

We have had celebration from many corners over what seems to be the “death” of cheating in national examinations, since no results were cancelled in either the KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) or KCSE exams, and many plaudits have been sent Dr. Matiang’is way. However, can the eradication of cheating fully account for this drop? And, while he rightfully deserves the accolades he has received, what about the children?

We run the risk of analyzing the effects of this year’s exam results without humanity – without thinking of these children, and what this means for them. What does it mean when a year before, there were 2,685 As, and now there are only 141? What does it mean when the bulk of students (149,929) got a D-, a grade that means you have to repeat KCSE if you have dreams of going to university? Because even colleges that offer bridging courses will not accept a D-. This means that we will have to re-evaluate the opportunities available to these children, to ensure that we do not sacrifice them to unemployment, given that our youth unemployment rate is already at 67%.

There are several questions we must ask ourselves. What is this system that manages to take children, educate them for 4 years, and only have 15.41% of them meet its requirements? It is definitely not a working system, and it needs to be overhauled. I believe that in addition to the laxity that was afforded to both teachers and students by cheating, there is also a case to be made that they may not be learning much, and that the instruction is subpar. This would need to be investigated and fixed to ensure that we are providing value in our schools and not just wasting these children’s time.

There are multiple indictments of our education system, the most outstanding one being Equity Bank’s Wings to Fly programme, which offers secondary and university scholarships for students who are unable to pay for their education yet have been accepted into schools. For their secondary school programme, they received over 25,000 applications but were only able to accept 1,700. For the secondary school graduates heading to university, all 141 students who scored As have been offered a place in this programme, which raises many questions.

Of course, Equity Bank does not need to do this, so it is commendable that they do. However, when a private institution is responsible for the education of 14,368 students in eight years, we have to ask whether the government is serious about our public schools, and the education system in general. We also have to ask ourselves what happens to the others.

Equity Bank and all other institutions/individuals offering scholarships tend to do so with “bright and needy” children. Which makes me wonder, what happens to average children who are also needy? Children who no doubt have great futures ahead of them but did not score an A, and cannot afford their fees? It brings to mind the disposability of the Kenyan life – one is only useful if they are exceptional in some way. Which is why Uhuru Kenyatta, while in the middle of oppressing doctors by refusing to implement their collective bargaining agreement from 2013, can make time to go see Joe Kadenge, one of Kenya’s most famous footballers, to give him an NHIF card. (Which strikes me as madness, because doctors are on strike – where will he use it?) He made time to attend to Joe Kadenge, but will not attend to the millions of Kenyans suffering because of the strike. Many more parallels can be drawn.

Each year, almost a million young people reach working age in this country where the informal sector accounts for 75-80% of new jobs created. These jobs are low skill and low productivity, and barely utilize cognitive skills. They can be done by people who have a Standard 3 literacy level. So, given what we have observed, other than for a small minority of Kenyans, is there any use for an education past Standard 3?

The entire system needs a fix. There needs to be value in the education we give our children, and opportunities that match that value at every stage of the way. At the very least, we should ensure that most, if not all children who enroll in Standard 1 complete Form Four. And that for those who do not proceed to university, there are various opportunities, technical and otherwise, for them to hone their skills and build their lives. For those who complete university, there should be enough employment opportunities. In all this, our children and their welfare should come first – only then will we be able to fix this mess.

Kenya is Burning

Brenda Wambui
16 August ,2016

The fight against oppression – in all its manifestations – is especially tricky because the rules of challenging the status quo are set by your oppressor. When fighting racism, sexism, classism and most importantly government, the people who stand to benefit from the maintenance of the prevailing system will state how they want you to engage them on your oppression. They will have a boot to your neck, leaving you pinned to the ground unable to move or breathe, and still ask you to “speak clearly in a non-agitated, non-threatening way.”

Using narrow definitions, “acceptable forms of protest” are emphasized – march peacefully up and down the street. Do not show anger. If your protest is looking successful (what does this even mean?) don’t seem to enjoy it. Otherwise the police will rain on your parade. Protests are also portrayed in the media as an inconvenience to the rest of the population not taking part in the protest. It is seen as an impediment to law and order, hence why the public rarely sympathizes when the police beat up protestors. Somehow, protests are viewed as very problematic political behaviour, yet they are central to democracy.

Protesting is a form of civil disobedience – and becomes a viable option when the rule of law clashes with one’s moral or political principles. Henry David Thoreau exhorts that in such a case, one must follow their conscience. It is responsible for many leaps in our advancement – Kenya’s freedom from British colonialism, the protection of our forests/environment, the right of women to wear what they want to name but a few. Globally, protest movements led to the abolition of slavery, women getting the right to vote, the end of (institutionalized) apartheid and racial segregation in South Africa and the United States respectively, and many other victories for human dignity. Protestors are demonized until, somehow, the general perspective shifts and their views/values are co-opted into general society. Only then do they become heroes.

Protesting has been a key feature in the Kenyan education system, though we like to act like it’s “brand new” any time it happens in schools. This paper by Elizabeth Cooper cites cases of student protest in Kenya as far back as 1900, stating:

“In 1900, young men training at the divinity school run by the Church Missionary Society in the freed slave settlement of Freretown,near Mombasa, boycotted their classes and publicly demonstrated to protest the refusal of the principal to offer them instruction in English. In 1908, students at Maseno Boys (then primary) School walked out of their classes and staged a demonstration to protest their assignments of manual labour and demand more reading and writing in their curriculum.”

Even arson in secondary schools is not new – in 1998 Bombolulu Girls was set ablaze and 26 girls lost their lives in a dorm fire. In 2001, 67 boys died at Kyanguli Boys because they were locked in the dorm as it burned. There are many other similar cases, happening primarily in boarding schools. This is not to say that arson is good, it is to suggest that this is a deeply rooted systemic problem that has plagued us for years, and it has no easy answers.

The arsons of the 1990s and early 2000s differ from the recent wave in that they were fatal, and targeted other students as opposed to the previous, and current trend of protests against school conditions. The new wave of arson protests has not claimed any casualties, and has resulted in few injuries, suggesting that all students are clued in and that there is a high level of coordination/planning.

The reasons cited for this wave include poor preparation of students for the mock examinations by teachers (there is a pattern of school unrest being related to poor preparation for exams according to Cooper’s paper), examination cartels pulling strings in the background to protest strict measures against cheating that are bound to affect their bottom line, poor training of teachers and school administrations on how to relate with students, and the generational gap (it has always been fashionable for older generations to castigate younger generations globally).

Arson cases (presently, and those in previous years) have cut across the ethnic and class divide, happening in public and private schools, boys’ and girls’ schools, and at national, provincial and district schools. The common factor has been that mostly boarding schools are burned. We must then ask – what is it about boarding schools that make them susceptible to arson?

Perhaps as a result of our short lifespans, and our short memories, we do not remember that at the heart of these protests are the same issues students have been protesting since the early 1900s – perceived injustice in the educations system. The system is basically rigged against them.

The students do not have sufficient materials to support their education, they have (in many cases) a poor diet, and are treated very harshly by school administrations. Teachers are constantly on strike/at war with the government, and even when they are at schools, they do not prepare students well enough for examinations that have the potential to ruin (or make) their lives. School principals are small gods, waging all manner of petty wars against the students and their teachers, engaging in corrupt practices at the cost of the welfare of students. When they sit national examinations (be it KCPE/KCSE) they are not guaranteed a spot in high school or university respectively because of the resource constraints in our education system. And we wonder why students are angry?

Arson as a tool of protest is thought of as cowardly, but as stated earlier in this essay, this is using the frame of thought of the students’ oppressors. Yet we use it so frequently as a society. We used it against the British colonialist. We also set many things on fire in the 2007/08 post-election violence. Perhaps the students are just taking our example. We have taught them that we only listen to them and make a fuss when they set things on fire. Perhaps the have asked “nicely” and received nothing, and now need to make a point.

The only way to know, and to solve this, is to put them at the centre and ask them what is wrong, and how we can begin to fix this. This is alien to a society like ours that does its best to treat lives as disposable, and where human rights are thought of as a privilege. I feel like many of us know the answer deep down because we were in boarding schools, but it helps to ask the students since they are the ones in the throes of this terrible system at the moment. Otherwise, we will continue to ask the same questions about student unrest year-in, year-out with no recourse.

(Class)Room For All

Guest Writer
21 June ,2016

Ed: This essay is part of a series of essays on education policy in the country. Read part one and part two.

by Nyambura Mutanyi

We have made some progress in making education available to all Kenyan children. In the years since Free Primary Education was instituted in Kenya, we have seen millions of children get to sit in classrooms. Those millions haven’t included a certain demographic: children with special needs. And, we’re giving them short shrift. To quote Malinda Harrahs Ndinda:

Despite the government’s commitment to free primary school education, implementation of integrated education to the physically disabled children is faced with constraints. These include: lack of clarity of the policy of integration, negative traditional beliefs towards disabilities, the approach of implementing integrated education, low parental participation, lengthy assessment procedures of disabilities, lack of adequate specialist teachers, limited data on disabilities and limited access to education caused by high fees levies, lack of suitable transport services and access to mobility aids and suitable physical environment and amenities

The Kenyan National Survey for Persons with Disabilities (2008) found that 4.6% of Kenyans experience some form of disability. Many children with special needs are denied educational opportunities because of shame, fear, ignorance and a lack of access to resources in their communites. This, coupled with a paucity of spaces in which children with special needs can be educated, makes for a dire situation. I posit a solution, though not necessarily a simple or cheap one: make schools inclusive.

This involves catering to the wide range of needs learners have while educating them all in mainstream schools. Contrast this with our current situation in which children with special needs attend the eponymous special schools. This kills two birds with one stone: it gets us closer to truly attaining the goal of education for all while breaking down prejudicial attitudes. Consider this: what difference would it make, in a world that skews ableist, for all children to be in spaces that view – and treat – all learners equitably?

There are a number of special units across the country, providing support for children in those settings who have special needs. They are a good first step but we’re still a long way from fully integrating schools across the country. It’s 30 years this year since Kilimani Primary School integrated blind children into their classrooms and 13 years since it integrated deaf-blind children. Integrated education doesn’t seem to be an ideal that we, as a country, aspire to, yet it affects all of us.

We didn’t set off to educate people with special needs; it is more an accident of history. Before 1946, Kenya did not have any centres dedicated to people with special needs. Their needs were catered for in the context of their communities. However, at the end of World War II, there was a need to rehabilitate the soldiers who came back with life-changing injuries. When the work was done, it made sense to admit young people; the resources were there already. Why waste them? Yet, in the time since, we have continued to treat special education as a supplementary aspect of education. The biggest indicator is that it was religious and philanthropic bodies that catered for the education of people with special needs, while the state paid teachers and maintained boarding facilities. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the state trained teachers who could lead classrooms of the hearing impaired and so on.

Kenya is a country that is married to the idea of human capital as the basis of education. It follows that a societal attitude that assigns low value to people with special needs  would result in a slowness to integrate. If education only makes sense if one will go on to make vast amounts of money and become a consumer, then it comes as no surprise that marginalised people would not figure in the conceptualisation of educational facilities. Consider this from the Special Needs Education Policy Framework 2012 :

Good performance in education, training and research sectors immensely contributes to any country’s national development. Performing education sectors produce appropriate human resource capital that is integral to spurring productivity.

Even in this context, the state makes it an uphill struggle to educated children putting paid its own assertion of the importance of growing human capital. Late funding to special schools has become a perennial issue; every year one reads articles such as this in the paper featuring special school heads enumerating all the ways in which they are in a fix. Which has me thinking: why not integrate schools? Why do we fund schools for children with special needs separately? There are issues with the funding of mainstream schools but, as that article highlights, special schools received their funding after those ones had been funded. Having two funding streams is part of the reason this continues to happen. Inclusive education cuts this out and sends out funding to all children at all schools in one swift fell.

Who will teach these children once they are integrated? This is a major issue as special education qualifications are earned after studies in education, essentially meaning that the average class teacher does not have the wherewithal to deal with a learner with special needs. Consider this: a set-up in which all student teachers have units that result in them acquiring the skills with which to support learners with special needs in their classroom. There might be one who is great at Kenya Sign Language, say, well-suited to work in a classroom with a child who is hard of hearing but skills would not be so few as to merit the extraction of a child from their home environment.

How will we pay for all that this will entail? Education after Early Childhood Education is in the hands of the central government, which increased the donation per student to KES 1,420 from KES 1,020, so it’s not exactly falling over itself to fund education on the whole (see: the recent teacher strikes). But, with a constitution that asserts the equality of all, it may well be a point of public pressure. And what will we need money for at the beginning? Making schools accessible, making resources such as Braille machines, computers and so on available. We will need to review a tax code that sometimes greatly raises the cost of these integral items, and teachers will need to be trained to welcome all learners into their classrooms. And, for as long as we have among us learners with special needs, the resources, financial or otherwise, needed to support their learning process.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Schools which have integrated or become inclusive thrive; evidence abounds that educating all Kenyan children together is a win for everyone interested in education. A memory stays with me: On the Day of The African Child in 2011, my friends and I go to Kilimani Primary School for a Reading Out Loud event. This sight, this moment: the children reading out loudly and confidently as they touch their sheets of Braille paper. This is inclusive education and this is why we need it: so that every Kenyan child can read out loud, sign and be the very best within the communities in which they come into the world.

Nyambura Mutanyi is a reader who writes about the things that are dear to her: education, politics, literature, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @cmutanyi

The Language-in-Education Policy Conundrum

Guest Writer
24 May ,2016

Ed: This essay is part of a series of essays on education policy in the country. Find part one here.

by Laila Le Guen

The gap between language policy and actual implementation across educational institutions isn’t given the attention it deserves, and children’s learning is taking a toll as a result. If Kenya is committed to building an equitable education system, the current status quo can’t be maintained.

Children are locked out of meaningful educational experiences

When I attended the Nairobi Research Buzz discussion on the release of the Karibu Centre Report which covers research findings about the pioneering use of educational software in early childhood education settings in Kiambu County, the topic of language unexpectedly crept into the conversation. The main bone of contention was the software content which was designed for American children and had not been localised for the Kenyan context, either with regards to accent or to the use of local concepts. The absurdity of submitting very young children who were not yet able to communicate in English to a literacy test in this language was also brought up. But, you might retort, they have to learn English anyway, so why not start teaching them as early as possible?

The argument that “they have to learn English anyway” is frequently thrown around to justify the imposition of an all-English educational environment from the very first year of formal schooling. The trouble is, teaching English as a language cannot be equated with attempting to teach foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy in English when children clearly do not understand the lessons and are unable to actively engage with the material.

Even more preoccupying is the fact that the perception of preschoolers’ learning abilities is reduced to how well they understand English, even when they haven’t had a chance to be exposed to the language to any significant degree. In the Karibu Centre report, some quotes from teachers made it clear that children’s home languages were seen as a learning challenge (“some students are used to mother tongue so it’s hard for them to learn”, p. 25), a challenge that was seemingly left unaddressed.

Preschool teachers’ ideas about language transmission in the school system are not the issue here: these ideas are accepted as common sense and, given the treatment Kenyan students are subjected to during their school careers, it is a wonder to behold when anyone ends up with a positive attitude towards their mother tongue as a possible medium of instruction. However, these ideas need to be earnestly critiqued so that young children aren’t locked out of meaningful educational experiences due to persistent prejudice.

Clear policy…with no effect on the ground

The case for mother tongue instruction in the early years of education is very strong, and has been well-documented for at least 20 years. Children who are taught in a language they understand show significant improvement in their overall performance, including in second language proficiency, as compared to their peers who learn in an unfamiliar language from the beginning of their schooling. Thus the myth that English has to be introduced as early as possible as the medium of instruction so that children develop expert proficiency does not stand to scrutiny. This strategy is actually counterproductive, especially considering that the benefits of mother tongue education extend far beyond performance on academic tests to include improved self-confidence, increased classroom participation and a more harmonious integration of school with home-based education. To put it in a nutshell, young children need to be taught in a language they understand if we want them to learn effectively, and this in turn has a positive effect on their acquisition of other languages such as English.

Kenyan policy makers have officially sanctioned the need for a three-language model since 1976, but considering the lack of concrete effort to implement this ambitious language policy, you would be forgiven if you believed that Kenya had no such legislation. The 2006 Early Childhood Education service standard guidelines clearly defines a language policy framework:

The language of the catchment area shall be used in all ECD centres with gradual introduction of other languages. (p. 15)

The language of catchment area (mother tongue) shall be used in all ECD centres for communication and instruction, with gradual introduction of English and Kiswahili. (p. 16)

This orientation was reiterated in the 2010 Constitution through the provision of language rights and, more explicitly, in the 2012 policy framework for education. Despite all these policy papers pointing in the same general direction, examples of concrete manifestations of these intentions are still scarce today. So far, the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) in collaboration with Bible Translation & Literacy has produced literacy materials in about 20 Kenyan languages, with ongoing mother-tongue education pilots in Digo-, Orma- and Pokomo-speaking areas. The dearth of literacy materials and other types of publications in nearly half of Kenyan languages poses great challenges, compounded by the fact that most teachers are not yet trained to teach in their mother tongue, since it is often assumed that merely speaking the language suffices.

Besides these very real, material constraints barring the road to mother tongue instruction in ECD, no serious thought seems to have been given to the details of how Kiswahili and English would be progressively introduced, nor to the case of families moving from one county to another where the language of instruction might be different.

This situation is due to a constellation of factors: lack of funding for the development of learning materials in all Kenyan languages, lack of teacher training in the area of mother tongue instruction, fierce resistance from parents, and sometimes education professionals themselves who view local languages as inadequate for educational purposes.

Devolution is an opportunity

With the recent devolution of early childhood education to county governments arises an opportunity for decision-makers to take a fresh look at the stalled language-in-education policy implementation. If this policy was to be implemented by the counties, new niches would open for linguists, education content creators, translators, editors and trainers specialising in Kenyan languages, although this outcome is quite unlikely given the chronic shortage of funding in the education sector.

Granted, the current language-in-education policy is ambitious and will be costly if fully implemented  – it implies developing age-appropriate learning materials in various subjects, as well as training ECD teachers to use languages other than English as the primary medium of instruction. But what we need to realise is that maintaining the status quo comes at the cost of equity, since children who are exposed to English in their daily lives outside of school are given a considerable advantage in that they get to learn in a familiar language. Learning in one’s own language – or at the very least a language one is moderately competent in (say Kiswahili) – should no longer be a privilege but a right, as language issues are deeply enmeshed with the quality of the education received by learners.

Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context

The Blindspots of STEM-Focused Education Reform

Guest Writer
3 May ,2016

by Laila Le Guen

Curriculum reform is a hot button topic in any part of the world but the stakes are particularly high in Kenya, where the 8-4-4 system has been so consistently criticised since its implementation. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as STEM subjects – have been identified as a priority and take up a large chunk of the debate. However, viewing education solely through the lens of STEM introduces a number of dangerous blindspots.

Scientific thought is produced by social beings

While it’s evident that well-trained STEM specialists are needed for Kenya’s economic development and that education could be tailored to respond to this pressing need, a strong push towards STEM education might not achieve all that it is expected to. In a society where the image of the scientist is of someone who outsmarted everyone in school and has an uncanny ability to understand mathematics, the temptation is strong to view STEM professionals as special beings removed from social issues, operating in the ethereal world of hard facts and figures. The shocking truth is that science is in fact made by scientists, who are human beings like you and me. As such, they navigate a socio-cultural environment where tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other unsavoury -isms and -phobias exist, no matter the profession one happens to practice.

The study of science and technology trains the mind in a certain way of understanding the world, of interacting with data and solving problems. It’s such an incredibly valuable method to have at one’s disposal that one might be tempted to extend it to every sphere of life. Unfortunately, being a responsible member of society requires an analysis of a broader spectrum of experiences that do not easily find an answer in science and technology taken in isolation. This is because we live in a society that has a history, traditions, norms and belief systems that affect us individually and collectively.

Social sciences and the arts have developed approaches to questions such as: how do we combat prejudice and discrimination in the workplace? How do we think beyond our own circumstances to include people whose experiences we will never fully understand? How do we build a better society for all? These are questions we are all confronted with daily by virtue of living alongside other human beings who can never be summed up by a mathematical model.

Hidden ideologies

This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society? It looks like the former model often goes unquestioned because it is seen as the more pragmatic of the two, the more realistic, or even the only we can afford to pursue.

I would argue that the kind of education we find desirable tells a lot more about our political leanings than about what the economy ‘demands’. Thinking that technology is a neutral force in the world reveals not the absence of a political stance but a vision of society that wilfully ignores structural injustice.

Thus, curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play. A national education system focused mainly on building a strong STEM foundation sounds appealing in the short term and intuitively makes economic sense. It’s also a domain of knowledge that’s reassuring for it seemingly provides clear-cut, universal answers to important questions. So, let’s cover our bases, the rest will come later, right? Except that encouraging STEM to the detriment of other equally worthy subjects of interest can have deleterious unintended effects. For instance, the strict division of young people into discrete arbitrary categories (scientist / arts-oriented) creates a mindset of limitation instead of potential and ends up devaluing non-STEM talents.

Reevaluating our approach to STEM

For formal education to be a transformative experience it needs to be in touch with contradictory strands of knowledge, a perspective known as contrapuntal analysis, thus defined by Harry Garuba in an opinion piece on the changes needed following the #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa:

Contrapuntal analysis takes into account the perspectives of both the colonised and the coloniser, their interwoven histories, their discursive entanglements – without necessarily harmonising them or attending to one while erasing the other.

Transforming the curriculum involves contrapuntal thinking at every level; it needs a contrapuntal pedagogy that brings the knowledge of the marginalised to bear on our teaching. A transformed curriculum is one that encourages contrapuntal thinking and pedagogy.

If we accept harmonious society-building as a goal of education, we need to understand how science and scientists fit into the society. This work must be chiefly done by scientists, with input from specialists of other disciplines. Doing this requires asking the right questions and adopting thinking strategies such as contrapuntal analysis, which brings to bear all the messiness of the human condition. For instance, have you ever researched what mathematics and philosophy looked like before Western-style schooling was introduced in what is now Kenya? If not, we’re working under the assumption that these disciplines were created by Westerners and that Kenyans are condemned to constantly playing catch-up to externally received forms of knowledge. This sounds like a destructive worldview to pass on to younger generations. I believe school could be the place where one receives guidance on how to examine these issues without necessarily providing ready-made answers.

By any means, encouraging young people to study STEM subjects and giving them the means to succeed in this field should remain a critical part of the current curriculum reform. However, the process should be informed by a broader view of education, one that does not take for granted a vision of STEM-focused education as the highway to economic development.

Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context.

What About The Girl Child?

Brenda Wambui
22 March ,2016

Two weeks ago in Bungoma County, twenty girls from Chelebei Secondary Schoolgirls in Mt Elgon were confirmed pregnant after a routine check by the school when they returned from the December holidays.

Their deputy principal, David Emachar, blamed the girls’ parents for not closely monitoring their children’s activities and whereabouts during the holidays, saying “we have tried our best through guidance and counselling sessions and it is unfortunate that such still occur. We ask the parents to come and support our efforts by monitoring the children’s movements.”

Parents, on the other hand, blamed the school for letting the girls down. They felt that since they were busy working hard so as to fend for their families, the school should have taken a more active role in preventing this occurrence. This shows how these poor girls’ lives are affected by the intersection of multiple problems, such as poverty (which leaves their parents unable to spend as much time as they would like monitoring their children), lack of reproductive health education (our legislators continue to hold back the Reproductive Health Bill from becoming law, yet it would ensure children such as these at least understand their bodies, that chances of them being taken advantage of by adults are reduced, and that when disasters such as this one occur, they can receive the best care), and perhaps worst of all, being a girl child in Kenya and having to face sexism from every possible source in their lives.

One of the residents interviewed said that these girls typically had to walk long distances to and from school, and they get waylaid by boys from neighbouring schools and areas. Many parties agreed that such cases would be fewer if the schools had dormitories. The deputy principal added “We are shocked by this incident, it has proved to be very much expensive to us because we are forced to offer guiding and counseling sessions and also inviting different speakers to talk to them so that they can accept their status and carry on with their education.” As if it is a burden to offer sex education and/or guidance and counselling to these girls. This feels like victim blaming at its worst.

What we have here is a failure to recognize this for what it is: sexual abuse of minors. The fact that the girls have to be kept at school to be safe from other (male) members of their societies is saddening. That the onus is on them, as children, to be “guided and counselled” out of having sex with boys/men from their societies, as opposed to strongly warning these boys/men against statutorily raping these girls (if they are minors, which they likely are, they cannot consent, and this automatically makes it statutory rape as opposed to sex), is even more so.

Just this week, it was reported that five school girls in Migori County had been impregnated by boda boda drivers. One of the pregnant girls, who is only 14 years old, said that since she was under the care of her relative (who is a boda boda driver), she had no choice but to follow him to the sugar plantation every afternoon. Many of the girls wanted to drop out due to being ridiculed by their fellow students, and other villagers. This shows the culture of victim blaming we have perfected in Kenya. It also shows that these people are desensitized, do not consider what happened as rape (most times, these girls have no power in these situations), and somehow think of these girls as adults as opposed to children who deserve to be taken care of by everyone in their community.

The 2015 National Adolescent and Youth preliminary report found that teachers and boda boda drivers were mostly to blame for early pregnancy cases, which then result in school drop-outs and early marriages. Other reasons include unsafe sexual behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and parental negligence.

The survey that informed the report found that teenage pregnancies are linked to level of education, with a majority (36%) of teenage mothers aged between 15 and 19 (either mothers or pregnant with their first child) having only completed primary school. 33% had no education at all, 19% had not even completed primary school, and only 12% had completed secondary school. This is a vicious cycle that ensures that this continues to happen, because these women are likely to raise these children in poverty, and girls coming from such homes will likely fall prey to the same kind of sexual abuse their mothers did.

Lack of reproductive health education was pointed out as a key reason for these pregnancies, alongside lack of community engagement. The report says that “Teenage mothers face a greater risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. The young mothers are prone to abort, which can also lead to death. They are also likely to suffer from poor mental and general health, considering the stress they undergo.”

It is time we stopped lying to ourselves using anecdotes that the girl child in Kenya is well off, or as some would say, “being prioritized in favour of the boy child,” who does not face challenges of the same magnitude. One key to ending the cycle of poverty in Kenya is putting an end to the perpetuation of sexual abuse against young girls, ensuring they receive a good education and have a shot at bettering their lives, and the lives of those around them.

As Barack Obama said, “They are issues of right or wrong in any culture. But they are also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports centre: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”

What Is The Value Of A Kenyan Life?

Brenda Wambui
22 September ,2015

Mythology has it that human life is priceless – this sentiment has been reinforced as long as I can remember and is taken as a basic human truth. It is echoed in the Bible when King Solomon had to determine the mother of a child and did so by ordering that the child be split with each woman claiming the maternity of the child receiving half. The true mother of the child pleaded that the child not be cut in half – she preferred that it be given to the other woman rather than die in such a manner – while the other woman saw no problem with the splitting of the child. The child’s mother got her child due to her acknowledgement of the pricelessness of her child’s life.

Closer home, the pricelessness of a life – especially a Kenyan life – has never been more in question. I am reminded of several times when I have been in a matatu which has been caught on the wrong side of the law, and when stopped by the police, the driver offers a bribe of no more that KES 1,000 and gets away scot free, putting the lives of 14 to 30 people at risk. In this case, the value that has been placed on each of their lives ranges from KES 33 to 71. I am reminded of rumours that Kenyan passports have been sold to non-citizens for as little as KES 100,000. Perhaps some of these buyers go on to commit crimes such as Garissa attack, which kill 147 students. What is the value of a Kenyan life then? KES 680?

I am also reminded of when Pastor Ng’ang’a, a prominent Christian leader, was accused of driving while drunk on the wrong side of the road in a car whose insurance had expired and hitting a car in Limuru, killing a woman and leaving her husband seriously injured. He allegedly fled from the scene of the accident, having been rescued by his friends, and bribed the police to be released (and to cook up a terrible cover up). The story became that the car was being test driven by someone else under a General Dealers License, with valid insurance, when the accident occurred. This goes contrary to all eye witness reports of the accident. This story came directly from the Inspector General of the Police Service, who seemed to have forgotten his mandate to serve and to protect Kenyans. Pastor Ng’ang’a was then hosted on Citizen TV’s prime time TV show to give his side of the story. The victim’s family received no such privilege. I wonder what the value of her life was.

In economics, there exists a measure known as the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL). It is based on several factors, such as health, safety, environmental regulation, attitudes towards risk, wage premiums for risky jobs, among others. This value is a cost-benefit analysis of how much it costs to save a life. In his paper, Variations between Countries in Values of Statistical Life, Ted R. Miller finds that the VSL of a person is usually around 120 times the GDP per capita of the country they live in, with some variation. The GDP per capita of Kenya is US$ 1,358.30 as at 2014, bringing the VSL in Kenya to US$ 162,996 (KES 17,171,547.10). There exist other models to establish the VSL, but few make it so simple to compare countries across the board. Why is it that a Kenyan life is theoretically valued at a price that has not been reflected anywhere in how Kenyans are treated? Why is it that everywhere we look, we are met with signs that we are disposable, that our lives do indeed have a price – and it is negligible?

The normalization of corruption, violence and death has brought us to a place where we have lost our humanity, and our sense of empathy. Certain lives, especially those of poor people, have been thought of as disposable, and as such, when they are lost, be it to terrorism (such as the Garissa attack), we mourn, but we do not dwell. However, when the richer members of society were hit by the Westgate attack, it stuck, because it hurt a group of people who thought themselves immune to terror by virtue of their status and location. The same applies to the most recent teachers’ strike.

Initially, only public schools had been affected by the strike, and as such, the middle class and some of the rich whose children attended private 8-4-4 schools did not feel the pinch until their children were also sent home to join their public school counterparts who are also not learning. Now, everyone is sitting up and taking note of the importance of this strike, and what it could mean for our economy and country as a whole. We cannot ignore the teachers’ point: a salary increment to teachers of between 50 – 60% (12.5% – 15% per year) for four years meets our wage review criteria, indeed, even the TSC had proposed this last year after teachers asked for 100 – 150% instead. Kenya’s rising inflation also requires teachers’ salaries to be reviewed. The government had budgeted but not paid out to teachers a 4% cushion against inflation between 1997 and 2013. Had this cushion been applied between 1997 and 2009, we would not have had this problem as the teachers’ salaries would be 64% higher. It is cruel of us to imagine that a P1 teacher with a starting salary of KES 16,992 per month should come to school motivated enough to teach our children. Some of them go to work hungry, work in schools that have no resources and endure pupil to teacher ratios of 57 to 1, and are expected to work miracles and ensure these children are well taught and pass exams. What results is the atrocity that is our education system, an altar upon which we sacrifice our children.

84% of our children enroll in primary school, however, only 32% of these go on to enroll in secondary school. Over 250,000 students who sit KCPE fail to transition into secondary schools annually. Yet, we require the education sector’s input if we are to achieve Vision 2030 and stop being a third world country. 60% of those who sit KCSE end up scoring 49% and below (that is a C-), and are unable to transition into higher education. Indeed, those who survive from enrolment in class one to form four are 20%, while those who go on to complete university are only 1.69%. These people who we sacrifice then go on to form a large part of our unemployed workforce (Kenya’s unemployment rate is about 25%). Even when those who complete tertiary education graduate, they largely remain unemployed due to a mismatch between their training and the skills required by the labour market.

These people go on to form the building blocks of Kenyan society, unable to find well-paying work, living in squalid conditions, bitter at an enemy hiding behind the shadows, too large to be properly dissected, and bear children who likely go on to perpetuate this cycle of poverty because of these circumstances out of their control. They get angry at anyone they perceive as an enemy and lash out bitterly when told that this enemy is behind their suffering, as seen during our 2007/08 post-election violence. On a smaller scale, we witness this whenever a pickpocket is caught and necklaced, burning to death over the theft of goods that are worth less than his or her VSL. Yet we do not see how all these things are interconnected – how we keep doing this to ourselves and our country.

We continue to deny ourselves a higher standard of living and development due to our country’s institutionalized corruption. We continue to elect tribal overlords and overpay our legislators while entertaining presidents whose terms are incomplete without grand theft scams (Jomo Kenyatta’s independence land allocation, Daniel Moi’s Goldenberg, Mwai Kibaki’s Anglo Leasing, Uhuru Kenyatta’s NYS among others) all while wondering what we did to spite the earth, because it hates us so. All the while, the value of our lives keeps diminishing, perhaps soon to zero.

Something’s got to give.