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Education Reforms in Kenya – a Long Term Perspective Required

Matunda Nyanchama
March 8, 2017

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” – Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University

Education is fundamental to all development. To achieve intended goals and objectives, it must be tailored to meet the needs of a people. It must shape values, beliefs and strategic national goals that would assure a country’s realizes its development goals.

In Kenya, education reforms in the country are long overdue and the Kenyan public seems to concur. A good gauge of this is the extent of compliments given to Education Cabinet Secretary, Dr Fred Matiang’i, regarding the manner the 2016 KCPE and KCSE examinations were managed.

With fairness in the administration of examinations, many Kenyan parents are hopeful that their children will be assessed objectively and hence get a fair chance in life, based on merit rather through the distorted lenses of stolen examinations fueled by cartels!

There have also been actions such those aimed at changing the curriculum to conform to modern demands and realities. The launch of the new curriculum framework and related school system that took place a few weeks ago, should set the country on a firm foundation towards fundamentally changing the education sector in the country. The new curriculum framework emphasizes development of competencies. It also recognizes that students are differently abled and proposes to address this diversity of talent. Thus those that are good at arts and sports get a chance to explore and exploit their capabilities.  There is more. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are also emphasized in line with today’s realities where STEM capabilities are fueling growth and creating totally new industries.

Institutions of higher learning have also been in the news lately. They have come under scrutiny with respect to the quality of education they offer. This follows a recent audit by the Commission on University Education. Recommended action would go a long way to enhance the quality of education (hence graduates) from our universities and place them in good international standing.

Education is the foundation of all development. It is as important for economic advances as it is for nation-building. An education founded on core principles and targeted at intended outcomes will go a long way in strengthening a nation, politically, socially, economically and otherwise.

In Kiswahili we say that, ukiona vyaelea ujue vimeundwa. For example, if you see floating vehicles, understand that it did not just happen! A lot of thought, planning and actual building took place to get them into that state.  So also it should be with respect to building a prosperous country!

Proactive nations engineer desired outcomes through the education system. However, in order for that to happen, there has to be a clearly defined direction that the nation has set its path towards.

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In Kenya, the outcomes we see in our society are due to the kind of education (or lack thereof) we have gone through, in both colonial and post-colonial Kenya. If we see blatant display of impunity it is because our system failed in one respect or another. Open-day thievery that we witness and subsequent denials by perpetrators speak to the “values” imbued in us by the education system. And it may not be by accident that we see a lot of unpalatable conduct from citizens for the system we have appears rigged to produce the outcomes we see today.

Since independence, there have been a number of commissions that have assessed the role of education in the nation’s affairs. These commissions’ assessments have determined the structure and content of the education given to Kenyans.

We need close scrutiny of these commissions’ findings to better understand where we have been and hence where we are today. This is for the reason that these findings and recommendations were intended to realize certain outcomes. For example, at independence the focus was on training personnel who would take up jobs of departing colonialists. Other commissions took a similar stance that focused on one or more aspects of job skills and what were seen as addressing future needs of the country. Ultimately, most of these commissions pointed to skills that would place someone in job of one kind or the other. To a small extent, they emphasized self-employment as an avenue for graduates of the education system.

That said, an overarching subtle message was: education is your ticket to a job! And that there will be one such job at the end of the tunnel of study!

Problem: most people perceived this stance as suggesting that all they needed was to show a certificate saying they had attained XYZ to be given a job. Mastery was least emphasized! Thus came the culture of cheating and shortcuts that people use to obtain papers, regardless of whether they are qualified for those papers or not. The rampant cheating in examinations can be seen in this context. The same applies the academic transgressions unearthed with the recent audit of university education.

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This system has failed the country in other respects as well.

It is a failed system that produces people with little human decency, driven by unfettered greed, impunity and imbued by tendencies to discriminate against others on the most flimsy of things such as ethnic origin.

It is a failed system where players routinely sing the words of the National Anthem but fail to internalize the meaning of the words and related importance, let alone putting the words into action. It is a failed system where individuals admire those that steal. It is a failed system that rewards those that take shortcuts, taking advantage of the weak and those without connections.

Education should not be just a means to a job. It needs to imbue values of integrity, decency, law-abiding, community service and more. Indeed, the system should entrench values of nationhood with emphasis that, regardless of the biological accident of where one is born, we are all Kenyans with a common destiny.

A sound, nation-building education system would value the positive aspects of our diversity (language, culture, etc.) and tap into these for the common good. Thus the description of what is Kenya by a kid in Kwale should agree with a similar definition from a kid in Turkana as indeed it should agree with all others from across the nation.

A sound, nation-building education system would place meritocracy at the centre of each and everything we do. This way, the best of the best would ascend to positions on merit with the gain being for the entire nation!

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In making reforms, let’s ask the basic question: what is the philosophy of education in Kenya? In addition let’s take stock of where we have been and how we ended where we are today, i.e. with citizens that are ethnically discordant, who worship in churches and mosques yet they have little meaningful underlying values of integrity. Indeed, let’s examine how, despite Kenyans’ religious bent, actions appear dissonant with the teachings of the Lord and Allah!  I posit that unless we truly understand these issues, our reforms will be limited in impact in the long run.

Out of this understanding, we can then consider how we can re-engineer a society that supports the country’s nationhood, strengthens our values and builds a cohesive society. This is in addition to understanding how to better harness our collective potential for an economically and socially prosperous society. Let’s consider how we can become the economic power house we dream off in such official documents as Vision 2030 as well as being a true Kenyan nation rather than living as an amalgamation of ethnic groups.

Vision 2030, the national blueprint for economic growth, continues to guide the path to economic development with the hope that we will becomes a middle-income country by the year 2030. To date, there is more emphasis on the economic angle of the blueprint. Little is said on how we can truly build a cohesive nation that taps into its potential to assert itself in this globe.

As a start, and to a great degree the new curriculum will address this, we must start teaching and demonstrating national values at the very basic level. As children grow up, they will understand what it means to live an upright life, serve fellow citizens and ensure to be a good member of our society. As they grow up these children need to witness the demonstration of these values by us adults and make it their way of life. They should understand their place as Kenyans and appreciate others for what they are: Kenyans with equal rights but who happen to have a different mother tongue or with different abilities!

On the economic front, outcomes can be accelerated based on preferential resource allocation to those sectors that will be at the heart of the economic engine. Thus we need more funding for STEM and business-related skills right from the basic levels through to college and university. Resources would focus on the infrastructure and human capacity to drive the economic engine, through inventions, innovations and apply these to create jobs. These resources would focus not simply on skills and knowledge but also the application of these to drive the economic engine for growth.

Ukiona vyaelea vimeundua – so let’s engineer the Kenya we would like through appropriate investments that will dictate the future we desire. But we must define that future not just in economic terms, but more so on nationhood and the Kenyan nation our founding father dreamt of.

Matunda Nyanchama is an ICT Consultant and Book Publisher

He can be reached at matunda@matunda.org

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