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.