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.