When it comes to celebrating education, Kenya is way up there, not just regionally, but internationally. The euphoria that accompanies the release of national results for some and perhaps anxiety in equal measure for many others is evident that Kenyans love and believe in education. The abolishing of official ranking of schools, supposedly to moderate unhealthy competition practices has done little, other than generate unofficial, and perhaps less reliable ranking.
Granted, investing in education is investing in the future social and economic development of the country. That parents and the country view education as a top development priority is important for attainment of economic prosperity. In fact education is well recognised as both an enabler and an equalize and is critical for attainment of sustainable development.
It is therefore no surprise that Goal 4 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the new world agenda that were adopted last year is “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. The goal not only recognises education as essential to building a better world but more importantly as a transformational force for inclusion, gender equality and poverty eradication. Education is also a catalyst to the achievement of other SDGs such as the goals on health, growth and employment, sustainable consumption and production and climate change. To support the achievement of Goal 4, the international community has pledged to provide every child with 12 years of education by 2030.
With globalisation, benchmarking of education standards at international level is the new normal. Statistics show that while access to education has improved tremendously throughout the developing world, Sub-Saharan Africa remains home to more than half of out-of- school children globally. Additionally only 58 per cent of the primary school going children complete the primary level, with the rest, 42 per cent, dropping out early. Kenya is favourably rated as one of the few countries with enrolment rates of over 95 per cent and closer to achieving universal education.
The country has no doubt made tremendous progress in education. However, the quality of education remains a major challenge. This has lead to the growth of a parallel private school education system that is gradually privatising education country-wide. Unlike two decades ago when the average child went to a public school, today it is reported that 40 per cent of the poorest students in slums in Kenya attend private schools. This is puzzling, especially considering that primary education is fully funded by the government. The public sector is slowly ceding its responsibility for provision of education to the private sector, and a higher proportion of the household budget is now spent on a private education.
While on the surface this appears a workable private-public partnership, it has the consequences of raising the cost of living and creating labour unrest as workers demand higher salaries.
But perhaps the most telling of the crisis in the primary education system is that a great percentage of teachers do not take their children to the schools that they teach, including the head-teachers. More significantly, the constant labour challenges have not only disrupted learning, but also affected morale with teacher absenteeism estimated to exceed 20 per cent. Many children who are attending primary school are not getting the required instruction time, and attendance without learning is not useful.
Yet the yearly budgetary allocation to the education sector is significant at more than 15 per cent. In fact a Brookings Africa Initiative study in 2013 found that nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of children in private schools pay fees that is less than the median per child funding levels in public schools. This is clear evidence that the performance of most private schools has little to do with funding levels. More mindboggling is that even teachers in most private schools are paid below the TSC scales, but continue to post impressive results. The abolition of school ranking will only mask a worsening situation, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.
Quality education is indispensable for economic progress and achievement of Vision 2030. Reforming the primary education system is a top priority for the country, to ensure that human resource development needs are met to catalyse future development. That the malaise in primary public education could get into public secondary education is also a real possibility that could threaten the whole education sector.
While we have reason to celebrate the strides that have been made in education since independence, we cannot lose sight that much more needs to be done.
It is now opportune time for the leaders in education to go beyond access to education. There is an urgent need to widen the lens to quality of education, to lifelong learning, to skills, to teaching and content. This will equip the population with not just grades but also an education for sustainable development and global citizenship.