“There can be no escape from poverty without a vast expansion of secondary education…it is going to take ambition and commitment to meet this challenge. But it is the only path towards prosperity”, Unesco’s director-general, Irina Bokova.
While Kenya has almost achieved universal primary education with enrolment of over 90 per cent, high school drop-out rates and low secondary transition rates present particular challenges. One knock-on effects of the success of the free primary education is a surge in the demand for secondary education as students seek to access higher levels of education. Without focused effort to expand capacity at secondary level, successful transition to secondary school is unlikely to be achieved, with the potential to significantly eroding the gains of universal primary education.
This year alone, the statistics show that 927,789 students will be competing for about 700,000 available spaces in secondary schools across the country. This gives a best case scenario of a transition of 75 per cent. The remaining 227,789 are expected to join the village polytechnics, most of which lack vital resources as a result of neglect over the years. This means the 25 per cent that will not get a space in secondary education needs to be addressed in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goal No. 4 on education that guarantees 12 years of education for every child by 2030.
The scramble for the 22,095 places in 103 national schools that epitomise high quality standards of learning is particularly tight, and the criteria for selection has become and annual point of dispute between the government and the private schools. Granted, the yearly dispute is unlikely to be resolved soon, so long as the standard of education in public primary schools remains low, and the number of good quality public secondary schools limited.
The lack of enough quality secondary schools is a threat to the value of education as a catalyst for economic development and social progression. To echo Unesco’s director-general Irina Bokova, secondary education is the minimum requirement to equip youth with the knowledge and skills they need to secure decent livelihoods in today’s globalised world. It is more so a greater concern when most students are in early teenage and not mature enough to participate in gainful economic activities. It is not only a family crisis, but also a society crisis when 13-16 year olds are not in school and yet cannot get employment because they are too young.
In fact, with the employment and active participation in economic activities linked to the acquisition of an identity card at age 18, many of the primary school graduates have a gap of two to five years to complete before becoming employable. The most logical way to fill this time gap is to transition to secondary school, and hence the need and the clamour for higher grades to ensure transition to a good school. The Kenya Certificate of Education examination is therefore a defining time for many children and their families and being the entry to a good school means the motivation to do whatever it takes to get the marks is exceptionally high.
Many children will wake up in the wee hours of the morning to attend the school of choice at the opposite end of the city, while many parents spend late nights doing homework with their children. It’s no different in many rural areas, with some schools going to great lengths too. Some have the class eight students camping in school in the final term, with some converting class-rooms to dormitories at night. The ultimate reward for the effort is good grades and entry to a good public boarding secondary school.
Secondary education is therefore no doubt one of the greatest development challenges facing the country. The sharp increase in primary school enrolment has put significant pressure and demand for secondary education, and significant reforms are needed to meet this challenge in a quality and sustainable manner.
One, there is the need to challenge the traditional model of a secondary school from boarding to day schools. Today significant infrastructure is required for boarding facilities, funds that could be utilised to upgrade the quality of teaching staff and provide direct learning resources such as science equipment and libraries. It is perhaps time to model quality day schools, ensuring that they have adequate learning facilities such as quality teachers, science facilities, libraries and other required resources. The current model where student are tightly locked in schools was more appropriate when students came from far and wide, and boarding was a sustainable way to increase access.
Two, more government resources will need to be deployed towards provision of secondary education. It is evident that households have largely been left to pick up the tab for secondary education. In fact, it is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, households contribute 40 per cent of total spending for secondary education, compared with less than 10 per cent for families in the more developed world. While the guideline for secondary education fees is well intentioned, it is an open secret that it is rarely followed, with parents understandably reluctant to challenge an establishment that is taking care of their children. Many schools continue to charge miscellaneous levies with the false consensus of parents, putting intense pressure on parents, whether they can afford it or not.
Thirdly, the role of village polytechnics needs re-evaluating. Perhaps it is time to remodel the village polytechnics to offer a reduced secondary school curriculum in additional to vocational skills. Most often pupils admitted to polytechnics need further skills in languages and literacy for instance, and these will go a long way in increasing the quality of the vocational skills and ability to utilise those skills in accessing employment or starting self employment.
Finally, it is time to shift focus to quality public schooling as the norm rather than private schooling. Privatising education will not only reduce access to quality education, with poor quality institutionalised at public schools, but also increase inequality. Concerted effort and major reforms are needed in the school system to make public primary school the first option for every parent, irrespective of the social class.