Several years ago I visited a public primary school in Bunyore, Vihiga county. I walked into a classroom packed wall to wall with about 80 pupils aged six to eight. Their classroom had no door or windows. The floor was bare earth. And the children sat on boulders.
I spoke with some of the children. The dilapidated state of their school did not cause them to scale down their dreams or ambitions. Just like the children of the privileged elite, they dreamt of becoming teachers and nurses, musicians and medical doctors, pilots and plumbers, policemen and businessmen, priests and politicians, lawyers and footballers.
The future was bright, full of promise and hope. The future was loaded with possibilities beyond the homestead and the little shamba of their parents.
After all they were playing by the rules. Against all odds, poverty, disease and hunger, these children showed up in school. They had their feet firmly planted on the first rung of the ladder of success. They were on hand to redeem their birthright — quality education.
Since the introduction of free primary education in 2003, tens of millions of Kenyan children have enrolled in school. In 2017 about 953,000 children sat the KCPE exam. We are now moving toward 100 per cent transition into secondary school and this year the government is implementing free day secondary education.
In 2018 about one million children will sit the KCPE exam and hopefully more than 900,000 will enter secondary school and in less than five years secondary school enrolment will exceed one million annually.
Gross enrolment ratio in secondary school could reach nearly 90 per cent by 2020. In the next decade Kenya could have the best-educated workforce in the region.
But schooling alone will not enable those eager boys and girls in Bunyore to realise their dreams. Increased school enrolment and hopefully completion, must be bolstered by high-quality tertiary training programmes that are carefully aligned to labour market demands.
Hence, investments in technical and vocational education must be expanded fast but carefully. We must resist the temptation to proliferate technical and vocational programmes simply because we need somewhere to hold the youth.
The opportunity to build a word-class technical and vocational education system is beckoning. We must hearken to opportunity and build a strong and competent cadre of technicians to blaze Kenya’s trail to durable and equitable progress.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four legacy agenda: Food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and affordable healthcare for all will come a cropper without an army of electricians, plumbers, masons, medical technologists, plant and machine operators.
Technically qualified youth must be the pioneers of innovation and technological transformation that is sorely needed to modernise agriculture, construction, manufacturing and efficient delivery of quality healthcare.
Staggered by the headwinds of low skills and unemployment, youth are despairing and becoming doubtful of the promise of education. The youthfulness of our country is our most valued resource.
As a King proclaimed, we must carve out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University