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January 21, 2019

ALEX AWITI: National examinations reveal troubling inequalities

Candidates sit past KCSE exams at a Mombasa school. /JOHN CHESOLI
Candidates sit past KCSE exams at a Mombasa school. /JOHN CHESOLI

The release of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results is more than an annual ritual that brings glee or gloom to millions of young Kenyans.

National examination results are much more than a league table of top schools and students. Don’t get me wrong. We must recognise and celebrate top achievers; schools, students and teachers. But the patterns of schools’ performance are essentially a measure of the distribution of education resources and opportunity for our children.

School performance and ranking delineates the geography of inequality. The cleavages of privilege are obvious; unfailingly, children from affluent and relatively well-to-do families attend good schools and score high grades in the KCPE and KCSE exams.

The list of the top schools in the 2018 KCPE exam was dominated by the so-called academies (private primary schools) and as if by privileged invitation only, a miniscule sprinkle of public boarding schools. All the 11 top primary schools in Nairobi county were academies, private primary schools. Even in rural Bomet county, seven of the 11 top schools were private schools. Similarly, eight out of the nine top schools in Kitui county were private primary schools.

The top 20 schools in the 2018 KCSE exam had three defining features —they are urban, private and national. Only two schools in the top 20 were the Extra County category, which means very well-resourced public schools. The list of the top 100 KCSE students provides invaluable insights into the deep inequalities in the distribution of and access to education opportunities.

The top 10 schools — Moi High School, Kabarak, Alliance High School, Kapsabet Boys, The Kenya High School, Maranda High, Maseno School, Alliance Girls High School, Mangu High School, Moi Girls’ High School, Eldoret and Lenana — accounted for 72 of the top 100 students in the KCPE exam Moreover, 82 of the top 100 students were registered in schools in five of the 47 counties — Kiambu ( 27 ), Nairobi ( 21 ), Nakuru ( 20 ), Kisumu (seven) and Nandi (seven)

The students, parents and teachers understand the unequal distribution of education resources and their implications for learning and student achievement.

Out of the record 1,052,364 students who sat KCPE examination in 2018, 131,876 students listed one of the nine of the top 10 national schools in KCSE as their first choice. Competition for the so-called national schools is brutal because together, the nine national schools can only take 4,176 students ( 1,008 girls and 3,168 boys).

How we classify public secondary schools sends an unambiguous signal to our children. The elite national schools, the well-resourced extra county schools and selective top-flight, high-cost private schools are only for the privileged few — about 160,505 students who scored between 350 and 500 marks. The rest, 891,859 students, will make do with low-quality, poorly resourced secondary schools, and a bleak future.

Access to high quality education must be the birthright of every child, not a privilege of the children of the well-to-do.

Alex O Awiti is the Vice Provost and director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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