Are 7 years enough for primary school?
- The current education system has been criticised by educationists, parents and even pupils for its inherent inefficiencies and irrelevancies
When Amos Malaba talks about his younger sister, there is more than a tinge of admiration in his voice.
It is barely a month since the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination results were announced, but each time he talks about her, his face lights up. And there is a good reason.
You see, unlike many of her classmates at Mukumu Girls Secondary School, Sharon Nekoye had a secret. A majority of her classmates had spent 12 years at school before they sat the final exams. She had spent a year less. By choice.
“As a family, we just didn’t see the need for an extra year in primary school. We thought it would be a waste of money, and her time. From an early age we knew she could punch above her weight,” says Amos.
After seven years in primary school, the family decided that Sharon was ready for the next phase of her education.
“We knew she was done with primary. The final year would be nothing more than endless tuition and revision. Things she could do on her own,” he says.
So, in 2007, as in the middle of the school year, the standard seven pupil at Malinda SA Primary School was registered to sit the KCSE exams. She emerged with 321 marks and proceeded to Mukumu Girls Secondary School.
And last month, as the 2011 candidates received their KCSE results, she was among the elated ones. She had passed.
“I managed to get an A- of 79 points,” says Sharon, who was born in 1994 to Alfred Opicho and Agnetta Nafula. She is the only girl in a family of four.
But her father is looking past her dream career in medicine and to what he terms the grander picture – the relevance of the current education system.
The 8-4-4 system has been in place since 1985, when the first class graduated. It constitutes eight years of primary education followed by four years of secondary school and four years of college or university.
A system that has been criticised by educationists, parents and even pupils for inefficiencies and irrelevancies.
Sharon’s father, a teacher, believes that the time has come for the system to be scrapped.
Last month, the public and organisations with a stake in the education sector were given a month to submit their views on a report that proposed major changes to the current education system.
It is expected that these views will be deliberated upon later this month at a national conference. The formulators hope that these changes will make learning in Kenya move hand in hand with the Constitution and the Vision 2030.
The taskforce proposed the scrapping of the 8-4-4 system and adopt a 2-6-3-3 format where learners begin to specialise in the last three years of secondary school.
As debate rages on about the proposed system, the Malaba homestead has already made up its mind.
“In our own little way we have proved that one needs not spend all these years in primary school. The final year is of no value to the student,” says Mr Opicho.
But Sharon’s road to her final exams was not smooth.
“There were hurdles along the way. I suffered a confidence crisis at some point,” she says, her memory going back to her first year in secondary school.
She was among the youngest and smallest students. For much of her first year, she was intimidated and just couldn’t fit in.
“Jumping one class meant I had to leave a lot of my friends behind. I was in a class full of strangers. There was no social transition,” she says.
Class work suffered
As a result, her class work suffered a bit.
“Her grades dipped somewhat. We were however not worried. We knew that it was only a matter of time before she got her groove back,” says elder brother Amos.
When she got to Form Two, she turned the corner.
“I grew in confidence. I realised that there wasn’t much difference between the other girls and I, so I just settled in,” she says.
But there are those who point out that her progress in school has nothing to do with skipping one class or the 8-4-4 system.
“A number of things need to be taken into consideration before we claim this as a triumph against the battered education system,” says child psychologist Kelvin Ouma.
Mr Ouma lays out several scenarios.
“It may be that the child covered the primary education syllabus with a year to spare, or she was receiving extra tuition, or she is just gifted. Plain and simple,” he argues.
Sharon says none of this is true.
“At the time I sat my KCPE exam, I was just halfway through the Standard Seven syllabus. I didn’t receive any extra tuition but made time on my own to go through the Class Eight syllabus,” she says.
She is however not the only one who skipped a class. She knows three others. Two got straight As while another got A-.
Mr Ouma concedes that these students may, in their triumph, have exposed the cracks in the current education system.
“The system has been chastised for producing bookworms whose sole purpose to reading is passing an examination. They may just have spent hours peering into books cramming for the exams,” he says.
But the proposed new system has understandably run into opposition. First, on matters cost.
Burden to taxpayer
The Kenya National Union of Teachers and Elimu Yetu Coalition argue that the Sh360 billion needed for infrastructure, textbooks and the hiring of 52,365 teachers would be too much of a burden to the taxpayer.
Knut national chairman Wilson Sossion has defended of 8-4-4. He said there’s nothing wrong with the system, adding that the only problem is in the curriculum content, arrangement and financing.
As the debate continues on the suitable education system, some present a different set of arguments.
“What if we are blaming the wrong thing? 8-4-4 graduates represent a majority of the current work force in public and private institutions as well as in business. We cannot simply bastardise a whole system on theoretical evidence. The truth of the matter is that a majority of those who have gone through 8-4-4 are good at what they do,” argues education consultant Rachel Mahinga.
She says if a whole education system was not working, a lot more would be going wrong in the country.
“What we need is a change in mindset, not education systems. We might invent the best education system in the whole world, but if those who go through it do not recognise the values it instills in them, then it will be a waste of time,” she says.
In an effort to address the emerging inadequacies in the education sector, the government established the National Assessment Centre (NAC) to monitor learning achievement.
In 2010, the NAC released the results of its first assessment.
In 2009, in collaboration with the NAC, Uwezo Kenya, an education lobby group, conducted an assessment of the basic literacy and numeracy skills of children aged six to 16 years.
The Annual Learning Assessment (ALA) reached villages in 70 out of 158 districts in Kenya, and assessed nearly 70,000 children in their homes.
The ALA was set at a Standard Two level, which is the level where pupils are supposed to have achieved basic competence in reading English and Kiswahili and doing simple arithmetic problems.
The report had damning conclusions for the lower primary school children. It indicated that up to 85 per cent of those in Standard Two could not read an English paragraph. And 81 per cent of them could not read a Kiswahili paragraph.
Could not perform
The report also indicated that up to 10 per cent of Standard Eight candidates sitting their final exams could not perform basic subtraction.
Sharon’s story might resonate with many other students and parents with their own inclinations and preferences to what an ideal education system should be.
“But as debate on the 8-4-4’s relevance continues,” says Ms Mahinga, “it will be important to address all the things that ail our socio-educational setting. A blanket change may not be the solution everyone seems to be after.”