Okay, let us agree that in the Kenya teachers vs government dispute over pay, both sides are correct: That it is possible to increase teachers’ pay, but also that the government cannot afford it.
Is it possible to move the present pot of money around so that the teachers can get more of it? Yes.
Like all money in Kenya and elsewhere in this fair continent, a lot of it is stolen and wasted.
Uganda was the first country in Africa to introduce universal primary education (UPE) (in Kenya there is universal free education).
It went wrong very early and the first investigation in the scam was done by the internal security service.
We had fun with the report for years in the media.
It found that in several cases, on the spots where the “new” schools were supposed to have been constructed under UPE, the only buildings there were anthills.
And there were even cases of long-dead teachers “resurrecting” to teach equally ghostly students.
Be aware, though, that the focus on pay takes attention away from an equally big problem — bad teachers.
Not too long ago, a World Bank report found that many African teachers would not pass the final examinations in the subjects they teach.
In countries such as Senegal, it was nearly 60 per cent.
Kenya was better, but the number of its teachers who would fail their students’ final exams was still unacceptably high.
Let us assume the corruption problems and waste could be ended and the teachers were the best in the world.
It still would not create efficiencies or open opportunities for better distribution of public funds in education.
It seems the worst possible thing to do, but the beginning of a solution, might be to take government a lot more out of education.
Do what the Americans do with the states; make it more the business of the counties.
There are still drawbacks, but that would introduce better pricing.
The money a teacher in Nairobi needs to survive is more than one needs to get by in Busia, so why should they be paid the same?
The central government cannot have salary discrimination, but county governments can.
Then get counties to compete against one another.
To do that, the Education Ministry would publish a ranking of the best county — and maybe the best one can get bonus scholarships for their students.
Because education is important, there is a need to have very high standards of accountability, so Parliament would pass a law allowing counties to more easily fire incompetent education officials and headteachers.
To prevent abuse and secure the interests of students, a framework would have to be established for parents-teachers associations with real power.
There is a need to challenge a lot of notions that rule education.
One of them is that we need elaborate classrooms.
What would be better, to pay a teacher Sh120,000 a month and she enthusiastically teaches children in a humble shed or under a tree or pay them Sh30,000 and they teach very badly in nice classrooms?
In short, if there is not a lot of money to go around, do not spend it on school real estate.
Invest it in teachers and teaching. If I had a dictator’s powers over education, thank God I do not, I would treat education like a project.
I would tender out education as if it were an airport or a dam — to the company with the best bid.
Take the vexing issue of books. Just put out a tender for “new way of providing reading materials to schools at 60 per cent of the current cost”.
The book money is a lot and in the hands of a company like, say, Safaricom, they can use their infrastructure and ability to bring tech companies like Google, which are working on radical new ways to offer internet to remote places that do not have it, to the table and create different ways to deliver reading materials to children.
In the face of ever-rising costs, this crisis is an opportunity that should force that final move to digital distribution.
It might be a good time to give that much-maligned computers-for-schools programme another look.
If done right, and indeed savings of 40 per cent are achieved, that is a lot of money to line teachers’ pockets.
The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]