Some time in March last year, Cabinet secretaries Fred Matiang’i and Joseph Nkaissery held an unusual press conference at the Education ministry headquarters at Jogoo House.
They announced they had instructions from President Uhuru Kenyatta to commence a thorough clean-up of the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec), whose image had been badly damaged due to massive irregularities that made nonsense of testing.
And quickly, without any ceremonies, the two ministers announced the dissolution of the Knec board and the sacking of top officials, including chief executive Joseph Kivilu.
Subsequently, officials were seized and taken to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission for questioning over the examinations mess.
A few days earlier, Dr Matiang’i, newly appointed to the strategic Education ministry, had released the 2015 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results, in which the marks of some 5,000-plus candidates had been cancelled due to cheating.
That was the highest number of cancelled KCSE results since it started in 1989.
Looking at the glittering skies over the Knec offices at Caledonia, Nairobi, the minister declared that he would never stand in front of the cameras to the public’s glare to announce the cancellation of results again. His parting shot to the top Knec officials was that the game was over. With that, the end was nigh.
It was against this background that Prof George Magoha entered the scene. A surgeon specialising in urology, Prof Magoha had made a mark as a no-nonsense results-oriented vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, where he had served two terms.
At the university, he was referred to as “Buffalo” because of his boldness in taking head-on anyone who failed to do the right thing or rubbed him the wrong way.
He was revered and loved in equal measure. Among his lasting legacies was creating stability at the university by containing student riots that had become the norm.
And so Prof Magoha was appointed to chair the Knec board with the express instructions to clean up the rot and restore sanity to national examinations.
Those in the know report that before he took up the job, he asked if he would be given a free hand to carry out what he needed to do — and the answer was in the affirmative.
Without that, the narrative goes, he was not ready to accept the offer.
During a one-on-one interview at the weekend, Prof Magoha opened up about his experiences at Knec, which oscillated between fear, anxiety, hope and triumph.
He reports how some underworld fellows tried to silence him through intimidation. He had busted their multibillion-shilling business and they could not take it lying low.
But his greatest and sobering moment, he says, was when an elderly woman saw him at a public function and went straight to him, took his hands and prayed for him.
Apparently, her grandchild had done well in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams whose results were released in early December and had secured a place at a national school of her choice.
The woman reckoned that could not have happened in the past when exams were stolen and children from disadvantaged families found themselves left out because they could not play in that league.
But joining Knec was a tough decision. Although he is an accomplished university administrator and top surgeon, Prof Magoha reckons that he initially felt uncomfortable handling examinations for primary and secondary schools.
ZEAL AND GUSTO
“I was trained to handle adults — university students — so I felt I was unsuitable to manage exams for those at lower levels,” he says.
“I took time to think through it and it later dawned on me that unless we cleaned [up] the rot at the lower levels, we were not going to sit pretty at the university.”
Clearly, there is an intricate nexus between schools and universities. Ill-prepared high school students cannot competently go through university education. And so, if there is a problem in schools, it is in the interest of those at the university to fix it.
Prof Magoha took the office with the zeal and gusto he is well known for. The first task was to appoint a chief executive officer to replace Dr Kivilu, who had been sacked. But this was not going to be because Dr Kivilu had gone to court to challenge his sacking.
The matter has not been concluded and so the council continues to operate with an acting chief executive — Mercy Karogo.
THE MESS AT KNEC
The second assignment was to clean up the system. Many things had gone wrong at Knec. There were no controls and cartels ran the exams. For example, too many people had access to exams.
This had to be stopped. Matters were made worse by the practice at the council of setting exams years in advance and keeping them in a databank.
Literally, these papers were accessible to many people and, not surprisingly, easily found their way into the hands of the cartels that sold them to schools and parents.
Prof Magoha’s team decried that all the papers be trashed and fresh ones set — and only by a new crop of properly vetted examiners.
Concomitant to that, the new team ordered a suitability test for Knec staff and a number had to go because their hands were not clean.
DRILLING FOR EXAMS
In the seven months Prof Magoha had been at Knec, he says he was horrified by the rot in the education chain — right from schools, districts and counties to the national level.
In many cases, teachers had long stopped teaching; instead, they only drilled candidates to pass exams.
“I went through many scripts randomly and was shocked that many candidates could not answer even common knowledge questions, [and] hence only managed to score four or six per cent,” he says.
“It is not that they are weak, but they had not been taught,” he says.
It transpires that many schools had devised various dubious ways of preparing candidates to pass exams. For example, the four-year syllabus is completed in Form Three.
Come Form Four and the teachers did what they referred to as re-teaching, a camouflage for drilling candidates as they revised leaked test papers.