According to a report on the state of education in East Africa released last week, Kenyan pupils are tops in the region.
Though the report by the Dar es Salaam-based East African education think-tank Uwezo found that, by global standards, the quality of education in the region is alarmingly low, Kenya, to use the old expression, was the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind (no offence intended to people with seeing disabilities).
Kenyan children were not only better in adding numbers and reading letters but, surprise of surprises, they even outscored their Tanzanian counterparts in Kiswahili. That is like a sheikh beating a cardinal at a Bible exam.
The devil, however, was in the details. The performance of children from poorer Kenyan families was awful, particularly compared to that of those from the middle and rich classes.
On the whole, the poorer children had a miserable time with the tests in all the three countries. This raises the question whether it makes sense to send poor children to school to learn.
Or, put another way, we should send poor children to school, but the primary reason should not be for them to learn. Learning should be incidental.
My mother (bless her soul) worked in health before she retired early to look after her troublesome brood of sons. But she had some interesting views about education (as most mothers do).
Those were the days when the cane was the favoured tool of discipline in schools. The teachers would collect the names of all the sinning pupils from the previous day and in the next morning’s assembly, they would be called up on the stage and caned on the bottom as the other pupils watched.
My mother was against teachers beating school children. First, for selfish reasons. Like all parents, she took the view that only she had the right to use the cane on her children. Secondly, she thought caning children made school unattractive.
That was critical because, in her view, the best schools were the ones where children looked forward every morning to go to as they were fun. Children should go to school to grow up, not to study, she maintained to her last days decades later.
Her point was that if school was fun, then pupils would learn effortlessly and not want to dodge class because it gave them access to what they liked most — a good time.
For that reason, I think focusing on getting poor children to go to school primarily to learn is not a successful strategy.
First, it means that most of the free education funds will go into things like classrooms, hiring as many teachers as possible, maybe building a house for the headmaster, and such things. There is no fun in all that. Small wonder there are high school dropout rates.
It might be better to offer poor children things they don’t have, or don’t have enough of, at home. One, which authorities have tried, is food.
Governments should not spend the money for free education paying fees. They should make poor parents pay a little fees, but give children a hearty tea break and a filling late lunch. For this reason, the best building should be the school kitchen, not the classrooms.
I believe a school with a good kitchen, where children are well fed, but study under a tree, will attract more learners than one with nice classrooms, a lousy kitchen, and only a small helping of uji at break.
The well-fed pupils studying under a tree will be more attentive in class and do better in test scores than the half-hungry ones studying in beautiful classrooms.
Then they should buy each poor child two shirts, two shorts (or skirts), a sweater, and inexpensive shoes and raincoats. What will happen in some of the very poor cases is that all children in the house will wear the shirts, shorts, and shoes.
A poor father is more likely to find school fees to pay for one son to go to school if he is going to bring back clothes for the rest to share than just for him to study.
And he will also insist that the fellow remain in school and get the grades that keep him there for that reason. In the process, though, his son will get an education too.