The Kenya public has seen several front-page pictures of the President and Cabinet secretaries talking to or looking at children sitting examinations this year.
The children smile at the cameras and appreciate the good wishes from state officers simply because they know that they are expected to show excitement for the visit from these guests.
Despite the best efforts by the president and his team, their obsession with declaring the national examinations as free of cheating is both a symbolic and a real problem.
That education is an important public service is not in doubt, because it takes a substantial amount of public spending. It is a surprise that with Sh439 billion for this year, the Ministry of Education and its agent the Kenya National Examinations Council cannot formulate an examination for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds, deliver papers to test centres and mark them without leakage and cheating.
The common refrain is to blame the society, citing the preposterous idea that the youth have worse morals than their parents.
Since Knec does not have an accessible record of historical incidents of cheating, it has been impossible to verify the claim that cheating in examinations has become worse over time. Public disclosure has started more recently, but is not possible to tell whether the information is comparable from one year to another.
The urgency in making these tests free of cheating is sensible. What is farcical is that the administration of national examinations in October and November is quickly becoming a national security issue, with armed police patrolling schools while students are writing the exams.
For all their best efforts, the Ministry of Education and Knec are acting like bullies who intimidate children during examinations while at the same time stating that cheating is a vice of the minority.
Even more discouraging is that the two institutions have announced some draconian rules that may involve cancellation of certificates held by parents of children involved in cheating. This too-clever-by-half idea shows the obsession with tightening punishments, even when it is clear that the likelihood of capturing and successfully prosecuting accomplices to examinations-related crimes is woefully low.
The irony escapes both Knec and the ministry when they ratchet up punishments and introduce sanctions with little legal validity.
Considering that only Knec is responsible for formulating exam questions, printing exam papers, delivering them to the exam rooms and later preparing results, any unauthorised disclosure of the examination papers can only be because some people in the examination body deliberately allowed it to happen. However uncomfortable that may be, it is the truth, and solutions to the problem of consistent disclosure of tests to candidates for financial exchange or other favours is a failure of the ministry and Knec.
It is futile to seek a return to an old moral code that never existed before the examinations can be made clean again.
There is great economic value in acquiring examination papers, and a price exists for it. With this knowledge, someone at the Knec offices and the ministry is cashing in by revealing the contents of the examinations without authorisation. That situation sums up the fact that the problem should be solved on the supply side of the production, which happens to be within the ministry’s direct control.
That they have successfully convinced the country that the main problem is a recent bug of poor morals that has infected students and their guardians is evidence of their ingenuity at ducking problems. And this is understandable because they are monopolies whose lunch cannot be taken over by any competitors.
This state of affairs shows that cheating in examinations will not end soon. A solution will require far more work in ensuring integrity of the systems from exam formulation to results presentation. Instead of treating this as a security operation with police roaming school corridors, the ministry must establish thresholds for Knec for securing the examinations process or replace it altogether.
It will help to open up the administration of examinations to competition so that Knec would have to compete with global or local firms with better processes that lower the current rate of unauthorised disclosure.
So concerned as to almost replace examination invigilators with Cabinet ministers, the government should seek a firm with more trustworthy processes than the Knec.
It is unfair to have teenagers sit examinations with armed police patrolling the school and then expect them to be sufficiently composed to perform at their best level.
There’s no reason anymore to maintain Knec's monopoly in overseeing examinations in Kenya.
Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame