Many Kenyans obsess with just a one part of education: The content and students’ performance in examinations. Yet education is more than a curriculum or how many years one spends in school.
We go through hysteria when results are released but do not talk about bigger issues affecting education for the rest of the year. Two, we do not re-examine the role of exams. Three, we believe that replacing 8-4-4 with 2-6-3-3 will solve every problem related to education (and even the economy).
This obsession with a mathematical formula and exams is not accidental.
Politicians like formulaic solutions for education because they help them to evade issues such as funding of education, payment of teachers and structure of the labour market.
Yet the problems we attribute to 8-4-4 do not start in the classroom.
The root cause of the problems in our education system is philosophical: We educate for the market. We do not care whether students are all rounded, what their values are, whether they are imaginative or not or if they learn at all.
All that matters is that employers are happy with their profits—not that Kenyans are happy in their country. Yet, as Nyerere said, anyone who measures the value of his education by the market is a slave.
Ironically, the business sector, which promotes this kind of education, also complains that graduates cannot think on their feet or solve problems. Essentially, the business community wants to have its cake and eat it too.
In any case, one inconvenient truth is that the labour model is still colonial. We pay huge salaries to managers and peanuts to professionals and technicians who create the real value in organisations.
We have witnessed the rise of the CEO—usually a man, on a hefty salary—who hops from company to company and leaves each station with little to show for it. And, often, the CEO of an organisation which uses professional or technical skills that he does not have, and so he keeps the employees occupied with paperwork demanded by the latest management fad, like TQM and performance management.
This is discouraging for professionals and technicians. Why study to be a doctor, plumber or welder if you cannot rise through the ranks, and have to take orders from a manager only because he has a BCom or an MBA? This focus on management explains why 20 per cent of Kenyan university students are in business schools.
These problems of the market must be addressed by the labour, commerce and finance ministries, not by the curriculum.
Exams are about control and access to resources that has been limited politically by patronage, corruption and impunity. As long as opportunities are scarce, exams will determine access to jobs and education.
This began during colonialism, when the British colonialists adapted their curriculum to local cultures in the colonies but did not trust African knowledge and so insisted that Africans had to sit exams set in London (Cambridge). Africans then began to use rote memorisation and exam cheating to get certificates for upward mobility.
Cambridge exams were replaced five years after Independence but the colonial logic remained. British experts and bodies such as the British Council have played a role in every curriculum review.
The problems that Dr Matiang’i claims to address have been with us for a century and will not end by failing children and defending the integrity of the exams.
We ought to replace the logic of the exams body, Knec. High school leavers should, instead, take entry tests for the programmes that they want to join, offered more than once a year with a re-sit option.
We need to strengthen and create professional bodies, which can liaise with Knec to offer upgrading exams.
We should restructure the labour market and create roles for master technicians, whose experience and high skill can give social status and have them apprentice younger students.
But such ideas are impossible if our governance logic is not to facilitate Kenyans but make them beg for spaces in the next level of education and job market.
Expecting the new system to perform miracles is like expecting torn shoes to stop water and mud from seeping in just because one has replaced the laces. We need new and different shoes; a new governance and educational mindset.
Dr Njoya is a senior lecturer at Daystar University. [email protected]