As many families struggle to find Form One places for children who completed primary school last year, a report by Unesco this week indicated that most Kenyan school teachers are weaker in class than their pupils.
And that “most primary school teachers lack complete mastery of the subjects they teach”.
The report comes as the government contemplates implementing the laptops programme for primary schools, a signature promise of the Jubilee government.
The Unesco report is a confirmation of the plummeting standards in Kenya’s public education, and corroborates findings made in 2009 by Uwezo Kenya, a watchdog on education, and the government’s own National Assessment Centre, that literacy levels are lower in public schools than private schools.
By setting different Form One admission criteria, one for public schools and the other for private schools, the government has tacitly recognised that there are now two different standards of education in the primary schools segment.
The two standards are also a confirmation of the increasingly unequal society into which Kenya is shaping.
The question that must now be asked is why standards of public education are declining, and what can be done to address the problem.
It is becoming clear that the government’s drive to achieve universal primary education, although laudable, has created circumstances, some unforeseen, which will have a profound effect on the quality and structure of education in the country.
Although free education has improved the number of pupils enrolling in primary schools, ensuring that 85 per cent of all school-going children now attend school, the increased numbers now exert pressure on the learning facilities and have directly contributed to deterioration in the quality of education offered in public schools.
PRESSURE ON SCHOOLS
Free primary education has also put pressure both on secondary schools and universities, as the government tries to maximise on the numbers that make the transition from primary to secondary schools, and from secondary schools to universities.
The government has been compelling well-established public secondary schools to establish additional classes, to accommodate the swelling numbers of Form One entrants.
Most of the older secondary schools now carry hundreds of Form One admissions per year, many more than their usual admission levels hitherto.
To maximise on transition from secondary to university, the government has supported the turning into universities of almost all the tertiary educational institutions in the country, many of which are now constituent colleges of universities or independent universities on their own.
Inevitably, political considerations have also been evident, as different parts of the country demand that universities be established in their regions.
The country is living a lie by purporting to provide education under conditions in which no reasonable learning can take place.
At all levels, participatory methods of teaching are severely strained, or impossible, given the very large learner populations.
Special difficulties are experienced at primary school level where small children, who have not developed the ability to concentrate for long, are taught exclusively through the lecture method.
At university level, class sizes have ballooned and in some courses classes carry hundreds of students, many of whom cannot find sitting space in congested lecture halls.
This has constrained lecturer-student interaction, and undermined accountability on the part of the lecturers.
The government, already shouldering a large wage bill, is not in a strong position to employ additional teachers, further stretching the teacher-learner ratio.
In hindsight, there should have been better preparation for the consequences of free primary education, which has put pressure at all other levels.
As free primary education was introduced 10 years ago, there has been sufficient time to invest in additional primary, but also secondary, schools.
However, the policy seems to be that rather than build new schools, the government will compel existing schools to take additional pupils.
What the country needs is an inclusive conversation on the health of public education, and how to overcome the severe problems that have emerged.
Up to now, the discourse on education has been characterised by unilateral action by the government, with little stakeholder input.
Where input happens, it is monopolised by universities with little involvement of others.
There is a false belief that only the most educated have a valid view on how education should be organised.
It is now clear that investment in additional physical facilities, from primary to university level, is an urgent priority.
The enlightened decision would be to start new institutions from scratch, to supplement what exists.
However, the government has been pursuing a policy of in-filling what exists, and turning tertiary institutions into universities.
In doing so, the government has chosen the easy wrong, avoiding the hard right.
The laptop project is consistent with the legacy of wrong prioritisation and only compounds the existing problems.
In other circumstances, laptops would have been a welcome addition to the accessories in the country’s learning environment.
Amid the crisis of congested or non-existent physical facilities, and burgeoning learner populations, the investment of scarce public resources on laptops is simply remiss, and looks like yesteryears white elephant education projects, like the free school milk.
Jubilee would have the votes of many if they announced that they were diverting the laptop money towards building, equipping and staffing new public schools and universities around the country.
The only reason why children go to school is to learn.
Existing arrangements can no longer guarantee learning.
The growing quality chasm between public and private education provides some of the evidence, and calls for an urgent response.
(With thanks to Caroline Muthoni Muriithi)