When Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha gets going on an issue dear to his heart, he does not mince his words, and he is not prepared to argue with you.
In the process, he manages to irritate a huge number of his listeners while impressing an equal number. That is why whenever he says something deemed controversial, some in social media are always ready to excoriate him, but he will always have his defenders, which makes for interesting reading. The man can never be dull, though he rarely smiles and avoids acting up for the cameras. He certainly is no politician.
Take, for instance, his take on those who have been criticising the way in which he is implementing a concept that is intended to revolutionise the entire education system.
While launching the county competency-based curriculum quality dialogue in Nakuru, he had a few choice words to explain why this syllabus is necessary. In a Twitter audio clip, the good professor had this to say about his fellow Kenyans:
“…Right now I am looking for a plumber…how stupid can we be as a community? We are very stupid, including myself, because in my town there would have been several plumbers… but there is no honour in being a plumber; the honour is to go to university. Then you come out with a paper and say I have been out here for 30 years and there is no work. You are a fool.” Needless to say, his remarks had as many detractors as supporters but nobody, except the species he described so vividly, could have been left with any doubt what he meant.
This has become a country of millions of unemployed – and unemployable – university graduates and very few welders, electricians, plumbers, builders, carpenters, mechanics or skilled technicians.
The new education system is supposed to cure this state of affairs, hence the acute need to review the syllabus and system as a whole. Many educationists argue that there was never anything inherently wrong with the 8-4-4 system; the problem was its implementation. They could be right in certain respects.
However, the system had a knack of producing bookworms who had little time to learn any skills beyond the core subjects because it was too exam-oriented, which is why cheating had become so prevalent and so lucrative for those leaking the papers.
It is also a fact that many subjects which would have imparted useful skills to those who did not excel in academics were deliberately removed from the syllabus right from primary to secondary school levels. The reason given was that the curriculum was already too overloaded for pupils at very basic levels, and there was no need to stress them further with subjects like art and craft, music and home science. The only aim was for the pupils to qualify for secondary education.
At secondary level, none of the vocational skills were taught either; you could examine chemistry and math, but there was no call to teach subjects like metalwork, masonry, power mechanics, electricity, plumbing, and the arts for those inclined in that direction. Everyone had to take the same courses with the singular aim of passing the Form Four exams and proceed to university.
Most students fell by the wayside. The result was that though they could have made excellent artisans, mechanics and electricians, they were never given the chance to acquire the skills.
To compound the problem, due to our obsession with university education, the village polytechnics, which could have helped close the skills gap, were either neglected or scrapped.
Today, although I could be wrong on this one, I don’t know of many village polytechnics that still train school leavers. But that is still not the major issue.
The day that someone in government decided to elevate the two best known national polytechnics – the Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi and the Mombasa Polytechnic – to university status is the day we lost it altogether. These institutions had been playing a very big role in absorbing students who left secondary schools without high grades.
The skills they learnt were even more valued by employers than some degrees. At least, you could depend more on an auto-mechanic trained at a national polytechnic than a graduate mechanical engineer. Luckily, recently, 10 polytechnics were upgraded to national level, and there is hope that we shall regain what we lost when every county wanted a university and every public university an affiliate college even if they were to be housed above bars and lodgings.
Lest I be accused of intellectual snobbery, there is absolutely nothing wrong with university education. If possible, everyone should acquire a degree. Nevertheless, not everyone can, and not everyone wants to. Indeed, there would be no harm for anyone with a degree to seek practical skills by enrolling for a certificate or diploma course in a national polytechnic, as long as the government is willing to assist them. What is clear is that we cannot keep relying on our prison system to produce skilled manpower, which is where our graduates are heading unless we arrest their slide into perpetual joblessness.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]