Down with boarding schools, down with examinations: An education manifesto

Friday January 12 2018

Form Four candidates in a biology class at

Form Four candidates in a biology class at Othaya Girls Secondary School in Nyeri county on September 18, 2017. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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My first sojourn overseas was to West Germany as a visiting student, just after completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi.

It was fascinating in all the usual respects, though, as a German studies student, which is how I ended up there, I had a fairly good idea what to expect.

I had just come from one of the poorest countries in the world, but one where university students were pampered.

We had workers to clean our rooms, who we paid a little extra to wash and iron our clothes.

The university cooked for us. The German students I shared a hostel with lived frugally.


They worked after school for their rent. They woke up early and packed sandwiches for lunch. They rode bicycles to their universities and colleges to save money. I found myself questioning the culture of entitlement, privilege and elevated social status in our public universities.

I was to get my answer a few years later, when I went up to read for my doctorate at Oxford University, one of the twin academic citadels of the British class establishment collectively known as Oxbridge.

For the uninitiated, to “go up” is to enroll in Oxford and Cambridge. When you finish, you “go down”. You do not study, you read.

The British education system evolved as part of its class system. Oxbridge was, and still is largely the preserve of the upper classes — the ruling elite if you like. The middle classes went to lower ranked universities, derisively referred to as “red brick” and polytechnics and the working class went down to the coal mines.

During a heated debate on child labour, my celebrity professor, Paul Collier remarked that he was the first in his lineage not to have gone down into the coal mines at the age of 15 (a collier is a coal miner).


Listening to public school boys debating at the Oxford Union, one would be forgiven to believe that Britain still has an empire that they were going to run after university, as their forebears had done. Public schools in Britain are exclusive private schools of which Eton and Harrow are the most exalted.

Once established, a system of privilege is very difficult to uproot. Of 54 British prime ministers who have led Britain over the last 300 years, 41 were educated at Oxbridge; Oxford (27) and Cambridge (14).

Thirty-one went to only three public schools, with Eton contributing 19. By contrast, the list of all 45 US presidents, features 24 universities and colleges. Seven did not go to college, so that is 24 institutions for 37 presidents. Harvard tops but with only six presidents.

In the developed countries, where good quality universal secondary education was achieved long ago, you would not expect where leaders went to secondary school to matter much if at all in this day and age.

When she appointed her cabinet, current UK Prime Minister Theresa May won accolades for appointing a cabinet with the fewest members with privileged secondary school education for 70 years — at 30 per cent. Still, 12 out of 28 (43 per cent) including the PM went to Oxford and Cambridge. By contrast, Trump’s 22 cabinet secretaries have undergraduate degrees from 19 different universities and colleges.


There is arguably no principle of justice and equity as well established as that a publicly funded education should not discriminate children on the basis of social background.

We have retained the perverse British class system which entitles some children more privileged secondary school education than others.

So we have the even more perverse phenomenon where the well off in society send their children to expensive private academies, so as to get the KCPE grades to get them into the best public secondary schools, which in turn improves their chances of access to publicly funded university education.

Is an examination taken at 14 years of age justification to determine which children the State will provide superior or inferior education? Let me pose a question this column has posed before: What kind of society condemns thousands of 14 year-olds as failures, simply because it does not see it fit to provide enough resources to educate them, while burdening them with odious debt wasted on shrines for the egos of leaders?

Curriculum reform is all the rage again. No one seems to know why or how, including those claiming to have designed it. A shambolic implementation seems assured. It will leave the perverse class system intact.


Our 2010 Constitution embraces economic and social rights, including the right to education (Article 43).

The right to education as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights among other international covenants that we have subscribed to.

These covenants oblige states to make primary education free and compulsory, secondary education progressively free and access to higher education equitable.

Having domesticated these covenants in our Constitution, you would expect that this is what education reform would be about. How would such an education reform look like?
I see three critical reforms.

The first is do away with public boarding secondary schools. They are an equity that we must get rid off. There is no point of offering free tuition to parents who are then required to pay an entire year’s cash income for boarding fees.


For the rural poor in particular, this is a double jeopardy since teenage children contribute significantly to family labour after school and on weekends, including such invaluable functions as helping the elderly.

There is, in fact, another big gain that will accrue from doing away with public boarding schools. We are woefully short of tertiary education institutions, a fact that is much lamented. In one fell swoop, we will have infrastructure to address this imbalance. This incidentally, is not new. There is precedence.

When technical secondary schools were phased out, the facilities were converted to tertiary institutions.

The second reform follows from the first, and this is to abolish both the primary and secondary school examinations.

This will make it easier to make education more learning focused, as opposed to examination focussed. But how will we tell whether teachers are doing their jobs well? On what basis will colleges and universities enroll students? Neither is a big challenge.


On teacher performance, there are many alternative assessment tools. One of the best known is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which tests the 15 year-olds maths, science and reading skills.

The test results report the percentage of students who have met the expected standard for the grade as opposed to individual scores.

As regards college and university admission, this would be based on entry exams for the programme of study one wants to enroll in. The US has its SAT, GRE and GMAT.

I see no reason why our universities cannot come together and develop entry exams tailored to the requirements of each academic programme.


The third reform is to liberate education from the tyranny of training. The accountancy profession offers what I think is a good model. It does not matter what one studies, or indeed whether one graduates from university at all, the CPA or ACCA qualification is what makes one an accountant.

It allows people to be educated in philosophy and mathematics, and still qualify as an accountant. Consequently, one does not hear of shortage of accountants, or industry complaining that universities are not training accountants properly.

The purpose of education is to empower individuals with critical and moral reasoning, not to condition wage slaves. Martin Luther King Jnr observed decades ago that education which stops at efficiency may prove to be the greatest menace to society.

A survey conducted by the Aga Khan University’s East African Institute found that close to half our youth believe corruption is profitable, and more than half would do anything to make money. A society whose youth believes in corruption and getting rich by whatever means is a society with a failed education system.

Dr David Ndii, an Economist is currently serving on the NASA Technical and Strategy Committee, where he leads the NASA policy team. [email protected] @DavidNdii