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Reforming Kenya’s Education System

September 29, 2010
An aerial of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
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I’m excited to share this post from Guest Blogger Edwin Nyanducha.

Edwin Nyanducha is a management and policy adviser with strong focus on the problems and opportunities facing Africa. He is the founder and managing principal of Inkubate Ltd –– a consulting and strategy advisory firm based in Nairobi. He previously worked for Deloitte & PricewaterhouseCoopers and  can be reached at“.

Monumental Shift in Kenya’s Education Policy Scene

Last week, some under the radar but generational shifting changes in Kenya education scene were announced. In one setting, Higher Education Minister, William Ruto wondered why the government should keep investing significant sums of money in churning out graduates who do not contribute to Vision 2030. In another setting, Education Permanent Secretary, Ole Kiyapi, indicated that teachers will need to get 3 year renewal teaching permits and those who cannot deliver will be shown the door. As is usual, the hue and cry has already began and it is only a while before politicians treat us to a theater of the absurd.

Fist things first. Ordinarily, no politician in his right mind should try to reform either health care, education or agriculture. No matter what one does, you are bound to annoy as many people as you please. Plus, they tend to be highly charged issues where use of truths and half truths and selective use of facts can result in gross distortions in public perception/views and become a recipe for political suicide. Nonetheless, they are critical to the running of a state and someone must do the honours. Or as one of my colleagues remarked, the duty of a leader is to lead, not following the masses.

To enable me contribute to the debate effectively, I will first start by giving an analogy. A country can be thought of as a large farm. For argument sake, let us assume that Kenya was a 100 million hectares farm that produced nothing but tomatoes. Let us also assume that half of this land i.e. 50 million hectares was under use and could produce 2 million kilograms of tomatoes. If that is all the country produced year in, year out, then we would all soon realize that we cannot live a life of joy and happiness by only growing and consuming tomatoes. Life would be better off if some other people dedicated themselves to producing things other than tomatoes. Let us for simplicity sake assume that we decided to split the use of the productive 50 million hectares into two different uses. One half i.e. 25 million hectares is used to produce 1 million kilograms of tomatoes and the other 25 million hectares is used to produce 1 million kilograms of onions. Life would be improved now that we have the option of consuming a mix of tomatoes and onions. Then let us now assume that rather than people carrying tomatoes and onions physically to trade every time, we introduce stamps to represent the real produce of the economy. In this case, we produce 1 million tomato stamps and 1 million onion stamps. If in the next year, we are able to produce 2 million tomatoes and 2 million onions, it means that the number of stamps in the economy would have to grow to meet real production. And then don’t literally think stamps, think currency notes and coins. By extension, it means that the more real produce an economy churns out, the more the wealth of a country.

For Kenya to produce more “tomatoes and onions”, it can increase the amount of land under productive use, in this case bring into production the idle 50 million hectares. On the other hand, it could be that the 50 million hectares of idle land cannot be used for farming due to its poor quality or lack of water etc etc. In this case, the way of increasing output from the land is to invest in mechanization and equipment. Things like government policy also have dramatic impact on productivity because government policies that discourage farmers getting maximum value for their produce always end up leading to farmers switching to other activities and the whole sector getting distorted. The pyrethrum sector policy space is a case in time. But arguably, one of the biggest contributors to increased productivity and by extension output is management capabilities and science and technology.

To avoid losing non economists, I will now do without economic jargon. Education has dramatic impact on a country’s productivity by raising the quality of human labour and increasing the dispersal of scientific and managerial techniques. Since education represents significant monetary and time investment by both a country and its citizenry, there is need for rational policies to be followed. William Ruto’s observation that the government is spending a lot of money on many programs that do not contribute to Vision 2030 yet we have shortages of engineers, doctors and nurses does have a point. However, it also needs to be pointed out that things like the arts that serve such useful purposes as making society to self reflect in terms of things such as child labour, unabated crime and in general serve to document the beauty and tragedy of human existence can simply not be bandied off into the ocean as this would be a case of inviting barbarians to lurk at the gate. The key issue is striking balance.

A skills assessment exercise that maps the country’s inventory skill set starting from post graduate holders all the way to primary school drop outs should be undertaken. The results of the country’s skills inventory should then be mapped against the country’s projected skill needs. Areas that indicate there is going to be excess inventory should cull back their training programs while those that point to a shortage should have their enrollment and funding increased. With such an approach, a reasoned way forward can be charted rather than having the various parties advancing their self serving agendas while shouting from roof tops to scare and confuse the public.

On the issue of secondary school teachers, I remember having a heated discussion with a senior figure in Africa’s education scene round about the time the World Bank and the Commission of Higher Education had unimaginatively called for increasing the price of higher education in the country. I was then calling for increasing access to university education by adoption of Open Learning systems facilitated by the internet. The gentleman argued that increasing access was not the key issue. In his opinion, the poor quality of students emanating from primary and secondary schools was the crux of the problem and unless this is fixed, increasing the number of graduates leaving Kenyan universities would simply be a case of garbage in, garbage out. While concurring that the gentleman had some strong point to make, I should point out that I do not whole heartedly agree with the assessment with his analysis of secondary school products being of poor quality. The garage is rubbish but the car is a Mercedes. Kenyan students have potential; what is letting them down is the quality of the system and the trainers. What we need to do is fix or change the garage so that the true potential of the car can become self evident.

So far, Kenya’s education system has some serious short comings. For example, it assumes that students need to get tested over and over again for them to prove their worth. On the other side, some teachers who can barely read and write, retain their jobs and in the process ensure that children with potential do not end up realizing their true worth. In calling for teachers to be held accountable, Bill Clinton stated:

“We must do more to make sure education meets the needs of our children and the demands of the future. First and foremost, we must continue to hold students, teachers, and school to the highest standards. We must ensure students can demonstrate competence to be promoted and to graduate. Teachers must also demonstrate competence, and we should be prepared to reward the best ones, and remove those who don’t measure up, fairly and expeditiously. “

In truth, it is not wise investment of tax payer money in paying a salary (and pension it must be added) for people who have absolutely no teaching abilities. And rather than a one off test to see if one has the potential, there needs to be a system that takes into account ones training, the pass rate of students over the years, the satisfaction levels that students have in their teachers etc. In this case, those that have little or no ability should be shown the door immediately and we stop wasting tax payers money. Those who have the ability and are delivering should be remunerated, advanced and recognized accordingly.

In this regard, I support the move by the Ministry of Education to introduce renewable permits for teachers. What should be guarded against, however, is not letting the whole exercise degenerate into a gravy train for rent seeking by government officials by introducing systems and transparency. For example, a score card system that shows what rating a teacher has gotten versus objective parameters such as KCPE & KCSE average passes for students should be introduced. This could reduce the case of envelopes changing hands at midnight.

A final point requiring addressing by the country. The issue of teacher allocations. I was talking to an education insider who indicated that schools in urban areas always end up having about two times of the number of teachers they need while schools in remote areas are perpetually understaffed. This has to do with decisions made by District Education Officers who are always besieged with orders to transfer so and so to urban areas by politicians, businessmen, fellow civil servants etc. Now that government at the County level is here, perhaps the time has come for Education Officers to publish reports by schools showing total student enrollment, number of teachers and pupil to teacher ratios. Then benchmark standards can be put up and all those schools (and County’s) not compliant need to explain otherwise their funding is cut off.

Equally important is the whole issue of Education Officers. Apparently, when an Education Officer is from a particular area, say Muranga, he/she will be forced to make staffing decisions such as promotion and transfers of headmasters and principals on the instructions of area MP or Minister or whoever otherwise he/she will loose their job. This, I am informed, leads to a situation where schools of Districts/County’s that an Education Officer is not a native of, end up performing better than when the Education Officer is from the region. This is because the Education Officer has to play local politics and dispense favours based on politicians and their own agenda’s. Perhaps a policy of barring Education Officers from coming from the same District/County be deliberated and passed?

Comments most welcome.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kamau permalink
    September 30, 2010 5:37 AM

    You have nicely captured the challenges in our education system. There are many others related to funding, supervision, policy implementation, status of the teacher in society that if addressed would go a long way in giving us the ‘Mercedes’ grade students.

  2. Carolyne permalink
    January 11, 2011 2:48 PM

    I concur that challenges are here to stay. However we can use them as opportunities to find out where the rain begun to…However this Mercedes, should it be the focal point or the garage?I tend to think that as Aseltine, Faryniarz and Rigazio-DiGilio (2006) point out, it is time we stopped concentrating on the processes and focussed on the long term outcome. Is it grades again? Average grades? I beg to differ. I think we ought to ask our selves what we would like a pre-school child to be – vision 2030 that is – will the child adopt to the world after school or will if a father kill all his children because he can not cope? Let us ‘stop fighting fires’ will soon run out of the extinguishers. Then?

  3. Nancy korir permalink
    January 16, 2012 1:35 AM

    Your article is mind-opening and I wish policy makers would have a chance to read it,well done!

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