In September, 1972, the late JM Kariuki gave a startling speech at Kamusinga, in what is now Bungoma County. In it he called for a re-evaluation of the direction the country was headed in a mere decade after independence. “A small but powerful group of greedy, self-seeking elite in the form of politicians, civil servants and businessmen has steadily but very surely monopolized the fruits of independence to the exclusion of the majority of our people,” he noted before uttering the refrain that he is today most remembered by: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.”
Within three years, he would be brutally murdered by agents of that elite but today, it is clear that his words have proven prophetic. We have become one of the most unequal societies on earth, with resources and opportunities percolating to a very few at the very top while a decent standard of living is denied to the vast multitude at the bottom. Despite all the excitement about becoming a middle-income country, a report released earlier this year showed that Kenya today has 31 centa-millionaires, that is individuals with a net worth of more than $100 million, while nearly half the population lives on less than $2 per day. However, nothing illustrates this better than the approach consecutive governments have taken towards education policy.
Undoubtedly, the greatest investment a country can make is in the education of its people. It is the most effective way to create opportunity and move people out of poverty. An educated populace makes healthier and more profitable choices. Educated citizens are better able to hold governments to account, to participate effectively in decision making and to create more equitable societies.
In Kenya, while we spend just under a fifth of the national budget on education and have managed to expand access to all levels of education, the fact is, with quality standards nose-diving, the KANU, NARC and Jubilee governments have all preferred to view the sector primarily as a political and economic cash cow.
From the introduction of the 8-4-4 system to free primary education, the fact is that past government interventions have been motivated less by the long-term needs of students and more by the short-term interests of politicians and corrupt businessmen. This cavalier approach has destroyed our schools, demotivated our teachers and killed any hope of learning. Needless to say, none of the elite making these decisions educate their own children in public schools. In fact, it bespeaks the quality of instruction offered in our schools that up to half of teachers do not bother to turn up for class and that even when public education is nominally free, parents who can afford to have chosen to take their kids to private schools. This has had the effect of driving up the cost of private schooling, and locking the poor majority into the failing public system.
There is an urgent need to begin to undo the damage that politicizing education has wrought but the Jubilee government has singularly proven itself unable to resist the twin temptations of politically-inspired gimmickry and grand corruption.
The ill-thought out proposal floated earlier in the year to have pupils in primary school taught in local languages demonstrated the superficial approach the government continues to take towards education. It is unclear how, if at all, such a policy could be implemented in Kenya’s ethnically diverse counties without entrenching tribal chauvinism and discriminating against minorities. It is the very antithesis of a policy that would build national cohesion and heal ethnic rifts and is reflective of the thinking of an administration that feels it can only perpetuate itself through creating a “tyranny of numbers”.
The other flagship education policy of the Jubilee government has been shown to be at best little more than a PR gimmick, or worse, a scheme to corruptly enrich a few individuals under the guise of improving education. Ignoring the fact that many schools lack even the most basic of amenities including desks, books and even classrooms, the one-laptop-per-child initiative, in common with other proposed mega-projects, is a simplistic concept whose tendering process has been fraught with irregularity, if not outright illegality.
And it is not just Jubilee that lacks seriousness when it comes to education. Their opponents in the CORD coalition have also demonstrated an appetite for short-term opportunistic points-scoring as an alternative to long term solutions.
Take for example, the fate of the 1999 report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Education System of Kenya. The Commission, which was chaired by Dr Davy Koech, was mandated to enquire into the education system and recommend changes and approaches that would help prepare Kenyan society to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Its report, which remains relevant 15 years later, recommended a “goal- and a process-oriented education and training system” as an alternative to the present exam-driven system. Under the rubric of TIQET (Totally Integrated Quality Education and Training), it emphasized lifelong learning and constant improvement not just in learners but of the education system itself, as well an emphasis on quality.
It eschews piecemeal and politically driven approaches, such as the obsession with abolishing of school fees, in favour of a holistic and comprehensive approach to education. Needless to say, the report was never implemented. The then Minister for Education, Kalonzo Musyoka – now a principal in the CORD coalition- declared that it was too expensive. However, he was not above supporting the even more expensive and failing Free Primary Education less than four years later or proposing Free Secondary Education as part of his platform for the 2007 elections.
The truth is, across the political divide, education has been treated as a forum for political grandstanding. However, we as citizens must get serious about fixing the system. We must not reduce or equate education reform to simply providing free schooling. Otherwise , given the experience of FPE and to paraphrase JM Kariuki, we risk creating a nation of 50 intellectuals and 50 million functional illiterates.
As he advocated, there must be a change, not just in policy, but in the policy-making process as well, so that the interests of all are taken into account. We must come together to demand accountability from the government and to generate serious and comprehensive proposals for reform.
This will require a commitment to squarely facing up to the crisis in our schools and resisting the distractions and gimmicks offered up by our politicians. A good place to start would be would be by insisting on the review and implementation of the recommendations of the Koech report. For, as Derek Curtis Bok, the American lawyer, educator and the former president of Harvard University said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”