Education is more than a curriculum and more than how many years one spends in primary, secondary and tertiary schools. Education is also about philosophy (why we teach), sociology (impact of society on education and vice versa), economics (how we fund education and education's economic value), psychology (what education does to our minds and our self-esteem), history (how we have educated over the years), pedagogy (what skills teachers use in the classroom). Education is all that, and more.
Yet this obsession with a mathematical formula and exams is not accidental.
Formulaic responses to education are convenient for politicians, because by keeping Kenyans fixated on a single number, politicians can avoid addressing issues like funding of education, payment of teachers and the structure of the labor market. Politicians have been so successful at brainwashing us, that our typical response to every education problem is “what about 8-4-4?” Yet the problems we attribute to 8-4-4 do not start in the classroom. They start in our politics and economics before they find their way into the classroom.
The root cause of the problems bedeviling our education system is a philosophical one: we educate for the market. The problem with being market oriented is that we do not care whether students are all rounded, what their values are, whether they are imaginative or whether they learn – we don’t care whether they are human beings. All that matters is that employers are happy with their profits, not that Kenyans are happy in their country. And as Nyerere said, anyone who measures the value of his education by the market is a slave.
Ironically, the business people like KEPSA and company CEOs who promote this empty education for the market, are the same ones complaining that graduates do not have soft skills, cannot think on their feet or solve problems. Essentially, the business community wants to have its cake and eat it too.
And in any case, one cannot be sure that all the youth are as bad as the business community would like us to believe. An inconvenient truth is that the business community is also stuck in the 19th century. For instance, our labour market is still colonial. We pay CEOs huge salaries while the professionals and technicians who create the real value of the organizations are paid peanuts.
We have witnessed the rise of the CEO in Kenya, usually a man, on a hefty salary, and confident enough that his view of education should be the national one. The CEOs hop from company to company, and leave each station after a few years with nothing to show for it. And often, the CEO is an MBA in an organization which uses professional or technical skills which he does not have, and so he is threatened by professionals and keeps them occupied with the latest management fad like TQM and performance contracts.
Why study to be a doctor, an engineer, a teacher or a nurse, if you cannot exercise your profession or rise through the ranks, and if you have to listen to someone bark orders at you because they have an MBA? Why be a plumber or a carpenter if the best you can get is 1,300 shillings a day, no benefits, and you have to take orders from an MBA who does not know what a pipe or a plane looks like? That’s why 20% of Kenyan university students are in business schools and are expecting to be managers of one company or the other.
Unless these problems of the market are addressed by the labor, commerce and finance ministries, unless unions get their power back and negotiate better working terms for jobs that create value, our screaming blue murder at 8-4-4 isn’t going to solve any problem.
Exams as a tool of control
Linked to our market philosophy is our focus on examinations, which has little to do with the curriculum.
Exams are about control and access to resources that have been limited by the political problems of patronage and corruption with impunity. As long as opportunities are scarce, people will need examinations to determine who gets a job and who doesn’t.
The legacy of control through examinations began during the colonial period. The colonialists were confused about what to teach Africans, since the European curriculum did not suit African needs. They therefore came up with a policy of adapting the curriculum to the cultures of each colony. But since the British did not trust African knowledge, they insisted that Africans who wanted jobs in the colonial economy had to sit exams set in London (Cambridge). The result was that Africans began to use rote-memorization and exam cheating to get good certificates for upward mobility.
It took 5 years after independence for the Kenya government to replace the Cambridge exams with the ones set by Kenyans. However, the colonial logic of controlling the classroom through exams never ended. Up to the current 2-6-3-3 system which is being rolled out in a few days, the British experts and bodies like the British Council continue to be major players in every curriculum review we have had.
In other words, the problems that Matiang’i is claiming to address once and for all have been with us for at least a century, and they will not end by failing children and defending the integrity of moderation and marking.
We need KNEC reform
What needs to change is the logic of KNEC. Summative examinations like KCSE should be abolished. High school graduates should instead take entry examinations for the programs that they want to join, for example, take engineering entry exams to gain admission into a tertiary engineering program. The exams should be offered more than once a year, so that people can always resit them.
We also need to strengthen and create professional bodies for all professions and technical careers, and these bodies can liaise with KNEC to offer upgrading exams.
We need to restructure the labor market and create roles for master technicians, whose years in the industry and high skill give them social status and allow them to apprentice younger technicians.
But such ideas are impossible in institutions whose logic is not to enable and facilitate Kenyans, but to control Kenyans and make them beg every year for spaces in the next level of education and in the job market.
2-6-3-3 is inadequate in addressing these major institutional problems. Expecting the new system to perform miracles in our schools and in our economy is like expecting torn shoes to stop water and mud from seeping in, just because one has replaced the shoe laces. Since the shoes will still leak, it's time for Kenyans to stop being mesmerized by periodic replacement of the shoe laces, and to ask for completely new and different shoes. We need more than a new school system. We need a new governance and educational mindset.