Education quagmire: Fault is Knec’s, and Knec’s alone

Education quagmire: Fault is Knec’s, and Knec’s alone
John Ndar Immediately the results of last year’s controversial Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination were released last month, a series of interesting developments occurred. President Uhuru Kenyatta, in a terse statement from State House, announced that government had put special measures in place to end the problem of irregularities in national examinations, stating a special committee had been set up to do this. Days later, Deputy President William Ruto reiterated that cheating in national examinations would soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. To emphasize it, the DP outlined a one-month timeline within which the problem would presumably be obliterated and dispatched into oblivion. While releasing the results at Mtihani House on March 3, 2015, Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matian’gi announced that 5,101 of the more than 500,000 candidates would not get results. Apparently, these had been found guilty of engaging in acts of cheating and, therefore, had had their results cancelled. The CS pleaded with stakeholders in the sector to allow him the opportunity to prove his mettle. He pledged to deal firmly with dishonesty in national exams, vowing to bring it to the appropriate conclusion within one year. Given Dr Matian’gi’s vitality and abrasiveness in running the ministry since his appointment, few doubted that he meant business and would actually deliver. Playing poker with children’s lives In the backdrop of this, a clique of legislators in the National Assembly decided to tackle the juggernaut from a different perspective. Convinced that the problem was beyond the scope of redemption, the law-makers determined to introduce a Bill that would end the problem. The new law would ensure that key officials at the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) were made to account for what was perceived as gross failure at the council. The proposed Bill would compel the incumbent officials to vacate office, face legal action and possibly serve a stint in jail for purportedly playing poker with the lives of Kenyan children through ineptitude in public service. Majority of Kenyans would quickly agree that the 2015 Form Four examinations were controversial in an unprecedented, stunning manner. Certainly, examination irregularities have always dogged the system, particularly after 1985 when the 8-4-4 structure was introduced. At one time, in the 1990’s, this dramatically led to the suspension of the KCSE midway through its administration. It resumed weeks later. In subsequent years, the problem assumed a subtler profile, characterised largely by whispers regarding the unseemly goings-on in some of Kenya’s leading schools. Whatsapp and Facebook This notwithstanding, 2015 KCSE proved to be a totally different ball-game. Within days of commencement, copies of the exam papers were widely accessible through social media, particularly Whattsapp and Facebook. Alarmed and desperate, the examination chiefs promptly wielded the usual stick, dismissing these as “fake papers”, but it all came a cropper. A number of leading TV stations and newspapers easily acquired samples of the exam. To the chagrin of the KNEC, the media publicised these days in advance. In virtually all cases, the papers that were subsequently administered to the candidates proved to be exactly copies to those being circulated on whatsapp. This effectively trashed efforts by the exam executives to deny the effects of the obvious leakage. Kenyans were shocked. There were calls for immediate suspension of the exams and resignation of the KNEC officials. Predictably, nothing happened and the exams proceeded as scheduled. Granted, not all agreed that the KNEC officials were solely to blame for this ugly mess. In an interview with a leading TV channel earlier in the month, Prof Edward Kisiangani, a prominent commentator on socio-political issues, argued that the rot of dishonesty was so pervasive in Kenyan society that it had, in fact, become a national challenge. In the same forum, Kibra MP Ken Okoth, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Education, insisted that the exam council deserved to be disbanded for failing in its duties and that Kenyans had lost confidence in it. As for ‘elite candidates’… Also featuring in the programme was President Kenyatta’s personal advisor on education matters, Dr Kilemi Mwiria. He questioned the notion that cheating in national examinations only occurred in small, nondescript schools. The former assistant minister in the Ministry of Education drew attention to the fact that, in the just released results, some leading national schools had almost all candidates attaining straight As and A minuses. In such instances, the scholar wondered, where was the inevitable normal curve denoting the high and moderate achievers? He raised the question of a possibility that not all these super grades in the celebrated elite schools were necessarily genuine. There were even claims that for as little as Sh15,000, candidates could buy such grades. Yet such a sterling performance occurring in a county school would quickly be dismissed as lacking in merit. At this juncture, it might seem valid to state that Kenyans largely prefer to live in denial. To illustrate, isn’t it an open secret that cheating in Kenya’s academic system is today widespread and subtly accepted at all its levels and tiers, from KCPE, KCSE, University and other tertiary institutions? To some, this “revelation” would come as a shocker. For years, what has been feted as excellent results posted in national examinations by our leading public and private schools has actually been a scandal. Few would want to admit it publicly, but many of Kenya’s elite schools have, for decades, gained access to the actual examination content long before the due date. While it might be nearly impossible to conclusively prove it, those within the inner sanctums of the education sector are aware of this big “sacred secret”. In spite of it, a deafening conspiracy of silence reigns. It’s only when the gangrene gradually spread, in recent years, to the less hallowed grounds of Kenya’s “ordinary schools” that the bubble finally burst, with an almighty bang. Tellingly, this crazy race for grades, which feeds dishonesty, is fuelled by a cut-throat battle for the increasingly competitive places in the colleges, universities and the job sector. As it is, excellence in academics means everything in today’s world. Failure in exams almost surely condemns one to a life steeped in the vicious rut of poverty. Success virtually catapults one to a relative life of bliss and economic independence. For this reason, nothing is left to chance and, for many, the end justifies the means. Every trick in the book gets employed to ensure success. It is, therefore, little wonder that things got to the level that they did in 2015. To add salt to injury, the spectre of vicious competition between schools has merely exacerbated the problem. Even in the absence of the recently abolished official ranking of schools, the burning urge to upstage others still remains. This means that school heads have continued to strive tirelessly to stamp their mark, leave a legacy or work for promotion. As a result, a subtle trend has insidiously emerged in recent times. In this scheme, shortly before the penultimate examination starts, ingenious plans may be hatched to ensure that a conduit for accessing targeted exam content is in place. In many cases the mobile phone and similar devices sleekly deliver the desired effect. In some cases, unscrupulous individuals apparently act in cohorts with highly-placed corruptible officials to defeat the system. Hefty cash rewards for teachers The drama gets juicier when intricate goings-on within the school system are factored in. The battle might involve individual subject teachers who compete for recognition and reward. In many institutions the reward comes in monetary form with each “quality grade” scored per student earning a handsome figure. In some large institutions, teachers who get good results in their subjects have been known to receive mind-boggling, six-figure cash rewards. Given the perennial discontent within the teaching fraternity over their pay-size, this situation likely contributes to the rampant cheating that currently bedevils schools. Inevitably, this also leads to low-morale among hardworking, honest teachers who do not wish to cheat. Shockingly, some supervisors and invigilators appointed by KNEC have been known to abet dubious practices, even getting compromised to allow malpractices in exam administration. In some cases, candidates have been allowed to enter the examination room with prohibited materials. In other instances, officials have apparently aided candidates to participate in dishonest practices. In colleges and universities, it’s often easier for students to get away with dishonest practices since their own tutors and lecturers usually control the assessment processes directly. It’s a well-known fact that some of these tutors are silently guilty of seeking financial or sexual favours from their charges in order to award good grades. Fake police boss to boot Elsewhere, even in the pre-admission stages intrigues abound. Some years back, a jolting scandal was reported at Egerton University. In the wake of this, a number of students had their studies discontinued after it was discovered that they had gained admission to the public institution irregularly. Shockingly, some of them were in their final year of study and preparing to graduate! In the wider Kenyan society, the story is the same. Late last year, a high-ranking police officer, in the cadre of a Senior Superintendent, was sensationally interdicted from service. It was discovered that all his academic and other credentials were a maze of fraud. The fake details included his own personal identity and name! More intriguing was the fact that the imposter had been allowed to serve in the force for more than two decades, gradually rising through the ranks to attain high office. Amazingly, for over 20 years, the man had enjoyed the salaries and perks attached to a qualified officer of rank. The nagging question is, how many such cases have gone on, completely undetected, in various sectors of the national economy and at what cost to the country? Thus far, it’s not clear whether President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto, or Education CS Fred Matian’gi will get to deliver on their pledges to end the scourge of malpractices in the management and administration of school examinations in Kenya. What is clear is that the Kenya National Examinations Council needs to come clean on the pertinent issues arising out of the mandate and public trust bestowed on them by the Kenyan taxpayer to provide a vital service. Buck stops with Knec The least that KNEC should do, in the aftermath of the 2015 exam fiasco, is to publicly acknowledge culpability and tender an apology to Kenyans. Next, quick action should be taken to release examination results for all the candidates, including those that had been withheld or purportedly cancelled for alleged irregularities. This is based on the premise that the Council failed in its core mandate to manage and administer national examinations fairly and efficiently. The council, instead, chose, irresponsibly so, to allow a massive examination leakage to take place, putting all the candidates in a situation of dilemma and peril. Even if this means that the candidate’s grades would have to be moderated to reflect a normal curve and tally with their colleagues’ results already in the public domain, so be it. It’s an open secret that Knec has already done this in several other cases for schools whose original results seemed dubious. In the interest of justice and equality, similar measures should also be taken for candidates who missed their results. Ultimately, the buck must stop somewhere. In this case it stops squarely at the door-step of the Examination Council.

Ndar is a teacher and freelance writer based in Migori County.

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