On Pseudo-Excellence and Corruption in the Kenyan Education System

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By Timothy Machasio

Kenyans were treated to a shock recently when the Cabinet Secretary for Education released results for the 2016 Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (K.C.S.E) examinations. The reason? In addition to the fact that they came a mere six weeks after the conclusion of the examinations, the results were probably the worst recorded in the history of 8-4-4 (Kenya’s education system encompassing 8 years of primary school, 4 years of high school and 4 years of university). Only about 15 % of the country’s candidature obtained a mean score of C+ and above, and only 141 students out of some 500,000 who sat for the examination earned the distinction of scoring an ‘A’. This was in stark contrast to previous years, where such a number would easily accrue to a single top-tier high school.

I am an alumnus of “the” Alliance High School (popularly referred to as Bush) – arguably the single most prestigious boys’ high school in Kenya. It is revered for its rigorous academics and tradition of excellence – and it is not hard to see why. The topmost rungs of government, academia and business in the country are all inundated with alumni of the institution. The school produced 202 A’s in 2015, but only managed to produce 14 in 2016 after the new Cabinet Secretary for Education cracked down completely on irregularities that had plagued the Kenyan education system for so long. For purposes of comparison Alliance Girls’ High School, the institution’s sister school, scored 25 A’s in 2015 and 25 A’s in 2016 in a stunning display of consistency lauded by the Cabinet Secretary.

I’d like to start by stating that I’m proud of my alma mater and what it stands for, at least in theory. I’m grateful for the intellectual challenge it exposed me to through its rigorous curriculum. I’m grateful for the leadership lessons as a captain in my penultimate year of study. Most importantly I’m grateful for the expanded worldview the institution afforded me, a once unsophisticated young man from rural Western Kenya, by choosing me to represent it in perhaps the most coveted and competitive opportunity it has to offer – an exchange program at one of America’s leading high schools. That being said, I am not proud of the culture of pseudo-excellence and ethical rot that has come to characterize the institution, and the Kenyan education system by extension, in the most recent era.

Make no mistake: Kenya is a country where your grades do matter. The letter grade you attain in KCSE is pretty much a stamp on your destiny. An A? You’re free to pursue anything you want at the university level – Medicine, Law, Engineering and what not.

Anything less than that, and your possibilities dramatically shrink. Well, unless you’re rich – in which case you can pay yourself into a “parallel” program in these fields or seek an education outside the country. Nowhere are these facts brandished in your face more often than at Bush, where the target school mean score in my year was 12.00 (this would only be possible if everyone at the school got an ‘A’). This seemed like a practical target given the caliber of students the institution admits (the school has its pick of the crème de la crème of students who sit for the secondary school entry examinations), and was accompanied by some hard work – morning classes at 5:00 AM and sessions during the school holiday period, for instance. A top performer who had his eyes set on at the very least scoring a plain A in each of my subjects, featuring amongst the 100 best KCSE candidates nationally and pursuing medicine at the University of Nairobi or abroad, I bought into the vision that a 12.00 mean score was possible. I was going to get an A and there was no reason to believe that my classmates were not going to.

Halfway into my final year at Bush, I received admission to the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Reasoning that ALA would expose me to the same spectrum of opportunities as Bush with the added benefit of living and studying in Africa’s most developed economy for two years, I forfeited the option of sitting for my KCSE. In ensuing exchanges with the school administration, I started feeling as if they were less concerned about what I thought was the right path for myself and more concerned about having a gifted student sit for KCSE to push the school mean score closer to the 12.00 target. I did not capitulate, and stand by my decision to date.

I did not sit for KCSE at Bush, though I have heard stories. Stories from my peers about mbuzi (leakages right before examinations). Why a school that boasts some of the country’s brightest minds would opt for such a tactic is beyond me. I don’t know whether the stories are true but if they are I am glad I never had the option to position myself for such self-defeating antics.

If the stories are true (which my pride as an alumnus makes me hope they are not), they only scratch the surface of what is wrong with Bush and the Kenyan education system by extension. The fine ecosystem for breeding academic genius is compromised by a myopic prioritization of quantity over quality. Instead of asking, “How can we produce the best quality doctors, engineers and lawyers?” top schools ask “How can we get as many of our students as possible eligible to pursue medicine, engineering and law degrees at the university?” Instead of asking, “How can we help students identify their passions and pursue them?”, top schools ask, “How can we get many of our students pursuing prestigious careers to boost our profile?”. This obsession is evident in the virtually nonexistent resources dedicated to the development of the non-traditional student who might not be “A material” in Chemistry or Mathematics, but who has the potential to make a world-famous artist someday.

It doesn’t end there. I am sure that many individuals who underwent the 8-4-4 system would agree that it does not adequately focus on a holistic education. Sure, many schools have clubs and sports to help mold well-rounded students. But how useful is that when your Physics teacher walks in two minutes before the beginning of the next class slot (reserved for Physical Education) and insists on taking up the P.E. period conceivably because of its relative unimportance? And you – Alliance High School (a moniker for the country’s top high schools) – who is “Strong to Serve” – who are you serving when you fill Form 1 spots for deserving students with individuals who don’t meet the cut but who have opulent parents? Who do your Captains serve when they abuse their power to needlessly torture their powerless counterparts? What breed of leaders are you siring when Captains cook up house competition results at end-of-semester school dinners to reward themselves for house competitions they did not win? What leadership paradigm are you promoting when Captains are basically exempt from rules their fellow students are exhorted to abide by?

Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. If, like me, you believe that corruption begins at the top, then it is very easy to see where it all starts. Top schools attract top talent. Top talent translates into top leadership. If top leadership is cultured by the education system in a corrupt, entitled manner, then it’s no surprise that Kenyans live in a country where government officials compensate themselves unreasonably (while also embezzling public funds), and shamelessly argue that the government has no money to negotiate reasonable pay packages when teachers and doctors strike.

I have a fun fact for everyone complaining that the ministry’s unprecedented strictness with grading is toying around with the future of high school graduates: half of students who get admitted to medical programs in the country having scored A’s in Chemistry and Biology drop out due to their inability handle university-level Organic Chemistry and Biology. Some students who score C+ in Chemistry and Biology and pursue diploma programs in medicine out of passion for the field make better doctors than those who score A’s. Perhaps we need to reexamine our unhealthy infatuation with grades. Food for thought: Would you rather the surgeon who operates on you be a passionate, knowledgeable one who got an honest B in KCSE, or a semi-quack who got an A in KCSE because he received answers in advance of the examination, and struggled through seven years of medical school just because he thinks the field is prestigious?

As somebody who loves my country dearly, and who hopes to serve it in technocratic capacity pretty soon – who knows, even run for the Presidency someday – it pains me to see it knee deep in depravity. It lights up my heart to see fearless leaders like Fred Matiang’i (the Cabinet Secretary for Education) and George Magoha (the Chairman of the Kenya National Examinations Council) step up to systemic fraudulence in the Kenyan education system. To them, and to every Kenyan who has welcomed tenets of their leadership, I say thank you. Thank you for extolling honest leadership, and for proving that the exemplar can thrive in the midst of perversion. Kenya, much like any other country, is not perfect – but it is because of people like you that she will inch closer and closer to perfection. I long for the day when such integrity will pervade the Kenyan police force, the government tender awarding process and innumerable other dimensions of the country’s modus operandi.

Yes, education is only one facet of the Kenyan economy. But reform – true reform – has to start somewhere – and I cannot think of a better place to begin.

Follow Timothy Machasio on Twitter: @TimothyMachasio

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