By Kenyatta Otieno
The drums have been beating since the Ministry of Education announced plans to overhaul our 8-4-4 education system to a 2-6-3-3-3 one. As usual, opinions have been traded with those opposed to and supporting the move coming out publicly to defend their stands. To begin, let me say that Kenya’s is the biggest non-mineral economy in Africa. This is as a result of our highly skilled workforce which we have exported around the world as a result of our 8-4-4 education system.
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The current education system is not the problem. We should be grateful to our educationists for doing their best to implement the system with little funding from the government. The system was designed to produce self-reliant job creators as opposed to the old one that was meant to produce employees for the colonial system. Such a noble idea, but it died somewhere between Jogoo House, where Ministry of Education headquarters is housed, and KNUT, the teachers’ union offices.
Many years ago I came across an A4 size book, green in colour, with a strip of Kenyan flag along its cover. It must have been a guide to technical education as I can remember reading about all the technical institutes in Kenya. The only thing that has remained in my mind since is a schematic presentation of the 8-4-4 system.
I grew up in an education complex and our house was next to a youth polytechnic. I made friends with one student at the polytechnic and I showed him the book and told him that from his Craft or Trade Test Course, he can work his way to university. He must have been surprised as he borrowed the book for a few weeks. That is 8-4-4 for you, where a Class 8 dropout was supposed to be able to work his way up to a bachelor’s degree albeit on paper.
We developed a good system on paper but failed to train and empower teachers and equip the schools, which are crucial to the success of the system. Schools were not funded to set up science laboratories, rooms and equipment for technical subjects like Art and Craft and Metal Work. Somewhere along the way, physical and biological sciences were introduced in schools with limited facilities while others had the option of taking pure sciences. Later the technical subjects were dropped altogether.
There was an increase in enrolment at primary school level without a corresponding increase in the number of secondary schools. This led to low transition rate with meant pupils failing to join secondary schools. With a system stuttering in the early years of implementation this did not look like a serious threat. The problem is it was never implemented until CDF came and some more secondary schools were put up.
The expansion of universities to accommodate increase in students every year did not happen in good time. The stop gap measure was to raise the entry cut off points. Our education policy stated that one could join the university with a C+, yet the cutoff point was raised to limit admissions, the excuse being lack of bed space. This went on until Narc came into power and universities were forced to admit more students than they could manage, which stressed resources and watered down quality.
Village polytechnics are as good as dead, and where they still exist, they remain underfunded, and are a preserve for rural folk who cannot afford alternatives. Technical Institutes and other middle level colleges have been turned into universities without setting up new ones. Universities were not prepared in advance on how to absorb diploma holders in technical courses like engineering. For a long time, students believed they would be exempted from undertaking the two basic years of a five year degree course which University of Nairobi for a long time objected.
Then, universities were also underfunded. First they scrapped off some luxuries like “boom” (students used to receive quite a lot of money in years past) and introduced Pay as You Eat (PAYE) but all these had minimal effects in the long run. Someone thought that the parallel degree program is the easy way out. The universities could raise money while more Kenyans could now access university education. The focus turned on expanding universities into urban centres as administrators’ deliverables became how much money a department can generate.
The sole effect of all these stop gap measures is that education became exam-oriented and soon entrepreneurs commercialised it. Private schools – usually charging an arm and a leg – were built across the country. Schools did everything in their power to make sure their students passed exams. The mean score became the bullet that saved some schools and teachers while it killed others. The Kenyan “stop gap” mentality checked in and school ranking was abolished but they couldn’t prevent schools from calculating their own mean scores.
Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i recently announced that the ministry will audit Parallel Degree Programmes in public universities with the aim of taking universities back to their core mandate. This, he said, is “after realising that income generation has been elevated above quality education in our universities”. At last, education sector seemed to have found the man for the job.
In 2003 after NARC came to power, John Michuki was appointed as Minister for Transport and later Environment. For the first time since I became aware of what policy and governance are, I saw a man who bridged the gap between a plan on paper and reality. Most of the rules Michuki implemented were actually in the books at the two ministries he oversaw.
The disorganised matatu industry was streamlined against the wishes of the “mafia like” operators of the industries. John Michuki stood his ground and insisted that the rules had to be adhered to. The matatus went on strike and the public courageously walked to work. They complied in the end; nobody died as a result of the short-lived inconvenience, and people hailed Michuki for it.
The moment he was appointed into the Ministry of Environment, Michuki put on hold all trips, seminars and workshops for top ministry officials until Nairobi River was cleaned. He simply stated that he wanted “to see fish swimming in Nairobi River”. Slowly trees were planted along river banks in Nairobi that can be seen to date. The water slowly began to clear from a black slimy flow to a brownish colour.
The conferences that our environmental experts attend are important. Various conservation ideas are floated, papers presented and policies formulated. The challenge has always been turning our brilliant policies into reality. This is exactly what befell our good 8-4-4 system. It was very good on paper but it was never implemented to the letter. Now like all the stop gap changes we introduced to it, we want to abolish it in entirety. Michuki demonstrated that with a change in attitude, it can be done.
An education system is crucial in a country’s economic development. 8-4-4 was meant to release graduates who would give the economy a push from whatever point they exit the system. As this happens, the economy was supposed to fund its implementation and growth. This cycle was not actualised as the rate of unemployment surged and economy stagnated.
We failed to realise as a country that 8-4-4 was only going to succeed if it was well funded in its initial years. This was only possible if our economy grew as well to generated the funds and absorb the graduates to push the economic into further growth. As we introduce the new system, have we put in place measures to make sure that there will be enough funds for its full implementation? If we cannot generate the funds, then it is a move we need to shelve.
I know the experts will come up with romantic graphs, data and evidence backing the new system. We have never lacked great brains to come up with brilliant blueprints. The challenge we must address before switching is how it will be implemented.
If we cannot equip and motivate our teachers to handle the new curriculum, let us shelf this new system for now and look at our economy as the ministry prepares schools and teachers for its roll out. If we go about it the way we went about implementing 8-4-4 we will come back to the same point in our vicious cycle.