The trouble with public education sector

In most African cultures, women cooked for the family. In the Kisii tradition, if for some reason Omorugi (literary meaning the cook but culturally refers to a wife) failed to taste the meal she cooks before the rest of the family or visitors ate it, it was concluded that the meal was not good for consumption.

Indeed in Europe, a proverb that dates back at least to the 14th century says “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” loosely meaning that you can only say something is a success after it has been tried out or used.

It is therefore analogous to say that the proof of the teaching is in the performance of the pupil.

A quick survey conducted after the release of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination showed that majority of public school teachers have enrolled their children in private academies.

This fact does not reflect well on the teaching community. In real sense, they themselves have no confidence in public education. They cannot face anybody and say the results were a success of their effort.


Indeed the studious silence from ebullient leadership of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) that comments on all social issues including politics is in itself a testimony that all is not well in our public education.

The cause of poor performance is well documented. In some schools, the teachers are into big business and only report to bribe the head teacher and the local Knut officials in what they refer to as ‘‘buying protection.’’

Some teachers recruit untrained teachers to stand in for them while they are on a lengthy unauthorised leave.

A lobby group, Kenya National Youth Network, says in Kiambu, teachers run bars and restaurants while others are in real estate and retail. In other parts of the country teachers operate boda bodas.

In some rural counties, clanism is a major problem. Non-members are often not welcome. This allows teachers to abscond duty with impunity since they are part of the community.

Punishment is loathed and anybody who tries to speak out is considered a traitor.

Parents Teachers Associations become a village gathering with strong inclination towards conformity at the expense of the young and innocent precious lives. Failure in this situation is the norm rather than exception.

It was therefore not surprising that more than 50 per cent of the 839,759 KCPE exam candidates last year scored less than 250 marks out of the possible 500. In some schools, several candidates scored between zero and 50 marks.

A pathetic score that teachers with any conscience should be ashamed of. These are pupils who have gone through eight years of schooling and are not even able to do guess work.

The blame squarely lies on the teaching and not the teachers’ strikes that were witnessed prior to the exams.

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their book ‘‘An Uncertain Glory, India and its contradictions’’ say “The role of basic education in the process of development and social progress is very wide and critically important.

The capability to read and write and count has powerful effects on our quality of life, to communicate with others, and to be generally in touch with what is going on.

In society, particularly in the modern world, where so much depends on the written medium, being illiterate is like being imprisoned, and school education opens a door through which people can escape incarceration.”

Universal basic education therefore is much more important since it forms the foundation of a learned people. It is where we must begin to build inclusiveness and the foundations of equity.

Where the rich and poor children can come together and compete equitably. Quota system in higher learning does not correct the damaged confidence that arise from exam performance disparities.

Denying opportunity to good performers on the basis of having been in private school is counterproductive as many pupils end up in other educational systems that divide us even further.

Whilst we understand that the teaching community in Kenya is disgruntled due to non-payment of their allowances, there is need for them to address their flaws, remove the bad elements that do business at the expense of children and by show of their commitment, educate their children in public schools.

Kenyans too must address the issue of clanism, tribalism and other isms.

As the American Author, John Chapman said “Benevolence alone will not make a teacher, nor will learning alone do it. The gift of teaching is a peculiar talent, and implies a need and a craving in the teacher himself”. The teaching job is a calling.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.