Education is like running a marathon: while some people take time to get the hang of it, others disappear into oblivion. Yet, a good number finish within the normal times.
My own educational journey started in a village in Kisii. Up until sixth grade, much of the learning was conducted in vernacular. As we got closer to sitting for the Certificate of Primary Education, teachers turned to new pedagogical methods — intense rote learning in English — to get us ready for the examinations.
Somehow, largely through God’s intervention, some of us in our class got good marks to enable us to proceed to secondary school, but not enough to take us to Alliance High.
We revered Alliance and other national schools as centers of excellence where only the best could be nurtured. Like in a marathon, I ran my own race hoping that one day I would catch up with the brightest students.
It was the source of my inspiration to learn irrespective of the schools I attended. I changed schools a couple of times because I thought a new one would be better than the previous one. I made mistakes that I don’t regret through the journey. Failure makes you strong.
My greatest failure started in one of the schools where I met Ms Mugambi, a young untrained teacher whose beauty was more of a distraction to most of her boy students, including myself.
While teaching us nouns and the rules that govern their plurals, I asked why the plural of mouse was mice when house is houses. She said I should take it as is.
At that moment, I whispered a statement of fact about her physique to my friend Githinji. He chuckled but she did not take it kindly. She marched me to the headmaster’s office and together, they thoroughly whipped my bottom. From then on, I distanced myself from English.
The results from the East African Certificate of Education confirmed my worst fears. I failed in English. I thought the examiner was inconsiderate given that I had passed all other subjects that were presented in English. Once again, I could not join Alliance given that my English was questionable.
This, again, did not deter me from eventually being as good as those who attended national schools that were the preserve of the brightest. By this time, I was wiser and more determined to succeed irrespective of any challenges ahead.
Failure pierced through into the deep end of my brain to expose latent energy that propelled me through my undergraduate and graduate studies.
In my adult life, I have made many friends who went through our great national schools. Sometimes when we sit to discuss issues affecting our country, deep inside me I feel as though I have caught up with leading marathoners and we are talking our way to the finish line.
The pathway to work and life is never defined by where you went to school but what you can contribute to the world with many of its challenges.
Our country today is faced with serious issues of governance. We should not contaminate education by throwing out merit and creating loopholes for corruption.
As a professor in a public university, I see many who did not go to national schools, but are determined to show their privileged colleagues dust. This is the essence of education.
We must create this competitive spirit by nurturing those who show promise. The select few who get into, for example, the Indian Institute of Technology have helped the country become competitive in technology.
In the US, select few universities take up most of the top students and out of this meritorious process are many inventions. This is replicated in all newly industrialised countries.
Our desire, therefore, should not be policies that discriminate against students from private schools. This, in the absence of research, may be counterproductive in the long run.
The rich in Kenya shunned the 8-4-4 system. Majority of parents in the system and whose children scored over 400 marks are not necessarily rich.
Their numbers are so insignificant that all can be absorbed into national schools based on merit, plus at least the top 50 from each county. Many are from poor backgrounds who have denied themselves food to give their children an education.
We have failed to provide quality education in public primary schools simply because teachers tend to their businesses first before teaching. This may eventually pull down secondary education and at worst collapse the entire system.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School and a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications.