The highlight of the new school term that started this week should, ideally, have been the transition of the first class under the competency-based curriculum (CBC) to Grade Four.
The transition demonstrates the Ministry of Education’s commitment to moving full-steam ahead with implementing the curriculum despite widespread criticism about the ministry’s and teachers’ preparedness to do so.
Last term, the ministry came under the spotlight for the chaotic manner the Grade Three assessment was conducted in schools across the country. Independent reports indicated that the assessment largely took the form of the traditional examination, undermining the stated objectives of the practical, skills-based CBC.
Many teachers cited a lack of clear guidelines from the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) for their struggles with the exercise, reinforcing earlier claims by their unions that a majority of them had not received proper training.
Education authorities have in the past sought to downplay such claims, choosing to portray the challenges as teething problems. However, the recurrent complaints by parents about the high cost of learning materials speaks to a more fundamental problem that the government must address, even as it implements the new curriculum. There are legitimate concerns that that CBC might entrench, if not worsen, inequality in society.
Whereas the government says that the cost of learning materials is covered under its capitation to schools for stationery, many parents with children in Grade Four in public primary schools say they were handed long lists of textbooks and other learning materials to buy before the pupils could be enrolled this week at the beginning of the new school year.
Besides contradicting the government’s free primary education (FPE) policy, the high cost of CBC puts pupils from low-income households at a disadvantage. Indeed, the FPE itself belies the harsh reality of inequality in a country where many pupils are still kept away from school because their parents cannot afford new uniform.
Burdening such parents with additional expenditure on CBC learning materials will likely cause children to drop out of school or increase absenteeism in public schools, denying children from underprivileged families the opportunity to receive quality education.
Unless these anomalies are addressed there is a risk of CBC widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
A primary school in Nairobi, where a majority of pupils come from a low-income neighbourhood, directed parents with children in Grade Four to buy, among others, 17 exercise books, a Kiswahili dictionary, a Bible, an English dictionary, a hymn book, and a geometrical set. What is more, they were instructed by the school managements to purchase the items from specific stores.