The colonial period in Kenya (1895-1963) was marked by racial segregation in all aspects of life, including education, between three distinct groups namely, Europeans, Indians and Africans. The budgets for education differed between these races, with Europeans getting the lion’s share of the budgetary allocation and Africans the least.
The curriculum was also structured in such a way as to ensure that the Europeans got exposed to as much academic education as possible to prepare them to take up the mantle as future leaders of the country.
Conversely, Africans were exposed to mainly “practical” industrial and agricultural training owing to a perception by policy makers that the African was incapable of abstract thought, hence the need for the “concrete” in the African education curriculum.
African education was, to a large extent, left in the hands of missionaries. The main objective of missionary education was to win converts and train catechists who would help them spread the gospel. They also offered such basic elements as carpentry and gardening (to maintain mission stations), reading, writing and arithmetic.
A Directorate of Education was established in 1911 to plan and regulate the school curriculum. The first director, J.R. Orr, was of the view that Africans should avoid politics and consider themselves uneducated until their technical achievements matched those of the Europeans. In his wisdom, he surmised that practical training was very important for the African.
Pursuing this line of thought, in 1912, he established the first government model industrial training school at Machakos with the purpose of teaching Africans technical skills. By the end of World War 1, African education had acquired a distinctly technical character.
The settler community saw this development as a golden opportunity to secure a pool of cheap African labour to work on their farms and industries and the colonial government was of the view that without academic education, the African would be less vocal on matters political.
With the benefit of hindsight, the latter view was correct because by 1921, the likes of Harry Thuku and later Jomo Kenyatta, who were both mission educated, had already started a nationalist movement to agitate for African economic rights, namely the Kikuyu Association.
The Phelp-Stokes Commission of 1924 reinforced the policy of African education being related to their rural needs.
In 1945, the system of education in Kenya consisted of Elementary School, sub-standard A, B, standard 1, 2 (4 years); Primary School, standard 3 to 6 (4 years); Junior Secondary, form 1 and 2 (2 years); and Senior Secondary, form 3 and 4(2 years).
There was massive overcrowding in the elementary schools, with little effective learning, and the transition rate to primary school was very poor as more than 50 per cent of pupils dropped out after sub-standard A, rendering them virtually illiterate. Only Alliance and Mangu high schools offered the Cambridge School Certificate Examination (current KCSE). For higher education, African students went to Makerere College where they were awarded diplomas on successful completion, as Makerere was not yet offering degrees.
In total contrast, the government offered Europeans and Indians scholarships to study in universities abroad.
The Kenya African Union and the Local Native Council wanted the same opportunities offered to Africans, but when they realised it was not going to happen, both bodies started advocating for Makerere to be elevated to university status.
A committee under Archdeacon L.J. Beecher was appointed in March 1949 to “inquire into scope, content and method of African education, financing and teachers’ salaries”.
In what came to be known as the Beecher Report, the committee, while reiterating that education for Africans should continue to meet the needs of a predominantly rural society, recommended a new 4:4:4 system comprising 4 years Primary, 4 years Intermediate and 4 years Secondary schools.
Each of these sections was to be a complete course in itself with a major examination for entry to the next level. The report did not recommend higher education for Africans and upheld the continuation of racial segregation in the sector.
Africans reacted negatively to this report as it still left them at the bottom of the hierachy and it was clear that the examinations at each stage were designed to create a bottleneck in the progress of African education.
They were also opposed to the ban on opening of new independent schools for Africans. Additionally, they wanted the government to take full charge of secular education while the churches took responsibility for religious education only.
Notwithstanding objections by the Africans, the Report was debated and passed by the Legislative Council. It was implemented in 1952. A school of thought amongst historians suggests that the implementation of the Report contributed significantly to the Mau Mau uprising later that year.
By denying Africans equal opportunities in education to subjugate them, the colonial government inadvertently created a political flashpoint.