Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We must allocate educational resources more equitably

A high school education should not be a privilege of the few but a birth right of every Kenyan child. In a competitive globalised world, and especially as we enter a post knowledge economy, basic literacy and numeracy alone just won’t do.

About 1.3 million children enrolled in primary school in 2007. Only 880,486 completed Standard Eight. A staggering 417,483 children dropped out, rather too soon, from our school system. In the just released KCPE examination results 445,981 students scored below the average 250 marks. What this shakes down to is pretty ominous, and we ought to be both ashamed and very afraid. Out of the starting cohort of 1.3 million in 2007, only 432,000 or 34 percent of children, who scored above 250 marks, have a realistic chance to transition to a decent secondary school.

However, according to education aficionados, 687,000 students who scored above 200 marks will transition to high school. This would jerk up the transition rate from 34 percent to 53 percent by dragging into high school an additional 255,000 children. A transition rate of 53 percent sounds pretty decent. But we must remember that 47 percent of the 2007 cohort who won’t make it beyond primary school.

Dragging these 255,000 kids to high school is disingenuous. We are setting them up to fail. This is because most of the kids who score below 250 marks will very likely end up in under-resourced high schools, which often lack teachers and the most basic learning resources such as labs, course texts and reference books. This is the kind of learning environment, which caused them to underachieve in primary school.

Under-resourced schools admitting struggling kids, are different and supremely inferior to the well-resourced highly selective schools, which admit the cream of the crop. The vast majority of the cream of the crop is often drawn from elite urban public day or boarding schools or high cost private schools. A majority of these kids come from families with literate parents whom more often than not have a regular income and have the resources to support their children’s education.

Conversely, a majority of struggling kids come from rural schools in pastoral, arid and semi-arid regions or subsistence farming communities or poor urban neighborhoods. Their parents live just above or below the poverty line, earning a living as farm laborers. They rely on meager remittances sent by relatives who work in Kenya’s rapidly expanding urban areas. For these struggling kids hunger and malnutrition are not unfamiliar experiences. In some parts of the country, rural households are food insecure for up to nine months a year. Teacher and pupil absenteeism is chronic and school drop out rates are high.

It was imagined that free education would remove all barriers to school attendance and learning. We believed the social mobility wagon was finally on track and circumstances of birth or poverty would no longer limit how big our children could dream. Perhaps I missed a memo. Methinks it has become incredibly difficult for poor children to enroll in primary school, stay in school, learn and transition to high school.

Here is another way to think about it 47 percent of our children fail to proceed to high school. About 46 percent of Kenyan households live below the poverty line. A majority of kids born in poverty have no chance in a highly competitive, exam-centric and resource intensive education system. A chance to get a high school education and secure a toehold on the first rung on the ladder of opportunity in our society is essentially a privilege of the very few.

There is everything wrong and unjust about how we allocate educational resources and the associated dividends. I will say it again. It is time to devolve education. Devolving education is about empowering local stakeholders and moving away from a top-down input-oriented management to an outcome-oriented approach. Devolution must be accompanied by an education achievement equalisation fund, which would be allocated to each country based on long-term average mean scores in all national standardised tests. This could use the same logic as CDF allocations. When can we get a bill on the floor of Senate?


Our system of education, how we govern and allocate educational resources, is the most virulent vector of inequality, and socio-economic and political exclusion. Fifty years is enough. We must act now to secure Kenya for posterity.

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