Starting yesterday about 14 million children will stay at home after the government ordered the closure of all public and private schools. The Ministry of Education has decided to review term dates following three weeks of teachers’ strike that has crippled learning, especially in public schools.
The argument by the government is that we can’t afford to pay teachers the 50-60 percent pay increase, which the government negotiated with the teachers’ unions. The decision to close public and private all schools makes the teachers’ strike a grave and urgent national crisis. It is difficult to guess where the government and the unions will go from here.
At the heart of the “can’t pay won’t pay” stance is the argument that a hefty pay award to teachers would kick the balance between recurrent and development expenditure off-kilter, and stifle economic growth. It is estimated the Kenya spends about 52 percent of all public revenue on salaries. Public finance aficionados consider this unsustainable. Treasury officials also argue that a large pay increase for teachers, who they argue are already better paid than civil servants, would trigger a tsunami of agitations for higher wages across the entire public sector.
The teachers’ strike invites a broader conversation about public education and the future of Kenya’s children in a competitive globalized knowledge economy. Here are some sobering facts about the state of human capital in Kenya: about 2 million children of primary school age are out of school; learning outcomes in public schools are deplorable, with 2 out 3 children in standard 3 unable to pass reading and numeracy test for standard 2; average teacher-pupil ratio in primary school is 1:50; the transition rate into secondary school is about 60 percent, with a net enrollment ratio of about 40 percent; about 87 percent of Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 don’t have post secondary qualifications; and, about 45 percent of students graduating from our universities are unemployable and many of those that are employed, including lawyers, teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians and journalists, are mediocre.
These facts worry me sick. Given that more than 65 percent of Kenyans are aged below 25 and the median age is just 19 years we must pause and make hard decisions about the scale of public spending in education. We must re-evaluate our priorities. The future of this country is really about the quality of its citizens – the quality of education, the training and skills of its youth.
To compete in a globalized 21st century knowledge economy, we need a student-centered curriculum, which enables students to think, play, collaborate, co-create knowledge, innovate and solve problems. Hence, we need more and better-trained teachers. We need more schools with better infrastructure. We need more and better learning resources, including technology, in our classrooms. Quality public education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child, not a privilege for the few children whose parents can afford expensive private schools.
About 85 percent of the cost of education is teachers’ salaries. I believe that a well-educated workforce is critical to building equitable prosperity. Every thing we care about as a country; economic prosperity, national cohesion, political stability and democracy are inextricable bound to a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. Hence, spending on education, including teachers’ salaries, must be seen more broadly as spending on development.
Whatever the outcome of the feud between teachers’ unions and the government, we must re-examine our development priorities, and rationalize the structure and function of government at all levels. An unwieldy, outsized government will surely crowd out resources for development, especially education, and devour our future.
How much we spend on education must not be predicated on some arbitrary formulaic percentage or fears of fiscal catastrophe, hinged on economic superstition. How much we spend on educating our children must be based on sound evaluation, which matches our current and projected development needs with the requisite quality of education and skills for our workforce.
What will earn Kenya respect and global competitiveness is not the height of our skyscrapers or the number of lanes on our highways or the width of our railway or how much land we have under irrigation. What will earn us respect is how well we educate our youth for a competitive globalized knowledge economy. The future of this country – the youth – must become our most urgent national priority.