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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Is free day secondary education another experiment with our children?

The government has allocated Sh. 25 billion to fund a signature campaign pledge; free day secondary education starting January 2018. This is perhaps the strongest demonstration by the government that a high school education must become a birthright to every Kenyan child.

Ordinarily, this would be absolutely laudable, eliciting universal praise across the land. But the wider society and education professionals have not received the announcement with celebration or praise. Many are disappointed that the policy minders both in the Ministries of Education and Finance have allowed themselves to be wagged by politicians. They have failed to demonstrate professional grit buttressed by evidence.

The evidence shows that the introduction of free primary education has been associated with over enrollment and a disastrous teacher pupil ratio. Some public schools are hovels; lacking walls, desks, toilets and water. Moreover standards in numeracy and literacy in public schools have collapsed. Studies show that only 3 out 10 children in standard 3 can read and add at the level required in standard 2.

While enrollment rates in standard one have shot up in some counties, both retention and completion have been atrocious with just about 70 percent of every standard one cohort completing standard 8. This is disconcerting and complicates the path to 100 percent transition to secondary school for every standard one cohort.

What have we learned in the course of implementing free primary education? Can we make free day secondary education work? Keep in mind that day secondary schools are where the children who barely made it in KCPE go. Also keep in mind that these children come from poor families who mostly are rural farmers/pastoralist or employed in the informal sector in small towns and cities across the country.

We also must not forget that a majority these students barely made it in KCPE. Admission into public secondary schools is merit based and most public day secondary schools are at the bottom of the barrel. Ideally such students need great teachers, excellent facilities, and literally all the support they can get to succeed in high school.

Will the noble intentions of free day secondary education falter and fail under the weight of poor sloppy implementation? Have we learned any lessons from free primary education that continues to hemorrhage hard precious and scarce public funds? Is this another round of Russian roulette with the future of Kenya’s less privileged children?

I suggest that our experience with government-funded education has not been great. In fact it has failed. I would suggest that we try something different this time. How about conditional grant transfers to public schools to incentivize teaching excellence, retention and completion rates?

Are we committed to preparing our children for a brutally competitive knowledge-based economy? Not any quality of education will do. We must invest in teacher training; pay teachers well and hold them accountable. We must invest school infrastructure and eliminate the boarding school bias and ensure that 100 percent transition is buttressed by measureable competence at every transition grade.

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