By Raphael Obonyo
As a country, Kenya has shied away from reforming its education system. The more we do this, the more we place our country at a competitive disadvantage to our neighbors, such as Rwanda. Leaders in the education sector should be applauded for finally taking long-overdue steps to reform this system.
Many in Kenya have long recognized the need to enact comprehensive reforms to rhyme the country’s education system with its social and economic needs. However, it was not until the former president, Mwai Kibaki, increased access to education with the 8-4-4 curriculum that our education system’s soft underbelly became barer than it had ever been before. Although Kibaki’s policies provided free primary and subsidized secondary education, it only incidentally increased literacy levels. There is almost a general consensus that this system is not serving societal needs, such as tackling joblessness.
This now places an enormous task ahead of the committee recently unveiled to steer the reform process. To overhaul an education system as complex and poorly designed as 8-4-4, a long-term solution must be developed so that Kenyans’ high expectations can be met. Most importantly, it must not be a quick fix that satisfies the whims of today’s politics.
Kenyans understand the obviously visible problems in the education system—such as poor transition, wastage, and exam-focused teaching. More recently, the education system does not offer programing for art, music, sports, or entrepreneurship. If these problems are fixed, it would help keep students in the system and help them progress to secondary and tertiary levels of education.
Like the late Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the strongest weapon we can use to fight poverty.” If his assertion is to hold true for Kenya, education cannot be preserved for only a few. We must equip the country’s students with the required skills and tools to prosper.
To upgrade our education system to reflect the envisaged outcome, development needs, and personal aspirations, both a broad consensus and collaboration between the private, public, and third sectors are critical. A multi-sectoral approach is sensible because of Kenya’s limited resources. Today, the education budget is already overstretched with recurrent expenditures, leaving little to create the proposed reform’s infrastructure let alone enough to hire teachers and staff. A multi-sectoral approach will be able to assess the country’s resources to successfully roll out the proposed reforms.
A major challenge in implementing educational reform is that teachers are currently unequipped to handle the task. A framework needs to be constructed to train teachers. Before teachers can educate students, they themselves must have knowledge of the business environment for lessons on entrepreneurship; they must be trained in music or the arts; and, finally, they must develop teaching methods conducive to educating young learners. If teachers have the skills necessary to identify and hone students’ strengths, they will benefit both the student and the country at-large.
This is an area that the hands of the private sector can be counted upon—but only if the government provides good enough incentives. Apart from identifying training gaps, the private sector can invest in education in relevant areas. We can take just one example, the maritime industry, that would greatly benefit from educational reform.
Despite the significant role the “blue economy” plays in Kenya—with over 90 percent of East Africa goods coming by sea—there are only three colleges and two universities that offer maritime courses in the country. Most students that go into this industry receive their education abroad at a prohibitive cost.
As a whole, Africa contributes only 8 percent of seafarers to the world. Until 2010, Kenya was blacklisted by the International Maritime Organization from training foreign-going seafarers, but then the ban was lifted. However, there is still not much to celebrate.
Kenya is likely to face a serious shortage of maritime personnel—especially with the industry’s unprecedented growth in the recent past because of new projects, such as Lamu Port on the coast of Kenya. As a huge amount of resources is required to train maritime personnel, Kenya’s government and private sector need to form a strong partnership that will provide the industry’s education and optimize its gains. Because there is a global shortage of seafarers, Kenya has the opportunity to educate maritime students and fill the gap.
Equally as important, there is also the question of leadership and values at the core of Kenya’s agenda for transformation. Education must produce leaders who cherish integrity and public service. The agenda must help young people bring down the barriers between communities, cultures, religions, and sexes that continue to divide the country. However, this can only be achieved through broad-based consensus and collaboration.
Raphael Obonyo is the author of Conversations About the Youth in Kenya.
[Photo courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat]