Sunday, January 31, 2010

Policy makers must tackle rot in our education system

Sunday Nation 31 January 2010

A recent opinion piece in one of our dailies lamented the precipitously dropping standards of education in our country, citing the example of an argument about whether students pursuing the privately sponsored university programmes were intellectually inferior to those in regular programmes.

The writer quoted a student who lamentably went ahead to prove the argument right by using practically illegible ‘SMS’ English in arguing her point. This article was one in a long list of commentaries that have highlighted the decline in Kenyan education standards, and many of them have found a convenient punching bag in the 8-4-4 system of education.

This is not to say that the opinion writer was inaccurate. The truth is that a large number of Kenyans cannot coherently express themselves in writing, and many can only mumble incoherently when required to speak in public. Whether this is due to the system of education they went through is open to discussion.

Since the mid-1980s when Kenya’s education system was changed from the four tier 7-4-2-3 system to the three tier 8-4-4 system, there have always been murmurs about how weak the ‘‘new’’ system is and how the country needs to go back to the ‘‘good old days’’.

Many scholars have trashed the system for one failure or another, and all seem unanimous that the system needs to be changed. Amazingly, very few of the system’s critics come up with an alternative system that would be designed to meet the needs of our country in this millennium.

Most of those criticising the system went through the older education system, and are thus only engaging in the favourite Kenyan pastime of bigotry camouflaged as educated opinion. The 8-4-4 system of education has been in existence for 25 years since its launch in 1985.

Those that have since gone through this system now form a majority in the job market, and many are in leadership positions today. It must be acknowledged too that there are 8-4-4 graduates who do not amount to much, but this probably has nothing to do with the education system per se.

It often has to do with poorly equipped schools with fewer teachers than they need, lack of commitment on the part of some teachers and parents, and largely, poor planning on the part of government. Whether we had retained the older system of education or not, the so-called rot in the education system would inevitably still have descended upon us.

The reasons cited above for the problems bedevilling the 8-4-4 system have not miraculously appeared in the past 25 years. They have been incubated in the attitudes of the average citizen of this country over a long period of time. Parents have become too busy to be involved in the education of their children, while teachers have suffered the ravages of a declining economy that has resulted in their having to spend lots of time chasing the ever-elusive shilling.

The net loser is the Kenyan child who now has to make do with peer influence and no one else to provide any sort of mature guidance whether in school or at home. If parents were paying any attention to the performance of their children in school, they would have noticed a long time ago that their children no longer made any effort to speak in complete sentences in any language.

They would have noticed that their children are more preoccupied with besting the next pupil than bettering themselves. They would also have noticed that the demands made by these children long ago changed to include money for purchasing ‘‘past papers’’ to facilitate cramming for the national examinations.

The attitudes in our homes have also become more and more parochial, with childish competitiveness characterising our view on anything under the sun. Children going through the ‘‘new’’ education system are learning their poor manners from parents who went through the ‘‘old’’ system.

The teachers, on the other hand, often feel overburdened by large numbers of learners that preclude the personal attention necessary for good performance in school. They are further hobbled by a shortage of learning materials and ebbing motivation due to poor remuneration and terms of employment.

It is therefore not the fault of the 8-4-4 system that the numbers of children needing education have steadily risen over the years, leading to overcrowding in classrooms and shortages of books and equipment necessary for proper learning. Similarly, the 8-4-4 system is not to blame for shortage of teaching staff in most of our public schools, or for the flagging morale at our learning institutions.

Policy-makers in government and elsewhere must start burning the midnight oil seeking solutions to the problems at the root of the declining education standards, instead of continually barking up the wrong tree.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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