The Agony of Public Education

Welcome to the world where the economy does not believe in their strongest of products. I grew up knowing that education is the Key to a very good life. That is what Mr. Mageso taught me back in Lusengeli Secondary School, a public day school that boasts of producing some of the best students in Vihiga County, at least over the past 8 years. The moment you step in the institution, you get the gist of the source of all the excitement of having some of their students score As, A-s, and B+s. Forget the public canonization of the wild celebrations of Makini School or Strathmore when the results are out. Forget the protracted media coverage of Alliance High School celebrating 50As. Lusengeli is one of the schools that will go on a celebration mood because we have 3As and 5A-s. “What is the excitement about? 3 vs 50 is not even a match.” You will never understand this until you are a teacher having to contend with children going home to their parents every evening. Children having over half of their lives away from academics. Children having to contend with the domestic violence and culture shortchanges every morning. Children to whom breakfast is a distant parable. Children who have no knowledge of fashion. In fact, their style comes when they recycle the dress their mom has used for the past 3 years and it no longer “fits her”. Girls who have to fetch water, cook, receive countless quarrels, wash dishes, and clean the house yet still study. Isn’t this the work of a nanny in Nairobi’s flamboyant estates? This is a school whose boys have to take care of the cattle, clear the fences, sweep the compound, dig the shambas, prune the tea, weed the crops, and still study. Aren’t they student herds boys?

As I walk down Moi avenue in Nairobi, I am met by a group of young looking people in suits (not as sharp as you would expect, yet still tidy). In one hand, they hold a smartphone, going by my assumption. In the other hand, a brown envelope. You can tell from stories around that they are from one of the public colleges, graduates or still studying. They are all working very hard in their interviews to get a job. They still hold the belief that education is the key to a bright life. These are the As from Lusengeli and Alliance combined, grilled so much through high school that they went on to pursue “Quality courses” at the University. They knew the library as the source of knowledge and throughout their school life this was their second hostel. Back in the first hostel, all the mean and evil happened. They partied and drunk. Fridays were always holidays and the little HELB money got consumed in the first week at the school pub. For the survivors, they got through school because they were in the Christian union and the chapel was their third hostel. That is the line of movement, hostel to class, class to hostel, hostel to the cafeteria, cafeteria to hostel. Four years of the same journey.

What happened in the lecture halls? For starters, it is shambles. Let us just say the lecture halls are bonkers. An old man with 6 year old notes reading them as a disorganized crowd of 800 students write them down in the name of a lesson. One hour of dictation and writing. None of the 800 innocent souls even questions the sentence structure used. You never miss a word, it is lecturing and note taking. The lecturer, apparently a professor in accounting and finance, then gives an assignment. Four long questions that he apparently “marks” in one week for the 800 students and releases results. Pause for a minute! This is one old man marking four questions with each of the questions having ten points for 800 students in 7 days! That is essentially 32,000 points read and marked in 7 days while he is also teaching in two other universities during the week. You are a genius sir. Hats off for you! Yet the exam period is the famous “degree ni harrambee,” an association of 800 students duplicating answers from 80 of them. This sounds like a political party! For the unlucky few ladies who are social outcasts and with no one to copy, the lecturer may need something they have and they need the grades. This is the birth of sponsors and the sexually transmitted grades. Obscene!

Fast forward, the students have brown envelopes on the streets. When the job was advertised, the candidate who was picked was from the private University. All the As are forced to toil their way through to get the job or for the sake of balance, some employers intentionally choose to pick candidates from public institutions. How did we get here?

Garbage in, Garbage out! This is what the public institutions are doing. Turning very brilliant students into robots that are supposed to cram lengthy handouts and sleep around with lecturers for grades. The development of a Kenyan is stopped or rather slowed immediately they step through the public institution door. There is no value added to this student and the half-baked degrees have slowly turned into unbaked degrees. No one cares whether the students get real experience or vocational training, or discipline, or any values. No one cares!

You were at a National school with the daughter of a cabinet secretary whom you beat mercilessly. As you were celebrating your results, knowing very well you would be admitted to one of the “best” universities, she was grappling over how she would end up. Her father took her to a top private university to take a similar course to yours. For her, the grilling continued, the discipline continued, there was actual learning, assignments were marked, classes were smaller, lecturers were available et al. She went through a replica of high school on an advanced level.

Hello ‘A’ student who went to a public school and was top student in the county. Your counterpart who was not in the top 500 and “failed” in high school is the one getting the job simply because he went to a private university. Dear government, privatize all public universities if they cannot help the best talent as they should!