Students in Kenya. Wikimedia Commons

An Outcome that Goes Beyond the Exam Results

We examine some educational problems and difficulties in Kenya and ask ourselves how to address them. Strengthened relationships between students and teachers certainly seem to be a step in the right direction.
Paolo Sanna

In Kenya, October is the time of examinations, since the academic year closes at the end of November. From October to the end of November, schools conduct the concluding examinations of both the eight years of primary school, KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) and the four years of secondary school, KCSE (Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education). So, at the beginning of November, more than 700,000 children in the 20,000 primary schools have to face a week of exams.

For the opportunity to go on to high school depends exclusively on the result of this exam, and only half of those who pass the exam can proceed in any case. Then, from October 21st, 350,000 students in the 5,000 secondary schools will be engaged until November 16th with the written and practical exams on the whole four-year program in eight subjects. This, too, is a crucial step, since only 15% of them will go to university or other courses leading to the more sought-after professions. It is clear that a school system in which examinations have such a selective role has great influence on the work of the teachers, and channels their attention and their work methods. This is often aimed simply at passing examinations, at providing the student with the information for correctly answering the questions they will find on the exams.

The work of the teacher in the primary school or secondary school has to take into consideration other influential factors, like having a very high student–teacher ratio: in the state primary schools, the average is 50–1; in the secondary schools, it is as high as 60–1. There are also structural limitations: insufficient classrooms, lack of laboratories, shortage of books, etc. Normally, only the teacher has the textbook, while the students have to refer to the few copies in the school library.

In this situation, the simplest solution for many teachers is to concentrate on preparing the students for the exams, training them to take the tests. Because of this, the student becomes a passive object in this training. It is not by chance that the majority of secondary school students are in boarding schools, where they spend almost the whole year far from home, so they can concentrate fully on their studies.

In this situation, one that demonstrates how urgent it is to take action on the educational problem in Kenya, we spoke with some Nairobi teachers–Henry, Head of Urafiki Primary School; Veronica, teacher of Swahili; and Joakim, Head of the Cardinal Otunga High School, Nairobi–trying to understand the challenges that teachers have to face in Kenya.

The main problem is that they have to come to terms with an internal factor, too: the lack of a clear motivation for and awareness of the value of their work. Many are teachers only because, when they made the choice to attend university, their grade in the KCSE offered them a place only in the faculty of education. As Henry says, “Many of them chose to be teachers because it was the only faculty available. So, since they are failures themselves, they approach their jobs in such a way that other failures can be easily produced.”
This is certainly the greatest difficulty for teachers in Kenya. Even for Joakim, the most sensitive question is that of the teachers: “One’s self-awareness and one’s own need are undervalued. So the most pressing matter, even from the standpoint of resources, is for teachers to start off again from yourself, and your own human need as regards life.” Here is born the esteem for your work, for the importance of education. “Otherwise,” says Veronica, “teaching is only an opportunity to earn money, rather than something that gives you satisfaction as a person.” “We concentrate too much on exam results at the cost of the human growth of the students,” Henry admits. “This leads to a situation in which a pupil studies for the exam, and that becomes everything–an end itself.” But the first work, even in this case, is for the teachers. The students can get very good exam results all the same, like they did in Cardinal Otunga High School, which had the best results in the district in 2009. Joakim, the Headmaster, describes the reasons for this success: “First of all, the work we did on ourselves as teachers, looking seriously at our need, gave rise to a desire in us to take our work seriously and look truly at the students before us. The consequence was a growth in relationships between teachers and students. This friendship, based on awareness of the need for fullness we have in common, helped us to have mutual esteem. Above all, our students became aware of their dignity as persons and this drove them to want something better for their lives, becoming protagonists, starting from their studies, and not only in order to pass exams.”

The example of the Cardinal Otunga High School is not isolated. A group of teachers in primary and secondary schools in and around Nairobi, contacted by means of refresher courses organized by AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service), have begun to take up the challenge of education together. Gradually, now each of the teachers starts off from his own human need, and invests the contents of the various scholastic disciplines with the awareness of the value of his work. This enables him to call on all the students to get involved personally in this common adventure.