The right to education goes beyond producing marketable commodities

KCSE

There has been the usual hoo-ha over the KCSE results – and they are important because of their enormous significance to those young people who took the examinations and have just received their results. How significant is attested to equally by the ecstatic smiles of those who did well, not to mention the slightly idiotic poses in which students and teachers are pictured in the press, and by the suicide of one student disappointed by the result.

But it is hard to escape a feeling that, almost more than anything else, the results reveal how the education system is failing young Kenyans.

Look at the distribution of results. Apparently: 315 candidates scored A plain, 3,417 scored A-, 8,268 B+, 16,403 B plain, 26,156 B-, 35,818 C+, 49,707 C plain, 71,047 C-, 96,512 D+, 147,918 D plain, 165,139 D – and 30,840 scored E. If we plot that on a graph it looks like this:

However, if a large number of candidates take an examination that is not too hard and not too easy, so that it is a fair test of what they have learned, one would normally expect the graph of results to look very different. It would have a bunching of candidates around the middle — ­ the average students probably about B to C and smaller numbers toward the best and the least successful.

What are we to make of an exam in which there is a steady increase in the numbers from the top grade to the bottom (leaving aside the Es)? Clearly the exam was too hard, the students were not taught properly, the answers were not fairly marked, or the students did not try hard enough. In view of the stress that is placed on these exams, it is not very likely that such a huge proportion did not try.

The truth is surely that the bulk of the students were not taught adequately. The teachers were not there; the teachers did not know enough, or did not care enough; or the schools did not have the books or other equipment; no doubt some of the students were too hungry to concentrate.

What damage are we doing to children when we make so many of them feel failures? What sort of attitude towards learning do we inculcate when so many get the impression that they are doomed to failure? The media fuss that accompanies the results must make those who did not get the magic C+ or more feel even worse.

The situation is worse than the figures indicate, because of the number of students whose parents pay for them to go to expensive schools where they do not even prepare for the Kenyan exam system but for British, or the International Baccalaureate system.

The right to education

The Constitution says, “Every person has the right to education”, and every child has the right to “free and compulsory basic education”. Other provisions say that everyone must respect rights, but single out the State for the responsibility to “observe, respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights”, and that everyone is equal before the law. We should remember that all international treaties that Kenya has adopted are part of Kenyan law, so long as they do not contradict the Constitution. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; all go into some detail on the right to education.

Taking all these together, and taking into account the work that has been done by international bodies about the right to education we can sketch the general approach that Kenya should be taking. (The international bodies include the committees to which countries, including Kenya, report on how far they have implemented the treaties, and the UN official who studies and reports on the right to education.)

Every child has a right to education. There should be no discrimination between children on any ground. So they should have the same chance of education, wherever they live.

Equality is a national value and a fundamental principle of the Constitution. But how far is it respected? Equality does present challenges for some parts of the country, as we know, but the government must do whatever it can to minimise the differences. And students with disabilities must also be treated equally – meaning not just being treated the same, but treated in a way that enables them to achieve their potential

The design and the reality of our secondary education are fundamentally unequal. Children with the best KCPE results are destined for the better schools. It’s a system that makes a child’s future depend very heavily on one set of exams, at an age when their capacities are not fixed and their full potential not realised. How many more KCPE students would be in the much-improved category if they were not virtually doomed by the secondary school to which they were assigned?

Education is not about access alone. Other issues are important. First is quality. If schools do not have teachers, or teachers do not turn up, or do not bother to teach properly or do not have what they need to teach properly, there is as much a failure to achieve the right as if the children could not go to school at all.

The education to which children have a right should not be just about producing marketable commodities. That founding document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it well: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. And the African Charter adds that education must be concerned with “the preservation and strengthening of positive African morals, traditional values and cultures”.

Progressive realisation

It is easy to think that international standards are dreamed up by someone living in cloud cuckoo land. But in fact they are firmly grounded. While there is an obligation to achieve free basic (or primary) education promptly, the obligation to fulfil the right to higher levels of education is something to be achieved over time. This takes account of a country’s resources and realities. But it is also clear that progress, as far as resources permit, must be pursued with commitment, and the necessary intellectual effort, and research. And improvement must, unless real crisis intervenes, be continuous.

Is Kenya trying?

From free primary education, to free secondary tuition, to a guarantee of secondary school places, to the effort to ensure that the best students from each county get to the best schools, an effort is being made. A major World Bank project is focussed on improving secondary education.

A rights-based approach (which the Constitution requires when it says that human rights are the “framework for social economic and cultural policies”) requires more. It certainly requires a focus on equity, on respect for the dignity of the children, and the teachers, and on the development of the full personality and abilities of the child.

It surely also requires that we move away from the “government as drama” approach of which the laptop fiasco was an example. It requires that policies and their implementation be properly researched and considered. Whatever explains the shambles over the introduction of the new competency based curriculum, it seems that the plan for implementation was rushed.

It requires that the Ministry of Education be able to implement its own decisions. We know that teachers are not supposed to provide out of school tuition for their pupils. Yet almost all do. They are supposed to teach in school. Yet persistently they do not teach what they are supposed to and they or others make up the deficiency outside school hours. This has grave impacts for equality: for clearly not all parents can afford tuition. And it has impacts on the children’s chances to grow and develop through outside school activities, including play, also among the rights of the child.

JILL COTTRELL GHAI