Does the education system make the A grade?

Education must be embraced for empowerment, not examination. The certificate, won’t work for you, if you don’t. Employers hire on based on knowledge and skills, yet fire based on attitudes

The tragedy of the education system, is that it has been reduced to be for examination and therefore employment. Schools, parents, employers, teachers, students, and all stakeholders focus there attention on one thing: the exam. More accurately, the results of the exam. So students have learned to upload (study) the previous night of the exam, download (regurgitate) the following morning, and then remain empty. And parents, who should know better, are constantly on the lookout for the best performing school because “my child must pass”

The failure label: Failing to succeed and succeeding to fail

And is summary fashion, those who do not pass i.e. make the cut-off point to high school or University, are deemed failures. Failure. That’s a strong label for a child’s impressionable mind. Failure. These students can read and can write. They are literate, which, last I checked, was the purpose of going to school in the first place. How then are they failures? How do we summarily dismiss 8 or 12 years of learning based on a 3 day or 3 week exam? So debilitating is the failure label, that most won’t be caught attending the highly subsidized village polytechnic to learn a new skill because “others will know I failed.” I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn therefore, that with a booming construction sector, Kenya is in dire need of qualified plumbers!

2% make the cut-off

In Kenya, the numbers for these literate “failures”, are worrying. 800,000 seat the national KCPE exam, for entry to high school. Half that number (400,000) seat the KCSE- the gateway to University. And 10% of these (40,000) have a chance at a University Education. Every year 760,000 are deemed “failures”. From the initial, 800,000, a mere 2%, make the grade; succeed. 

Succeed. Because exams mean competition which therefore means race, then the choice of “succeed” is appropriate, I guess. But is education a race? I don’t think it is. Tragically, having been made so, many therefore have made it finite. It ends with the degree, the Masters or the PhD and the faster you cross your chosen tape, the more “successful” you are. Yet education is infinite. In fact, life is the greatest teacher and we learn more out of school than in it. Hence why it’s said that education is what you remember after you leave school.

Education is what you remember after school

But does the degree guarantee success? You know it doesn’t. Now it’s official.(Ernst & Young Removes Degree Classification From Entry Criteria As There’s ‘No Evidence’ University Equals Success)

Do you wonder what happens to the 760,000 a year literate failures? A 2010 USAID report says:

Education for empowerment

“Kenyan youth face a complex reality: On one hand, they have a relatively high level of basic education, with a literacy rate at over 90 per cent, and more than half of those who are out of school have completed some or all of secondary schooling. However, 75 per cent of the out-of-school youth do not have regular, full-time employment. As many as 40,000 of these youth are entering the labour force each year with tertiary education, and facing an employment market that has only created 150,000 new formal sector jobs in the past six years.

The education system has been and still is designed to be highly individualistic and competitive, in which “paper” examinations determine one’s life opportunities, and the majority “fail” before attaining qualifications that are needed for formal sector employment. On the other hand, the education system raises expectations, leading school leavers to shun agricultural work and self-employment”

Evidently, so long as exams are the wherewithal of education, then “succeed” or “fail”, there is a problem. Which begs the question: borrowing from its chosen benchmark, “Does the education system make the A grade?”

Disconnect between education and life

Did you know that international footballer McDonald Mariga scored a D+ in his KCSE? Much as the education system labeled him one, would you call him a failure? Does anything stop him from pursuing a tertiary education in Europe? What about the late Prof. Ali Mazrui? Did you know he scored about the same as Mariga in his O-level (fourth form) exams in the system before 8-4-4? On the one hand he was deemed a failure, yet on the other, he was made the Chancellor of a University (JKUAT) by the same education system! Further, whereas employers hire on evidence of knowledge and skills (certificates), they fire based on attitudes (lateness, incompetence, fraud, etc)

It gets murkier. The purpose of internship at University is to expose the student to practical industry experience. And yet, if I’m pursuing my degree after 10 years of employment, pray tell why a University would insist that I go for internship!?

The tragedy continues to Adult Education

Now then. The tragedy of an education for examination carries itself to adult education. Training. It’s truly amazing the real reasons many employees come for training. To most, it’s for the (paid) break away from work. For others, it’s the food, a promotion, the hotel, or the interaction. However, the ultimate reason is this one- the certificate. Yet, 9.9 out of 10 times the certificate is comparatively useless. Unlike the school certificate which is necessary to demonstrate you have the degree when applying for the job, what use will the certificate be after the 2 day training serve? But, ingrained with an education for examination, adult learners latch on to the certificate wrongly believing that the certificate will work for them. Yet, the certificate won’t work if you don’t.

Education for empowerment

When we embrace education for it’s rightful reasons, a whole new world opens up. When we embrace education for empowerment, and not examination, scales fall from our eyes and a whole new world opens up. For example, the late Kimani Maruge went to school at 84! He holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest student. KImani had a movie made about him (First Grader). He also traveled to New York to address the UN Millennium Development Summit on Education. And, to date, has inspired tens of Kenyans over 30 years of age to go to school for the first time.

In my view, he epitomizes what embracing education for empowerment should mean to us. Surely he did not got to school for a job, a certificate, fame or any other reason other than empowerment. The man just wanted to be able to read the Bible. And at 84, he also had dreams of being a veterinarian.

Education (empowerment) should transcend school and work to life. It’s not a sprint-it’s a marathon; it’s not an event-it’s a journey.


“Does the education system make the A grade?” What do you think?

You may also want to read:

Get rid of the diploma disease

Your exam grade does not define you. You do.

Pass or fail is an event, not destination

What does an exam grade say about you? Nothing!

Stupidity takes you places in selling

Beyond grades: Unlocking the true potential of KCSE candidates

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