Better education – Kenya’s history lesson for South Africa

SA SGBRecent evidence that four out of five South African children in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning has been (yet another) wake-up call for South Africa’s education system. ‘Weak governance’, everyone knows, is a key part of the problem. But what does ‘weak governance’ mean?

In a government-commissioned report on ‘jobs for cash’ scandals in schools and the follow-on Basic Education Laws Amendment proposals, school governing bodies were targeted as a key source of the problem.  In a recent Daily Maverick article, Western Cape premier Helen Zille fingered the industrial relations regime. Others target dysfunction in the education bureaucracy. As a recent paper I co-authored with Robert Cameron underscores, the Western Cape Education Department is indeed one of the  exceptions to the syndrome of bureaucratic dysfunction – but, as the paper also shows, its results also disappoint. [The paper is a chapter in a forthcoming book: Brian Levy, Robert Cameron, Ursula Hoadley and Vinothan Naidoo (editors), The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018). ]

One way to get beyond the search for our favorite scapegoat is to look elsewhere for inspiration. So, in that spirit, consider the historical experience of Kenya –   which for almost fifty years subsequent to independence had been a long-standing African over-performer in its education outcomes. (Note: what follows is not intended to address in any way the more recent challenges of Kenya’s system of basic education — fallouts of the way in which the ‘no fees’ policies of the mid-2000s were implemented, and the subsequent rise of low-cost private education.)

In the 2007 standardized tests for sixth graders conducted by the Southern (and East?) African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), Kenya’s average score was 557 points – well above South Africa’s average of 495 points, and only marginally below the Western Cape (the top performing province) score of 560 points; at the poorer 25th percentile, Kenya (with a score of 509 points) outperformed the Western Cape (496 points). These results were achieved notwithstanding higher levels of poverty,  average per pupil expenditures which were one fifth of South Africa’s, a cadre of teachers who were no better trained, and (when compared with the Western Cape) a relatively messy bureaucracy.

Figure: Kenya’s educational outcomes in comparative perspective


Source: Luis Crouch, chapter 2, The Politics and Governance of basic education in South Africa .

Once the socio-economic influences on educational outcomes are taken into account, Kenya’s 2007 (and earlier)  outperformance  is even more remarkable. South Africa is among the countries below and to the right of the 45 degree line in the figure, which underperformed in SACMEQ relative to their socio-economic characteristics. Countries above and to the left of the line are over-achievers; Kenya stands out in the figure as far and away the most over-achieving of the countries participating in the 2007  SACMEQ assessments.

What seems to have made the key difference in Kenya are the ‘softer’ dimensions of governance. Dr. Ben Piper, a seasoned educational specialist, and long-term resident in Nairobi, put it this way:

 “What one sees in rural Kenya is an expectation for kids to learn and be able to have basic skills….Exam results are far more readily available in Kenya than  other countries  in the region. The ‘mean scores’ for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and equivalent KCSE at secondary school are posted in every school and over time so that trends can be seen. Head teachers are held accountable for those results to the extent of being paraded around the community if they did well,  or literally banned from school and kicked out of the community if they did badly.”

The role of the highly-visible KCPE test is striking, but is not the focus of this piece. Rather, my interest here is on the active engagement of communities.

The roots of active civic engagement in the education sector run deep in the foundational ideas which shaped modern Kenya: in a decades-long effort to resist the British colonial influence; in the vision of the country’s liberation struggle leader and first president, Jomo Kenyatta, of an educated population as the central manifestation what it means to be a proud independent nation; in the inclusion of education as top priority in the country’s first national plan; and in an abiding commitment in the first decade of the country’s independence to Harambee – “self-help” – as the pathway to development, with education.

Already in the 1920s, a young Jomo Kenyatta had emerged, in the context of a vibrant ‘independent schools’ movement,  as a powerful advocate for better quality education for Africans, within a framework of cultural nationalism. Upon returning to Kenya in the latter 1940s (after fifteen years living in Europe) to take up leadership of the Kenya African Union (later the ruling party KANU), he also became director and principal of the Kenya African Teachers College,  run by the independent schools movement. When Kenyatta became the first president of independent Kenya in 1963 (after being released from jail in 1952, following nine years of imprisonment),  he  offered a vision of an independent Kenya imbued with Harambee  (“let us pull together”);  the country adopted the term as its official national motto. As Heinz Fischer described, engagement with education held pride of place within the Harambee movement:

“Harambee was not just a political slogan, a rallying point, or an idea looking for an occasion to manifest itself. For education in particular, Harambee had a meaning all of its own; it was a very influential reality, especially in the area of secondary education… Politicians, concerned with their public image and their re-electability, yielded to public demands for more education… Available funds were running short… The demand and pressure for more schools continued to grow. In this spiral of conflict between demand and ability to supply, Kenyatta’s call for Harambee—let’s pull together—seemed to contain the answer.”

Kenya’s embrace of Harambee  might seem a world away from South Africa’s vision of service ‘delivery’ by government. But, against the Kenya backdrop,  consider the call for ‘active citizenship’ in South Africa’s 2012  National Development Plan:

Active citizenship requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society…..Leadership does not refer to one person, or even a tight collective of people. It applies in every aspect of life…..To build an inclusive nation the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society,  and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other.”

As per the NDP, perhaps the key to turning around South Africa’s education system is less to decide who to blame, than to seek out renewed opportunities for engagement. South Africa’s institutional framework for education, promulgated in 1996,  creates multiple entry points for participation by a variety of stakeholders, including a central role for school governing bodies in which parents are the majority. SGBs generally are in the news for all the wrong reasons – as tools for elites to keep control of their schools, and as sites of corruption and capture. But, as a piece I wrote for the Daily Maverick last year underscores,  school-level research also shows that they can be a source of resilience, including in poor communities. Indeed, the central role ascribed to SGBs in the 1996 framework was, at least in part, a consequence of  the participatory vision of the progressive activists who shaped the Reconstruction and Development Plan at the dawn of democracy. In The Constitution in the Classroom, Woolman and Fleisch describe SGBs as a “fourth, albeit limited, tier of democratic governance”.

Perhaps the crucial lesson from Kenya’s history is that our current discourse has it backwards. Fixing education is not someone else’s task, and someone else’s failure.  Active citizenship implies pro-active engagement at all levels – by public officials, by principals and teachers (and their unions), by parents and communities. Perhaps, learning from Kenya, what now is called for is not another top-down ‘education for all’   target from government – but rather ‘all for education’.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: What South Africa can learn from Kenya when it comes to improving schooling - Airiters

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