Suspension of the 2020 school calendar, by the Ministry of Education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has elicited mixed reactions.
For students, particularly those preparing for national examinations, it is a bitter pill to swallow. It is equally unpleasant for, businesses and workers relying on the education ecosystem for their livelihoods.
However, it has a silver lining too. In it, the Ministry of Education has a rare opportunity to address ills that have, for long, crippled Kenya’s education sector. Introduction of free primary and secondary education, while realizing higher enrollment and transition rates in schools, came at a cost. It exerted pressure on already overstretched school infrastructure and diluted the quality of education in the country.
Despite reports from media and other institutions highlighting the dire need for government to address existing capacity, infrastructural and funding limitations in the education sector, not much has been done in that regard. Students still have to contend with the uninspiring state of schools, with those based in rural areas most affected.
Further, politicization of education in the country has made the situation worse. Critics have questioned government priorities with projects such as the Digital Literacy Programme (also known as ‘One Laptop per Child’ project) for Grade 1 kids being ranked ahead of improving infrastructure in schools. Most students in the country are yet to draw any tangible utility from the project. Also the introduction of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) remains an issue of contention in the sector.
Righting the wrongs
The suspension of the school calendar as a measure to contain the spread of Coronavirus, presents an opportunity for the government to harmonize the education system. It also affords a chance to relook priorities and address gaps ailing the sector in preparation for the resumption of studies in 2021.
In the National Budget for the Financial Year 2020/21, the education sector was allocated over Ksh.500 billion. These resources – especially those earmarked for spending over the next 6 months – can be efficiently allocated to include improving basic school infrastructure. This will ensure that when learning resumes, students have decent classrooms, sufficient facilities and enough teachers to facilitate their studies.
Part of the government’s Eight-Point Economic Stimulus Package in response to COVID-19 involves improving education outcomes by recruiting 10,000 teacher interns, constructing and rehabilitating classrooms and hiring ICT interns to facilitate digital learning in schools. Whereas these are welcome moves, some argue that allocated resources are not proportionate to the magnitude of existing gaps. That is why the education sector must focus on proper prioritization and utilization of current allocations to ensure enough cents are spent on addressing the most pressing issues.
This also the time for the ministry to engage with other stakeholders in the education sector to iron out contentious issues. In recent days, lack of synergy between the government and the other stakeholders in the education sector has been pronounced, particularly with the launch of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC). Some stakeholders in the education sector, particularly from the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), have argued against the government implementing the programme. They insist that there is insufficient capacity to implement the new curriculum effectively. Pundits have also criticized the government for implementing the new curriculum without research-based evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness, with the current state of the education sector in the country.
The break offers a chance of the government to iron out these contentious issues by actively engaging with various stakeholders and addressing their concerns. With the government’s bet on the CBC curriculum to transform the education sector, ironing out contentious issues and strengthening the foundation and design of the curriculum will enhance chances of success.
Parents also have a role to play
For parents, whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, suspension of the 2020 school calendar is a godsend. It presents an opportunity to reorganize their resources for the 2021 school calendar.
With the burden of school fees off their shoulders for this period, these resources can be channeled towards food and healthcare of their children, and other essentials. Further, the reopening of the economy allows them to invest in business ventures and save for their children’s education come next year.
The flip side
While the break allows government and parents to relook their strategies, the decision is also costly for private schools and other auxiliary personnel whose livelihoods are anchored around the education ecosystem. Unlike public schools where teachers are guaranteed their salaries, at least for the foreseeable future, in private schools, salaries are dependent on school fees. The same goes for drivers, cleaning staff and food suppliers, among others whose products and services have no offtaker.
The government needs to step in to provide necessary safeguards and to cushion private sector players in the education sector to protect jobs and livelihoods of workers during these hard economic times they have to withstand until learning resumes. This could be fashioned along the lines of the lifeline fund the government offered operators in the tourism industry to buoy hotels and restaurants. This will help public and private schools to weather through this period.
The onus is on the leadership of the education sector to exercise leadership and grab this opportunity to do the right thing.
The least students deserve are decent classrooms, sufficient desks and books, enough well-trained teachers and a curriculum that guarantees them a decent education.
This article was first published on The Standard on Wednesday 22nd July 2020