Teaching Profession in Kenya Today: Noble No More

Oloo-Janak speaks on education. Photo Courtesy
Oloo-Janak speaks on education. Photo Courtesy

Never in the history of Kenya has the education sector, and the teaching profession, more specifically, been under so much intense scrutiny. Never before have teachers and their trade unions been accused of lack of professionalism and even complicity in the sabotage of the education sector as is the case now.

There has been the sustained disruption of the education calendar through frequent industrial action or strikes by the teachers’ trade unions, Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) and the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET).

Some observers have faulted the unions for frequently calling their members out to strike, often for prolonged periods, as they tussle with the government over salaries and other benefits. The government has, unfortunately, not acted in good faith, worsening matters, by refusing to conclusively address the teachers’ grievances.

The consternation and uproar caused by the unprecedented number of school fires, which have destroyed property worth millions of shillings in more than 120 secondary schools, has got the entire nation sitting up to question what exactly has gone wrong in the education sector.

What may have escaped notice was the negative cumulative effects arising from the failure by the government to honor the outcome of the numerous negotiations between the unions and the Teachers Service Commission, including the court rulings.

Clearly, the teachers were left angry and demoralized and for the discerning, it was obvious that things would not be normal in the school system. The teachers were heard declaring that they had “left the students and the schools to the government”.

The immediate consequence of the collapse of the strikes and the forced return of teachers to the classroom was the massive exams leakage at the end of 2015, which was clearly aided by the teachers themselves as “a punishment” for the government’s failure to listen to them.

Tied to this was the fact that schools immediately became “relaxed environments” with little enforcement of school rules. During the strikes most of last year, learners stayed at home or idled at schools, un-attended. Drug peddling and immorality took root, which are now beginning to manifest more openly.

It is obvious the teachers essentially transitioned into the new school year with their anger and “go slow” mode and things have not gone back to normal. In fact, instead, things have gotten worse and professionalism, which has been on the wane, has greatly suffered.

The row over the performance contracting initiative also shook the status quo, in an environment where many teachers were already generally operating out of any form of strict professional practice.

The shake- up at the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC), the tough stance by Education Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiang’i, including the stretching of the school term and the ongoing curriculum reforms, have clearly disrupted what had become a fairly lethargic education sector.

The action to disband the KNEC and reconstitute it, has been one of the most radical initiatives ever done in decades within the education sector. All aspects of the exams, both legal and illegal, have been a lucrative business for a cartel that got entrenched over the years.

There has been no serious accountability within the education sector and among school head teachers.  There is untold rot and corruption within the school system and extreme exploitation of parents and misuse of public resources.

The reforms threaten the cartels that have over the years benefitted from these intricate webs of corruption, and with the shameful connivance of education officers from the lower levels to the top most officials at Education Ministry, the Teachers Service Commission and at KNEC’s headquarters at Mtihani House.

Let us sample a few scenarios:

National examinations, from the collection and registration period to the time of sitting for it at the end of the year have become most lucrative.  Heads of schools collect huge sums of money to corrupt the examination system and officials to access the examination material in advance.

Top notch schools collect hundreds of thousands of shillings and bribe KNEC officials and their agents with more than Shs 100,000 every year per school to either access the exams beforehand or to influence the grading of their students before the release of the exams.

Well-connected parents also directly or through agents, also access the exams materials while some of those in the exams chain, shamelessly sell the papers to intermediaries every year.  At the school level, the head teachers, teachers and some parents bribe the supervisors, invigilators and the police guarding the process to undermine the integrity of the exams.

There have been copious reports and information on the figures, including in the media. Those who have worked within the education system know these issues very well. But there has been a conspiracy to hush up things.

Mock exams and holiday tuition have repeatedly been banned, according to the pronouncement and edicts emanating from the Ministry of education but these go on, with huge financial costs to parents, under different names, and under the very nose of education officers on the ground.  They are partakers of the proceeds!

Attempts to regulate school fees have floundered, with parents being issued with different fees guidelines, with high charges, in “ a take it or leave it” fashion, with many of the heads enjoying the protection of powerful politicians and officers within the Ministry of Education, with those who fall into trouble, bribing their way out.

Schools have introduced all manner of conduits to get money from parents and the communities, both through direct demand to parents and through funds drive.

Schools that are well endowed, with buildings, and all the other needed facilities still charge thousands of shillings annually for “school development projects”, purchase of school buses and insurance for the same buses, raking in millions of shillings that are hardly audited.

Every year and every term, learners must report with all manner of items: text books, stationery and more so, photocopy papers, barbed wires, jembes, hockey sticks, pangas, etc. The collections are massive and many head teachers have in the process opened up shops to sell the merchandise brought by the students, including bookshops.

The decision by the Ministry of Education to reorganize the purchase and distribution of books to primary schools has also brought to a screeching halt, a gravy train that has benefited many heads and their agents in the book supply chain.

The rank and file of the teaching fraternity are keen to find a way of “reaping from the education sector windfall”, even if it is just crumbs! So ordinary teachers have devised ways, including setting or buying numerous exams, “going for extra mile” or tuition, including weekends, school learning trips, sports, you name it!

And the school heads, knowing that they do not stand on a very high moral or professional pedestal, cannot now resist the blackmail from the ordinary teachers. There is a tacit agreement to milk the parents, the communities and whatever else the education system can bring their way.

After all, “people eat where they work” and don’t we see the wanton theft in other government departments, ministries, national and county governments, with no deterrence at all? Instead the thieves are celebrated as hard working!

Clearly the level of professionalism within the teaching fraternity has gone down. Education has been commercialized and teachers themselves, education officers and other people have become entrepreneurs and “tenderpreneurs”.

Teachers and education officers are running private academies, doing insider trading by supplying schools with needed merchandise – grains, building materials, books, lab equipment, name it, with little or no restraint or check.

The teaching profession has for a long time been viewed as “the noble profession”. But it is noble no more. The teachers are part of the rotten, almost irredeemably corrupt Kenyan society, where those in public positions misuse and steal public resources with abandon.

The debate among teachers is why they should shoulder the burden of remaining “noble”, “ caring for the child”, and in the process, driving themselves into poverty, with meagre earnings and retirement benefits that often delay until some of them die, when other public sector workers “get rich” through whatever means.

Undeniably, there are many devoted teachers who toil every day, doing very honest work, under difficult circumstances in the far flung rural areas. But they feel unappreciated, with promotion from one level to another or to leadership positions being bought by those among them who can afford.

Many of those who get promoted to head schools are not driven by a public spirited attitude and desire to serve as was the case in the past. It is more a question of how they can get an opportunity to dip their hands in the till, and build an economic base before retirement.

Teachers occupy an important place in the society and are supposed to be role models to the young generation of learners under their care. That is the reason the society puts them under much more pressure than other sectors.

Is societal expectation too much on the teachers in a generally corrupt and decadent society? Can they, on their own be expected to remedy the situation? These should possibly be part of what needs to be interrogated as we delve into the messy affair that the education sector has become.

The reform of the education sector demands more than the staccato approach being adopted now by the government and requires honest soul searching and a more holistic and strategic approach than is currently being done.

End.

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