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Inequality in African Schools: My Kenyan Experience [Featured]

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I can never forget the first time I visited a national school in my country.

My school, a local provincial high school, had been invited there for a symposium. This national school is one of the best in the country. I was awestruck by the cleanliness and mannerisms of those boys in comparison to ours. No, they did not look out of their classes when we girls alighted from our mini bus. They walked faster than we did. Their lunch was much more organized. Their classes were bigger and cleaner, their library-much bigger, they had an auditorium, access to computers, laboratories, big playing fields with a variety of sporting options (including swimming), an ever open canteen and even, a well-equipped music room.

Right there and then, did it all make sense to me.

It had not been brought out until now that the importance of passing my primary school was to go to such a school. When  went back to my school, I hated it! I hated how muddy it would get, how few books our library had, how we had few sporting options, how taps would get so dry that we at times had to go to the river, how the biology and chemistry labs just had enough for that lesson and how my lunch was the same for all the four years I was there. Worst of all, I felt short changed, heck I even started counting down to when I would leave that school. Yet the irony was, before all this, I always considered myself to be in an okay school. At least that was in comparison to the closest school to us that was a boy’s school. They were the exact opposite to the cultured ones from the national school. The school had no boarding facilities, no laboratory, no library, the boys were rowdy, untidy and no one really ever passed from that school.

I thought I had forgotten it all until a conversation down memory lane with a boy who went to one of the best schools brought it all back. He (unlike most of us) can look back at his high school experience with some sort of fondness, as though he wishes he could relive those long gone days. Now being a girl from the other side of the spectrum, I caught myself feeling inadequate; nearly ashamed that I had absolutely no desire to go back to high school. I struggled to remember what used to interest me or what my best memories were. I was even glad that I did not have pictures from then. It was sad that my recollections were of teachers who were not articulate enough, weird punishments, dozing off in dead boring classes and skipping sports.

Yet in my country, despite the school you went to, the exam is one and the same. It does not take a genius to see why the best schools perform the way do and why the others do poorly. Of the over 3000 secondary schools in Kenya, only 18 qualify as top national schools while another 96 were only recently upgraded to be national schools. Since the introduction of free education in 2004 the number of students finishing Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) has increased to over 800,000 (in 2014, 839,759 candidates sat for the exam). This year 16,000 students got enrolled to national schools; that is just 2% percent of the total students. (This has factored the 96 new national schools).

While it is obvious that not everyone in the top school goes to campus, it is easy to see that the system has been structured in such a way that so few continue on to further education in the university and people at a top school have a clear advantage. Ask anyone what grade they got in high school and their reaction shows just how personal the question is. It is like asking them about their sexual performance or how much they earn. While at the university, I once went on a date with a guy who wanted to know what grade I got. In his mind, that was a measure of how intelligent I was. Needless to say, it did not last. The sad reality is that it takes allot of conscious effort to get over these self-defeating thoughts that society imposes on us who went to the ‘other’ schools.

The amazing thing is that the government continues to allow this system to continue. I say amazing because on one side, it gives me clear hope that one day my children will look back at the current education system and get mesmerized at just how primitive and limiting it was. On the other side, i wonder how a government can want to continue churning out a working force that is full of self-doubt perpetuated by a clearly flawed and screwed system. This self-doubt is what’s making people seek validation from stupid leaders, the media, sectarian groups, dream of a perfect life in a foreign country, drugs and even religious extremism.

There needs to be some level of standardization and fairness in schools for us to continue allowing grades to seem to be the measure of someone’s intelligence. Otherwise, we shall continue to be our own worst enemy. In this age of so much technology why not record the classes of the best and brightest teachers (a preserve of the best schools) and distribute to the other schools? Why not promote active innovation and specialization in schools? What if the exams could be taken in more relaxed environments and not just grades were celebrated? We need to reject this system and the best way to do so is by not judging someone’s capability by what grades they got. I have come to see that we are all smart and unbelievably capable and if we critically think about it we will realize that is ‘Our Light, not darkness that most frightens us’.


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Angela is a communications professional, avid writer and passionate African youth

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  1. Pingback: Inequality in African Schools: My Kenyan | The Spectacles Magazine

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