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labor Teachers' Strike Highlights Kenya's Education Challenges

Kenya's two teachers' unions strike to increase wages and to improve the quality of public education.

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Teachers protest outside the Kenya National Union of Teachers offices in Nairobi on January 5, 2015, Jeff Angote/Nation Media Group

A Kenyan school made global headlines on Monday when children, some as young as seven, protesting against the seizure of their playground by property developers, were tear-gassed by police.

It is no coincidence that the shocking incident took place on the same day that more than 200,000 primary and secondary school teachers returned to work after more than two weeks on strike – proving that the struggle for decent pay for teachers, and quality education and facilities for Kenyan students, still continues.

The country’s Industrial Court has asked all parties involved in the dispute – the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), the Kenya Union of Post Primary Teachers (KUPPET), the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) and the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) – to submit proposals on the 300 per cent pay increase that teachers are seeking.

The two teachers’ unions, which represent all teachers at Kenya’s 28,000 state primary and secondary schools, made at least 38 demands to the TSC, a state employer, chief amongst them was a basic pay increase.

The minimum monthly wage for state school teachers currently starts at 16,692 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$ 180) a month for the lowest paid teachers – the unions wants to see this raised to 50,076 Kenyan shillings (around US$545).

They also want to see wages increased for those teachers on the higher end of the scale.

The government said it cannot afford to introduce a pay rise but offered to increase allowances for housing, leave and local travel.

The unions refused, accusing the government of hypocrisy.

“The government is neglecting teachers yet it has money to cater for luxuries,” said Wilson Sossion, national chairman of KNUT, citing the hefty perks accorded to Kenyan parliamentarians who take home as much as one million Kenyan shillings (about US$11,000) every month when allowances are taken into account.

“We downed tools not only to improve the welfare of teachers but also the quality of learning,” Sossion added.

The Education Cabinet Secretary Professor Jacob Kaimenyi and the SRC insist that teachers’ salaries can only be adjusted after they have completed an evaluation process which will take place over the next eight months.

“We are asking our teachers to abide by the law and go back to school pending a job evaluation process,” Kaimenyi told Equal Times.

The National Treasury on its part has warned that if honoured, the teachers’ demands would “imbalance” the economy.

“You cannot negotiate wages every year and in any case the Treasury is over stretched in its budgetary needs,” Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich told Equal Times.

Labour Cabinet Secretary Kazungu Kambi also maintained that the basic salaries will only be reviewed once a job evaluation for all public sector employees has been completed.

Remuneration, he said, must be tied to productivity and performance to ensure that public funds are prudently spent.

“Teachers are part of the public service and they must stop this brinkmanship since they are subject to the national legal and policy framework on salaries and remuneration,” he said after initial pay talks with the unions collapsed.


Free education

This standoff is the latest in a long line of strikes to rock the Kenyan education sector in recent years, highlighting the country’s education challenges.

Experts say these challenges can be traced back to 2003, when the former government of President Mwai Kibaki introduced free primary education.

While the move was lauded the world over for increasing access to education for millions of Kenya’s poorest children, it also resulted in a severe strain on the country’s already inadequate school infrastructure and facilities.

Non-existent or poor public school infrastructure has, along with teacher shortages, been a major barrier to improving access to public primary and secondary education in Kenya, as confirmed by the dilapidated structure of Tom Mboya Primary School located in Dandora, one of Nairobi’s poorest townships.

“Our school’s structures are poorly maintained due to lack of resources and this affects the concentration of learners and ultimately, their performance in exams,” explained Mwaura Kimani, the deputy head teacher.

“We also need more teachers to cater adequately for all the students.”

Kenya’s public schools have an average of 50 students for every teacher, though some classes have only one teacher for 100 pupils.

An extra 79,000 teachers are needed to reach the United Nations globally recommended teacher-to-student ratio of one teacher to 35 students.

This teacher shortfall, coupled with poor or nonexistent facilities, inadequate learning materials, and ineffective ways to measure learning outcomes, results in low quality education in many of Kenya’s public schools.

A 2014 report on learning outcomes in Kenya revealed that less than 20 per cent of third year primary school pupils (around age eight) can read or do basic mathematics.

The report titled Are Our Children Learning? Literacy and Numeracy Across East Africa, and produced by the East African education NGO Uwezo, painted a grim picture of Kenya’s schools.

The report also highlighted widespread teacher absenteeism as a major problem.
Analysts warn that an education system that produces illiterate and semi-literate children will have dire socio-economic consequences.

“Vibrant economies and creative democracies cannot be built in East Africa when the majority of our children cannot read and count well. And as inequalities – between the rich and poor, urban and rural – get reinforced, social cohesion the region desperately needs is also at stake,” says Uwezo East Africa regional manager Sarah Ruto.


Education reforms

To address these challenges President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was elected in 2012 on a platform of job creation, vowed to transform the Kenyan education system to make relevant to country’s future needs.

To this end, President Kenyatta launched the Basic Education Act in 2013, which provides a road map for the development of education in the country.

“A core point of this policy is simply to ensure that education remains affordable for all. Indeed, my government is committed to making education truly free to every Kenyan child within three years," said the President last year.

This has been accompanied by an increase in the state budgetary allocation for secondary schools by 33 percent.

Consequently, the Free Primary Education programme has expanded enrollment from 5.9 million children in 2003 to 10 million today.

Since inception in 2008, free (day) secondary education has raised enrollment from 800,000 pupils to the current figure of nearly two million.

President Kenyatta has also revealed plans to digitise the entire school curriculum by the end of 2015.

This coincides with the introduction of the laptop per child project – a flagship programme of President Kenyatta’s administration whose full implementation begins this year.

Professor Jacob Kaimenyi told Equal Times that the move to digitise content will herald immense benefits for the country’s education system in line with the country’s economic blueprint, named Vision 2030.

“The government spends a lot of money on educational material, while there is a better option to minimise this through digitisation and to allow students to get exposed to ICT skills at an early stage,” he said.

Education experts like Ruto, however, say these efforts alone are not enough. 
“The learning crisis requires us to take an ‘access plus equitable learning approach’.

But it is not enough to acknowledge it. We need to see tangible actions that will redress the situation, and ensure that children are in school and learning,” says Ruto.

Peter Kabera, a primary school teacher in Naivasha, in the RiftValley, agrees. He is calling for additional reforms touching on the structure of education, the curriculum and assessment.

“While enrollment rates at primary and secondary levels have increased, learning achievements have consistently been below the expected standards as schools are not regularly inspected.

“As such, teachers and school management are not held accountable for the declining educational achievements in this country,” he told Equal Times.