Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Someone Please Bring Back the Arts in Schools

I had a very insightful conversation with a teacher during a recent private schools expo.

Part of it was on the government’s intention of launching a new curriculum for its 8-4-4 system. There have been endless debates on whether 8-4-4 should be discarded and replaced with something else with most Kenyans (I know) of the opinion that imports like IGCSE and GCE should be considered. I may not agree with them, but that doesn’t mean that I disagree with them either.

I am a product of 8-4-4 and a government school. Growing up, nine in ten of us went to schools within the neighborhoods we lived in and schools were indeed free. We were issued with free books, rulers and pencils all branded Kenya School Equipment Scheme. The icing on the cake was ‘free’ milk thanks to the benevolent (or so our young minds thought) Prezzo Moi. The schools that were not government, were religious-institution-based schools; most of which had the prefix ‘Saint’ or ‘Our Lady’ or community-sponsored schools – Arya Samaj, Agha Khan, Guru Nanak etc.  

The 8-4-4 was a good system methinks. Was. It has potential to be good again. We studied twelve subjects examined as seven test papers with a possible maximum of seven hundred. Half the subjects were the normal run of the mill – Math, English, Religious Studies, Geography, Science, Swahili etc - quite boring for an ordinary young mind but the practical subjects were fun – Agriculture, Home Science, Music, Art & Craft. By the time I completed my primary school I had ‘cultivated my plot’ and grown sukuma wiki, spinach and potatoes. And harvested. I had sewn a handkerchief, a table cloth, a pair of pajamas (though this remains my toughest task to date), could bake a cake, make a pretty decent beef stew & white rice thanks to Mrs. Mwangi’s Home Science class. I had painted, made a drum, a tin lamp, a book stand, a wandindi, a sisal mat. All these by the time I was thirteen! In high school it was pretty much the same – art & design, technical drawing and woodwork alongside the major subjects. Add some sport & theater/drama. Learning seemed more important than the final grade. And we turned out pretty decent young folk.

Then some government technocrats decided that the workload was too much and was a deterrent to making young minds score straight A’s in ‘core’ subjects and discarded all creative subjects.

Off went Art & Craft, Home Science and Music!

Someone saw these as a waste of time (and resources) and accorded Sciences more airtime. In an attempt to streamline 8-4-4, someone denied kids as young as six an opportunity to be kids and have fun while learning. They have since been indoctrinated to believe that life is all about Math and Science. To complicate matters, the Kibaki-Raila led NARC administration came into power in 2002 declaring free universal primary education for all kids in government schools. What was meant to be a good thing stretched the limited resources to a point where these schools almost stopped being centers for learning. Teachers were overwhelmed. Frustrated. Almost hang out to dry. It became commonplace for classrooms built to comfortably hold 30-40 pupils having close to a hundred kids with no increase in teaching staff and resources. With these came a new fixture – perennial teachers’ strikes! (Long Story for another day)

This got the kids (and their parents) caught between a rock and a bloody hard place. With the quality of government education highly compromised, some entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and there has been an influx of private schools all over the place. This means the competition for pupils is very high – and it’s not because anyone cares for our kids’ quality education but of the cumulative figures commanded as tuition fees. Schools have become obsessed with (science & math) inspired mean scores that they go to ridiculous lengths to attain the highest. It is no wonder that there are numerous documented cases of exam officials (and teachers) selling/leaking exams to pupils so that their institutions score highly and are perceived to be among the best. So as to attract more kids (read tuition).

The irony of this all is that like is typical around here, the curriculum developers and ministry officials who come up with these policies don’t have their kids in these government outfits. Their offspring attend proper (mainly international) private schools where learning is holistic and not just about mean grades. Sometimes I wonder. No, I wonder all the time, do these folk really believe they are doing the best they can for Kenyan kids?

Primary school education is supposed to be free yet am sitting here racking my brain trying to figure out if there’s any of my friends or family whose kids attend a free school. None. Yes! None. Why? Because we all know this education system is messed up big time! Twisted curriculum. Ill equipped institutions. Badly remunerated tutors. Pedestrian Instruction. And perennial teachers’ strikes/go slows. Who shall save us? Who shall save our kids who’re being referred to as the digital kids for all the wrong reasons? Teenagers who know how operate the latest gadget without reading manuals/instructions and to X-box online yet can’t sew a button onto their shirts/blouses. Those who think the internet is Facebook, Instagram and Facetime.

I am not a ‘specialist’ in matters education and curriculum development but I know when am being taken for a ride. I don’t know what the government has up its sleeve but it can start by bringing the mojo back to the system. I want my little people to continue being little ones. I want them to study Art. And Music - to be able to play a musical instrument. And sew their initials on their school jumper just like I used to. I want them to study Science too. And hopefully they enjoy it in school like they do enjoy Richard Hammond’sScience of Stupid” and Jason Silva’sBrain Games” on TV. I’d like their school principal to be less obsessed with this ‘Mean Score’ and let them learn without the pressure of being an Aeronautical Engineer or Actuarial Scientist (for the record, I have got nothing against these professions & I’d prolly be proud if one of my little one became either).

A lot of research have come up with findings that these creative subjects play an integral part in early childhood development - How art enhances creativity, imagination and self-esteem. How it encourages cognition and critical thinking. How reading and playing music ignites a child’s intellectual, emotional, motor and literacy development. How sport and outdoor activities impact on the physical and mental wellbeing and are the biggest deterrent to obesity.

Our current education system places too much emphasis on academic excellence while ignoring all these. It is ruthless in that thirteen year olds who do not attain a certain ‘pass mark’ are discarded from the system. Where do they go from here? There are so many grownups discussing kids’ affairs and they’re not getting it right. That’s probably why 8 in 10 news articles in Kenya pertaining to kids are not so nice – drugs, alcohol, sex, truancy. Because school is not fun anymore! Coincidentally, it’s mainly the government/free education/8-4-4 axis. We’re more obsessed with corporal punishment and holiday tuition that we forget why we send kids to school in the first place. Meanwhile, the biggest stakeholder in education – the parents, seem either clueless, too intimidated or too busy/detached to be seriously involved in making decisions regarding their offspring. Strangely, there’s a Kenya National Association of Parents whose only evidence of existence is their office location (somewhere in Gikomba Market ) online. No mission or vision. No membership. We’re treated to their shenanigans on TV every once in a while whenever teachers announce a strike. Most recently in regard to hiked school fees. Shame!

I don’t know whose door I have to knock on but if anyone is listening, “Please bring back Art to schools. Not as a club after lessons, but as a lesson itself.” Otherwise, we shall all continue struggling to put our kids in high cost private institutions we can barely afford yet in the eyes of our government, education is indeed free!

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