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If you never make it to university in Kenya, people tend to disregard you

The education system in Kenya is structured on an 8-4-4 model in which there are 8 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education and 4 years of higher education. Long study hours characterise school life and the emphasis on national exams such as the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), which determine school placements and educational pathways, put considerable pressure on students. We spoke to Wilson, a resident of Nairobi, to learn more about his experience going through the Kenyan education system.

Hi Wilson, thanks for catching up with us. One description that’s often used with the Kenyan education system is ‘scarcity’. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Wilson: So in my country we go with the 8-4-4 system. It’s 8 years of primary education, 4 years of high school education and 4 years of university education. If I go with the numbers, for the lowest level of the 8-4-4, which is the 8 years of primary education, we had roughly 1.5 million students countrywide who sat for the examination. Then the students who managed to pass in that level are able to transition from primary schools into the government high schools. We have roughly 10,500 high schools, so you can imagine that demand for high school places can exceed the capacity.

So presumably there’s a lot of competition to get into the best schools.

Wilson: Exactly.

Where does the pressure come from? From parents, comparisons with colleagues or maybe just the way the system is set up?

Wilson: Yeah, so what normally happens is that due to there being a very small window of opportunity, the students who actually manage to score the highest marks are the ones who are going to be considered in the first place. So you find that the pressure is already there because students have to achieve very high marks. It’s not fair for the low achievers. So everyone has to achieve very high grades, which is not normally attainable.

What was a typical day for you like when you were a student studying for your exams?

Wilson: I’m currently at university, so I’ll give you a small example of my case. When I was in high school, my 4 years of high school, there was a lot of pressure because I went to a boarding school. The waking up time is normally at 4 a.m., a decision made by the school. Most of the schools in the country, you have to wake up by around 4 a.m. You’re given about 30 minutes to prepare yourself. You’re supposed to be in the class by 4:30 a.m. So, from 4:30 a.m. to probably at around 6:30 a.m., that’s the study time very early in the morning. From there you’re allowed to go have breakfast from around 7 a.m. to around 8 a.m. So the official classes begin at 8 a.m. and run all the way till 4:30 p.m. And that’s not it. So from 4:30 p.m students are normally given a 2 hour break. You can shower, play games, interact with your fellow students from 4:30 p.m. to around 6:30 p.m. and then you go have dinner till about 7 p.m. And then from 7 p.m., you are expected back to the classes for evening study all the way till 9:30 p.m or all the way till 11 p.m. for some.

This sounds really full on. How do people cope when there’s so much pressure?

Wilson: With all these pressures students normally get a lot of burnout. There’s a lot of burnout because you’re always expected to perform at the high levels from 4 a.m. all the way till 10 p.m. at night. You find that you’re so tired during the day. At times you find that students are not even concentrating. Some students have also escaped school. Others decide just to quit.

There are students who talk about attending university as being seen as a life achievement within Kenyan society. What happens to those who drop out?

Wilson: What you’ve said is very true. You find that in my country, for the people who don’t manage to make it to university, they don’t have a place in society most of the time. My country associates education with success. So if you don’t get an education, they automatically assume that you’re not successful. And that really, really affects people when it comes to jobs and the job market, because the first thing that is considered is always the university degree.

Do you feel that people are treated differently if they don’t have a university education?

Wilson: If you get lucky that you don’t go to university and then you end up becoming successful; maybe you never went to university and managed to do some business and you became successful out of it, people tend to give you a lot of respect. Because they tend to say that this person chose their own path. But in the other case if you never made it to the university, unluckily, people tend to disregard you and they tend to see you as less of a person. They tend to think that they are better than you.

So job applications must be incredibly difficult if you don’t have a university degree.

Wilson: Very.

Given the pressure, do you think some people feel it is better to find opportunities abroad?

Wilson: This is actually very funny because I personally have been in that position. I’ve considered traveling abroad and just getting out of this space because you’re always constricted into one particular thing. You have to follow the system. It is very well known that like 50% of the people in my country prefer going outside because many people feel that outside our borders, there are very many opportunities, which they cannot get from my country.

So if you leave the country and get a degree there, will it still be highly regarded in Kenya?

Wilson: Yes, absolutely. You normally have a very good chance of getting a job. For instance, I have a few cousins who studied abroad in Canada, and they went there, they studied and got whatever they got, and when they came back here, they got jobs faster. High paying jobs, [faster] than people who did the same thing in our country.

So going back to universities in Kenya, the competition must be really tough. There’s a specific exam you need to take, right?

Wilson: Yeah. There’s an entry level examination to get to every particular stage. So when you’re from primary school, there’s a nationwide examination taken by every single student in the country. If you pass, you progress to high school, which the government has chosen for you. And then you study for another 4 years in high school. Then there’s another national examination, which when you pass, you go into university.

If you don’t get the score you want to get into university, can you retake it the following year?

Wilson: If you don’t happen to make it into the cut into that year, you can repeat the class again and then you can register for the examination and resit.

So, there used to be fees for primary education and unfortunately for some parents who couldn’t afford the fees, their children had to drop out of school. Do these fees still exist for primary education?

Wilson: It has actually improved a lot because the government has provided the amenities and infrastructure to enable every student to get education for free. There are a few fees here and there, sneaky fees imposed by the school headmasters but the education generally is free in my country.

Looking back at your own experience, you mentioned the pressure you had at school. If you were to go back, is there anything you would do differently?

Wilson: I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently. You’re under a system. You don’t choose what you want to do. You do what the system requires you to do. So you don’t really have a choice.

Right. You see everyone else following the system, you just keep in line. What would you advise or say to someone who is going through an experience similar to what you were going through? Maybe they’re feeling the pressure and thinking of dropping out.

Wilson: First of all, my country is implementing a new system. It’s a very good system. It’s going to change the old, traditional form of education, the 8-4-4. So the new system is based around the students now. It’s now integrating art and social sciences. So what I feel like right now, what I would advise someone who is in that situation is to try to navigate through system. Because in my country, to succeed you have to follow the system up to a certain place. But when you get to a point where you’re now done with high school, you have to choose whether you want to join college or you want to join university; I’m going to be different because I feel like I wouldn’t really just go to university just because the society requires me to go to university. This is where I would ask myself, what is it I would want to do. So personally I love business. I really love business but I never went with that path because I felt like society wanted me to go to university and do some other things. So I feel like if I was back in that place, I wouldn’t have made the decision I made. I would have gone ahead with what I loved regardless of what the society requires.

Do you think there is a shift in people’s attitudes? There’s quite a big entrepreneurship scene in Kenya. Do you think people are choosing to disregard what society thinks?

Wilson: I’m going to answer this in two ways. There’s one group of people who still want to go in the traditional way. They believe it’s the safest way to earn a salary. You have security, right? Then there’s another group of young guys who don’t want to be told what you have to follow, the society’s route. People like me. I’m currently in university and I’ve already started a side business. I still want to do something that I wanted to do initially. So I’m in the university and I’m doing something else from the side. So I think young people are now learning the art of doing what they like and going for what they want instead of just following what they’re just supposed to do.

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