COVID-19 and Education Crisis: A Mirror of Kenya’s Soft Underbelly

Four critical points form the soft underbelly of educational sector leadership, further magnified in Kenya under the lens of the pandemic.

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The blow COVID-19 has dealt the education sector worldwide needs no introduction. A few African examples have shown the success of online learning, but mainly in flexible sessions and at tertiary levels. Such was my experience on October 8, 2020, when I delivered an uninterrupted virtual guest lecturing session to students from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, University of Cape Town. At home, in Kenya, challenges persist which have recently peaked in the confusion around when to reopen schools, what conditions must be met first, where, by who, and how. The weekend of October 9–11 has also coincided with the nation’s public holiday of patriotism and national prayer days set aside by the national government.

Kenya’s education sector, for all intents and purposes, deserves top priority in this weekend reflection. It is worth repeating here that education as a whole sector is a complex system with diverse stakeholders, whose diverse interests tend to compete, conflict, complement, or even display a mixture of these. Lessons from nature and ancient literature have not lost their relevance and potency when it comes to ensuring effective leadership and management in such a complex sector. The confusion around reopening schools in Kenya has exposed the soft underbelly of the country’s leadership in this key sector. The key areas worth emphasising are policy, stakeholder participation, the Peter Principle, and the principle of matching resources with the right sources.

Policy Underbelly

In 1965, Sir Geoffrey Vickers wrote his famous “The Art of Judgment: A study of policy making”. Though a long time ago, his position that policy making should give direction, coherence, and continuity to executive action remains as powerful then as now. The evident lack of direction, coherence, and continuity in the statements from the Ministry of Education and the ambush to key stakeholders on reopening schools in Kenya already betrays a failure in the policy process. Again, the standards set by the Ministry of Health for resuming face-to-face classes have largely not been met.

Meeting the set standards requires prior arrangements that cannot be fulfilled by the majority of deprived schools and learners unless government intervenes with massive funding and infrastructure development, which requires more time that the one-week notice the Cabinet Secretary announced. Achieving the desired health and safety measures calls for careful planning and support informed by parameters such as the ratio of learners to teachers and the triangle of quality, access and cost of education as well as similar basic services aimed at containing COVID-19.

The rising cost of education, aggravated by the effects of the pandemic on business and income, cannot be solved by telling parents to resort to public basic schools. The said public schools, in the first place, are not adequate in number, geographical proximity to populations, infrastructure and utilities, or the critical human resources needed to teach and take care of the young learners in an environment threatened by the resurgent and highly infectious pandemic.

Stakeholder Participation Underbelly

Though Sherry Arnstein conceptualised the “Ladder of Citizen Participation” way back in 1969, countries such as Kenya have yet to understand and implement what true stakeholder engagement means. What passes for citizen participation is still at the level of tokenism, merely informing key stakeholders such as parents and teachers about decisions arrived at in boardrooms through processes that largely ignore or exclude their active participation and genuine concerns. Democratic public participation suffers in such exclusivist processes.

The Peter Principle Underbelly

Laurence J. Peter observed in 1969 that people in a hierarchy tend to rise from super competence, competence, and finally to their “level of incompetence”. This could not be more accurate as the currently unfolding confusion and incoherence in Kenya’s education sector prove that the past superlative success of a leader in former positions is not an assurance of continued success in subsequent positions. It is becoming clear that promotion can lead to diminishing returns as the curve of performance dips with hierarchy.

The Source-Resource Mismatch Underbelly

This series has used a bee and ant analogy before to expose the blunder of swapping people’s roles and goals based on linear thinking. Though both animals are excellent in industry and determination, swapping and assigning the bee the task of building an anthill and the ant the task of making a honeycomb will see each of them score nil irrespective of the time given to deliver. Isn’t this what we practise when we assume that high performers can deliver well on just any role as we keep shifting their positions in corporate management and government?

It is high time Kenya and other countries caught up in similar situations re-examined these four areas and took decisive action to stay ahead of the post-pandemic curve. Otherwise, as old as these cited references are but nonetheless relevant to date, so are the problems ailing education and other key sectors going to overstay and remain relevant for years to come. Things could just turn out to be the next normal taking after the last normal, and not necessarily a brand new normal that is loaded with desired long-term changes. The time for action is now.

Nashon J. Adero

Nashon, a geospatial expert, lecturer and trained policy analyst applies dynamic models to complex adaptive systems. He is a youth mentor on career development and the founder of Impact Borderless Digital.