In reforming education, tomorrow is Kenya's to win or lose

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“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose,” said Lyndon B. Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States by a family friend, Justice Sarah Hughes, on Air Force One, just two hours and eight minutes after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Johnson had an amazing array of great achievements during his presidency. He designed the Great Society, a massive public spending programme to address education, medical care, urban infrastructure, rural poverty and transportation.

He also appointed the first African American to the US Supreme Court, Judge Thurgood Marshall, and he pushed through legislation on civil rights, arts, public services and voting rights, removed racial-origin quotas, banned racial discrimination and declared war on poverty.


Millions of Americans rose above the poverty line during his tenure. Johnson seemed to be the new Abraham Lincoln… until he made a mistake that tarnished his brilliant past and made him lose his future — the Vietnam War.

When Johnson assumed office, Vietnam was an irrelevant challenge to American politics. It was a small thorn in the flesh, and Kennedy had not dealt with it decisively.

Johnson decided to wage this war with strength and determination. He focused all types of ammunition on communist Vietnam.

This futile and brutal war ended Johnson’s political career. He “lost tomorrow” and did not even win the democratic nomination to run again for president in the 1968 election.

He withdrew his nomination on March 31, 1968 and endorsed his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, who also lost the election to the disastrous Richard Nixon.

This is how Lyndon Johnson’s amazing performance ended: a brilliant but now forgotten presidency, full of social and economic achievements. Johnson did not know when to stop.


Johnson did not follow Don Schlitz’s famous advice in his hit song “The Gambler”, which was immortalised by Kenny Rogers: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run…” This advice applies universally.

We have just witnessed one of the most incredible feats. After witnessing massive cheating in previous secondary school examinations, the determination of one man, Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, has managed to reverse the horrible past trend — a trend that had thrown honest educators and parents into despair.

Few believed Dr Matiang’i and Prof Magoha could reverse the deeply entrenched and growing cheating trend. They did.

But this is only the beginning. To prevent a Johnson-like failure, Dr Matiang’i now needs to focus on three key issues that will make or break our education system: institutionalisation, curriculum, and opportunities.


Fourteen years ago, the late Hon Michuki achieved what seemed to be an impossible mission. He tamed the matatu industry, and for two years we all enjoyed a civilised mode of transport.

He was then moved to the Environment docket and that marked the end of an era. We were back to the usual chaos, it was business as usual.

Weak institutions do not sustain change. It all depends on who the boss is. We hope Dr Matiang’i and Prof Magoha will have the time and the technical and political support to put in place the necessary checks and balances to institutionalise the feat they accomplished this year.

What would happen if Dr Matiang’i is moved from the Education docket sooner than expected, and then we have leakages again in 2017?

This would be terribly unfair to the 2016 candidates, many of whom will miss university due to their poor performance, but which would not have been exposed save for ethics and honesty.

Some of these 2016 candidates might hate ethics and honesty. This will undermine the very same result we wanted to achieve.

We need to have credible exam results with or without Dr Matiang’i, and for this to happen we need strong institutions and the threat of sanctions on anyone who dares to pervert the system.


The abolition of the A-Level system was perhaps one of Kenya’s greatest historical mistakes. Dr Matiang’i seems determined to reverse this mistake. Certainly, we hope common sense and prudence will prevail. Changing an education system is complex and costly. It takes its heavy physical, emotional, intellectual and financial toll on the country.

A good change will need to consider character building, give due importance to the history of Kenya to build identification, and a balanced combination of theory and contextualised practice.

It should make secondary school leavers potential entrepreneurs, useful to society, and people who can make a living even if they decide not to continue their education.

However, any change should not be rushed to meet election deadlines. Any good change at the wrong time could be destructive for the country, and the impact will only be felt many years later. Curriculum changes cannot be rushed; implementation should be staggered and progressive.


The results presented by Dr Matiang’i throw half a million Kenyan youth into the grim picture of no future. Our education system cannot absorb 482,232 students into technical colleges.

This is part of our annoying lack of foresight and coherent policy. We transformed every technical college, every constituent college, even those lacking facilities and staff, into universities.

We did it wrongly. We began by the top, by the head and forgot the feet, limbs and thorax. Now, we have more public universities than candidates to fill them. And we have not enough technical colleges for the youth who did not meet the C+ threshold.

We have a dilemma. Either we lower the threshold to C or C-, or some universities revert to technical level. And, as it takes more than just changing the name (reverting to technical college has serious political, financial and labour consequences) perhaps the fairest measure would be to lower the entry mark.

I am fully aware that this is a contentious measure. But we cannot condemn half a million youth to ignorance, for after all they themselves are the product of our faulty education system.

We think grandiose. Our education system is geared towards professorship, and this is not rational, practical and sustainable.

I had already written a year ago that we needed to speed up the accreditation, registration and licensing of institutions offering technical training as specified by the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Act of 2013.

This can open many avenues to youth left out of the mainstream education system. We can also foster alternative fields of interest like music, arts and sports academies.

Life and knowledge are not found only in books. After all, the Ministry of Education should look after the country’s education, and not only those who make it to university.


Dr Matiang’i and his team have delivered in amazing ways, under difficult circumstances, a lot of pressure and widespread despair. The hope they have restored in a credible national examination is only a beginning.

It will only be sustained through institutional structures, a good curriculum and wider opportunities for youth who have fallen out of the mainstream academic life.

A good start should not be destroyed by what comes after. What happens after the 2016 KCPE and KCSE cannot become Dr Matiang’i’s Vietnam. He should secure the future, because, “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

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