Charles Onyango Obbo: Let ‘unteachable’ children go home and grow yams

A FEW YEARS AGO, WE WERE all gathered in our parents’ countryside home for the end of year holidays, and one day a heated argument broke out about the quality of education.

As a general agreement seemed to be emerging that education had gone to the dogs, our old woman, who had said nothing, got up, and as she walked to her kitchen, said: “You people are making too much of this education issue. Just let the children go and grow up in school.”

I had never thought of school as a place which, if it didn’t offer a meaningful education, was nevertheless a good one for rural children to go to and while away the time as they wait to become minor village officials, join the army, or become chicken thieves if all else failed.

In other words, the role of school had changed, and society needed to adjust its attitudes and expectations accordingly.

I was reminded of this question in the face of the recent spate of strikes in Kenya in which several schools have been torched, with a student being burnt to death in one.

The country is angry and shocked at the tools of sin – cocaine, bhang, alcohol, and “weapons” like petrol – that have been unearthed in searches at the troubled schools.

The Government has responded appropriately, banning mobile phones, TVs and DVDs from schools. Yet one can’t feel that we are all missing the big picture. It is criminal to burn property, and even more so, to kill someone with the fire. However, the schools’ crisis and burning of buildings is not uniquely Kenyan.

In the last year or so, 25 schools have been burnt in Uganda. Dozens of students have died in the fires. A few of the schools were burnt by rogue students, but most by other miscreants.

The tragedy of the fires aside, you might say that the arsonists are devils carrying messages that are well worth listening to.

In Britain, though you don’t have violent strikes and arson, the debate about education is even more furious.

Recently, Chris Parry, the controversial chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, an organisation that represents half of the 2,500 private schools in the UK, caused quite a storm when he told The Guardian that the reason state schools were in a crisis was because they were struggling with “unteachable” children, ignorant parents, staff who don’t want to be there, and a shortage of leadership.

His remarks, though slated as “snobbish and ill-informed”, deserve attention in East Africa. Parry said even private schools, which did better, needed to be more up-to-date and to face future challenges.

In this future, he said, computers will increasingly replace teachers.

HE PREDICTED THAT GREY DOG-eared textbooks will soon be out, and pupils will learn via Wikipedia-type programmes in class. The role of the teacher will be to help them apply the facts they build from the Internet.

Parry’s most interesting idea is his most controversial; that some students are simply “unteachable”.

In an age of political correctness where we believe every child is entitled to an education, and has in him (or her) to become an Albert Einstein, to say some people are “unteachable” sounds grotesque.

But on second thoughts, it makes sense. Children who find school too boring, think the teachers idiotic or oppressive, and lose their minds due to fear of exams, should not be forced by parents and pressured by society to go to school.

They should be directed to schools where children go to “grow up” until they move on to become footballers, or fellows who throw stones at anti-riot police during demonstrations.

No doubt, all this is easier to say if your child is settled in a nice school and doing well in class.

In the same UK, some universities think lower education is such a shambles, and national tests have become so hopeless, that they are introducing their own entrance examinations.

Imperial College in London, Oxford and Cambridge, are among the universities that have introduced their own entrance exams for certain degree courses.

It’s what these universities are looking for that should be of more interest to us: Intelligence, yes, but also creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills rather than subject knowledge.

Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, told The Times that they will be looking for factors that “are not too dependent on rote-learning” – as most education in Africa is.

Indeed, I recently read that for the Maths skills the new world needs, it’s probably more useful to be accomplished in solving Sudoku puzzles than spending years in class cracking Geometry and Algebra.

People like Parry would argue that instead of taking away mobile phones and TV sets from schools, the best policy would be to allow more of them and greater access to the Internet.

He would probably also say that the best thing to do with schools that have been burnt is not to rebuild them, because they were largely useless, anyway. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s tough. But possibly right.

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