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KENYA: Primary School Teachers Test Poorly in Mathematics

David Njagi

NAIROBI , Sep 14 2010 (IPS) - Like many primary school teachers in Kenya, Nemwel Mokua is not coping. He has to teach at least six subjects a day, which include a mix of arts, mathematics and science.

Brian Muriithi of Moi Avenue Primary School in Nairobi is a mathematics student.  Credit: David Njagi/IPS

Brian Muriithi of Moi Avenue Primary School in Nairobi is a mathematics student. Credit: David Njagi/IPS

He has little to time to develop his own understanding of the harder subjects of mathematics and science. And as a result, his students’ poor grades in these subjects reflect this.

And the teacher of Le Pic Primary School in Riruta, Nairobi, lives in fear of school inspectors, who often grill him and his colleagues on the poor performance their school posts in mathematics and science subjects. In 2008, the first standard eight class Mokua taught scored an average grade of a D+. However, according to results of the 2008 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education this was also the average of other students across the country.

Like many primary school teachers in Kenya, Mokua blames the poor performance of his students on the little time he has to invest in mathematics and science-related subjects.

“Although my pupils have improved in mathematics and science-related subjects in the last two years, I must admit that the Kenyan education system places too much work on the teacher. He or she does not have enough time to invest in technical subjects,” said Mokua.

But the ministry of education insists that primary school teachers must be assigned at least six subjects a day. But education experts disagree saying this compromises the quality of education in Kenya’s primary schools. And a study released on Aug. 25 supports this.

The Classroom Observation Study in Nairobi by the African Population and Health Research Centre, indicated that mathematics teachers in Kenya’s primary schools had a poor understanding of the subject. And it has researchers questioning the quality of the country’s free primary education system.

The findings of the report shocked Kenyans after teachers only managed to score a mean grade of 60.5 percent in mathematics tests.

Researchers said they would have expected teachers involved in the study to score over 90 percent in the subject, but only a margin of 13 percent separated the teachers’ results from the pupils’.

In one incident, a teacher with over five years experience scored 17 percent on the test. APHRC senior research scientist, Dr. Moses Oketch, described the findings as ‘shameful’.

“This was very shocking to us,” said Oketch. “We expected teachers to be scoring a grade of more than 90 percent, but their performance is almost at par with that of their pupils, who scored 46.89 percent. Something needs to be done.”

According to the researchers, the poor performance could also explain why pupils continue to perform poorly in the subject.

But Peter Githinji, a mathematics teacher at Gikandu Primary School in central Kenya said teachers should not be blamed as government has failed to provide teaching aids that would demystify mathematics and science as difficult subjects.

“There is a nationwide attitude that mathematics and science subjects are difficult,” said Githinji. “I think the government is not doing enough to induct and encourage Kenyans to embrace these subjects.”

But the report has been subject to an ongoing debate, with teachers’ trade unions blaming government for its failure to train enough teachers to specialise in mathematics and science.

The Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers secretary general Njeru Kanyamba said when Kenya launched the ambitious free primary education programme in 2003, it was done so without a clear plan on where the resources to actualise it would come from.

When the free primary education was introduced in 2003, over 1.3 million new students enrolled to attend classes that first week. And teachers still remain overwhelmed, Kanyamba said.

“Primary school teachers are overloaded by the number of pupils enrolled in one class due to shortage of staff,” said Kanyamba. “Because of the heavy responsibilities they have to bear, they do not get an opportunity to pursue professional development.”

He agrees that the findings of the report have a poor bearing on the future of science and technology in the country.

Ministry of education permanent secretary, Professor James Ole Kiyiapi, defended the free education programme adding that Kenya’s higher education system is based on a value-added model where students have been able to show progress in science and technology at this level.

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