The Perceived Failures of 8-4-4

In my article “New Curriculum headache”, I introduced the current reforms in Kenya’s education system that seeks to change 8-4-4 system to the 2-6-3-3 ‘competence based curriculum’. In this article, I explore the history of education reforms in Kenya and the perceived failures of 8-4-4 system.

Kenya is not new to education reforms. In 1964, the Ominde Commission led the country in the first ever major education reform adopting the 7-4-2-3 system. This entailed 7 years in primary, 4 years of lower secondary (form 1-4), 2 years of upper secondary (form 5-6) and 3 years of university. The overriding objective of these sweeping reforms was to implement an education system that supported national unity while nurturing the desire of the students to serve the newly formed Kenyan nation.

However, the 7-4-2-3 system would later receive significant criticism and resistance for being too academic. Critics claimed that the system was too rigid and lacked the flexibility and capacity necessary to respond to the changing aspirations of Kenyans and the labor market. Instead of producing enlightened personnel with the right skills and attitudes to work, the 7-4-2-3 led to increased schools, high enrolment rates against very limited and scarce resources which compromised effectiveness and quality of the new education system. The enormous expansion of the education system produced too many educated school leavers who remained unemployed.  There was a general consensus that the 7-4-2-3 system of education lacked the relevant and appropriate content to ensure widespread and sustainable (self) employment.

The Mackey report (1981)recommended education reforms that introduced the 8-4-4 system under the assumption that it would equip pupils with skills that would enable school leavers/ school dropouts to secure self-employment or employment in the formal sector. The 8-4-4 system comprised 8 years in primary, 4 years in secondary and 4 years in university/ college education. 8-4-4 introduced vocational and technical subjects in primary education. The Ministry of Education (1988) made the following observation regarding the new proposed 8-4-4 education system, “the main aim in changing Kenya’s education system from 7-4-2-3 to 8-4-4 is to improve the quality of education at all levels”. 8-4-4 was visionary. It was smack on the aspirations of Kenya vision 2030, a national long-term development policy that aim to transform Kenya into a newly industrialized middle income country providing high quality life for all citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment. 8-4-4 emphasized on sciences, mathematics, technical and vocational subjects for nurturing technical skills necessary for revamping innovation in growth of industrial/ economic, social and economic pillars necessary for ensuring sustainable development.

Yet, 32 years later, the country is also experiencing waves and sweeping reforms that seek to introduce a paradigm shift in the education system. What went wrong with 8-4-4?

Touted as major and radical reforms in Kenya’s education system, critics argue that 8-4-4 introduced the greatest devastation in history of Kenya that will haunt the country for many years to come.  Lack of stakeholder involvement and participation from the onset is cited as the major reason for the failure of 8-4-4. From the onset, people were not consulted and involved in the development and implementation of the proposed education reforms. People felt that the implementation of 8-4-4 was forced and rushed with limited financial support, which left the parents with a huge burden of meeting all the costs.

A critical challenge with the implementation of 8-4-4 was the lack of adequate government funding. With limited resources, inadequate human capacity to develop the new 8-4-4 curriculum and the trial and error implementation process, the 8-4-4 system was set out to fail from the onset. It was just a matter of time. There was no goodwill from the teachers. In fact, there was no sufficient training for the teachers who were tasked with implementing the new system in schools and teaching the vocational and technical subjects introduced in the new curriculum.

Perhaps, the biggest failure of 8-4-4 was its academic and examination focused approach. Critics argue that the education system was too broad, expensive and burdensome to pupils, parents and teachers. There was just too much content for the teachers to deliver and students to grasp. The academic curriculum was too overloaded that the schools failed to equip learners with the necessary and practical skills. School time was considered torturous given the amount of content that pupils were expected to cover. Moreover, the 8-4-4 system laid a lot of emphasis on summative tests, examinations and competition. This led to a high rate of strikes that engulfed schools in Kenya, increased incidences of school fires and destruction of property and high cases of exam cheating as students used exam cheating to demonstrate their mastery of content and academic excellence. 8-4-4 was all about cramming, passing exams and going through schooling. The system didn’t care whether students acquired necessary knowledge and skills at the various levels as long as they performed better in written assessments.

In short, 8-4-4 failed to achieve its sweeping objectives as envisioned in the Mackay report. The outcomes were devastating. First, many pupils dropped out at primary, secondary and university level for failure to meet the examination scores required to move to the next level or secure employment. Students graduated in secondary and university without acquiring the skills necessary to pursue entrepreneurship and attain self reliance. Moreover, instead of reducing the unemployment rates went too high, with many graduates failing to secure sustainable employment. Equally, employers questioned the education system complaining that the graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work, with many of them being forced to provide them with additional and industry specific training which was expensive and time intensive.

Consequently, an education system that had ambitious goals of making education relevant to the work of life and produce skilled and competent workforce able to sustain a knowledge driven economy became the biggest failure of our time. After 32 years, we could not sustain the education system and everyone agreed that we needed change. The Kenyan government swung into action, and the new 2-6-3-3 was born in 2017.  Yet, many questions abound. Is 2-6-3-3 the solution to the problems of 8-4-4? Are we making the same mistakes in the implementation of 2-6-3-3 that we made with 8-4-4? Nevertheless, many people say that 2-6-3-3 introduces a paradigm shift from 8-4-4 approach that will impart the learners with the necessary competencies. This remains to be seen. In my next article, I will reflect on the changes and implementation process for the 2-6-3-3 curriculum.

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