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Education reporting ought to be about issues rather than exams ‘competition’

The KCPE results were a few weeks ago and, to nobody’s surprise, the focus was on the top students and occasionally those who didn’t do very well. It’s always the extremes. Never an accurate picture of our education sector.

Quality education is a right and UN’s sustainable development goal four. According to the UN, achieving inclusive and quality education for all reaffirms the belief that education is one of the most powerful and proven vehicles for sustainable development.

One would, therefore, expect that when covering KCPE journalists would at least discuss education standards in terms of quality – whether we are on track as a country – or equal access. But no, we’re still stuck on perpetuating the usual education myths that add little value to this important sector. Even focusing on which gender produced the top student is often an inaccurate representation of gender issues in education.

For as long as we have tracked coverage of this subject in local media, education has always been a very cutthroat competition, needlessly. It got worse in the 2010s when parents and teachers engaged in unethical practices just to see their students pass exams and the government had to ban mid-term holidays and prayer days in 2016. This was because there were allegations that parents were using these opportunities to meet with students to engage in unethical practices.

Two years earlier, the government had abolished student and school ranking on exam performance in a bid to tame the ills that came with this cutthroat competition. The same year the government had made it mandatory that Form One selection be determined by quotas, performance, and affirmative action thereby giving the upper hand to candidates from public primary schools.

Ideally, this was a good thing because it was an attempt at making quality education accessible to all regardless of their financial background. So, it’s quite counter-productive to see media houses still focused on the top students and always trying to undermine public schools where the majority of poor students attend instruction.

For instance, the Daily Nation coverage of this year’s KCPE results as reported in the March 29 was quite shameful. Firstly, for reasons only known to the editors, they decided to play unnecessary politics with the story. In their headline story, they had the picture of the top student in the Mt Kenya region and not the top student nationally, prompting an outcry from sections of the public who wondered about the obsession with Mt Kenya at the expense of the rest of the country – as has been the case with political campaigns.

One Dr Modecai Ogada took a screenshot of the front page and shared it with his followers on Facebook asking why the focus was on the candidate at the expense of the top two students nationally. Daily Nation has since corrected this gaffe on their e-paper, but it was a tad too late.

Another strange bit is the framing of private vs public schools. The news article goes on to say that the “private schools emerged from the ashes”, perhaps in a bid to show how private schools have performed better than public schools from their analysis. This is also a lost point because national newspapers regardless of ownership should be committed to the public.

Unesco’s publication, Journalism is a public good: World trends in freedom of expression and the media, notes that, “Most public goods require public investment in order to provide the services valued by citizens. Journalism with a public service mission is no different”. We interpret this to mean that Daily Nation’s framing of private schools’ performance as “rising from the ashes” was not aligning with the idea of journalism being a public good.

Future coverage of KCPE and KCSE should focus more on why public schools are not living up to their potential rather than giving an edge to private schools that are expensive and unaffordable to most of the poor. They are businesses.

More importantly, national media should quit the obsession with profiling top students, who are often the exception rather than the norm, and give a balanced report that can help us understand what is ailing the education sector and how we can achieve inclusive and quality education for all.

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