THE MAVERICK: Let’s end the Structural Discrimination in our Education Sector

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Last week Education CS Prof.  George Magoha said that school exams will go on as scheduled, and there shall be no additional time as students were studying digitally.

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally disrupted our lives and this demands extraordinary measures in virtually all dimensions of our life.  Thus we must rethink all the critical aspects of our lives. I found Prof. Magoha’s statement distasteful, and completely insensitive to a large pool of students who have no access to digital learning. While many Kenyans were visibly uncomfortable with his insensitive words, there is one thing which many may not have captured in his statement; promotion of structural discrimination in education.

Most of you understand individual and institution discrimination, and most have made deliberate efforts, including in parliament to end it. Before Matiang’i era as Education CS, Principals used to offer students direct entry letters to Form 1. This practice used to promote both individual and institutional discrimination in Kenya’s education sector. The fact that in most cases, the repercussions of such actions remain indefinitely invisible, most disregard the concerns. Individual discrimination is simply the practice of a Principal in Alliance High School declining to admit a poor boy with 420 marks, and providing the same opportunity to another boy with lower marks from a well off background.

In executing this practice, it is easy for the principal to use such excuses as late reporting to rationalize it in a manner that would easily be acceptable to the media, people and any stakeholder. Individual discrimination gives birth to institutional discrimination, where the rich can secure all the best opportunities before the poor. That was already the case before Matiang’i, who we should be grateful for solving such a problem. But there exists a more covert form of discrimination, structural discrimination.

Structural discrimination, unlike the other two, is disguised and can go unnoticed in most cases. Structural discrimination is a form of institutional discrimination against a certain class which affect their opportunities. In this context, a form of discrimination against the economically underprivileged learners. While using technicalities like late reporting to deny some students from poor backgrounds their rightful places in major schools were common, orchestrating a system that facilitates mass failure for individuals lower in the social spectrum presents a perfect opportunity for those at the top to easily qualify for top schools. That action diminishes competition.

The decision by Prof. Magoha to proceed with examinationss with no regard to thousands of underprivileged students who have no access to digital learning guarantees those who have access to such an opportunity to join the best schools.

It is worth noting that good schools is a term that exists in a continuum, and if a student’s best chance was a county school, two months of picking tea in some village in Kisii will mean he will achieve marks for a local secondary school. A bright boy who was aiming at 430 to qualify for Starehe Boys to escape scathing poverty in Murang’a will fall back to 380, way below what is required at the elite high school. If the poor parents from Murang’a are unable to admit the boy in an alternative school, the boy’s life will be done at that point. Going on with exams affects each student progressively, lowering levels of potential success for each of them.

The rich who have access to digital learning will actually achieve their expectations. Some economically privileged parents can even hire private services to guarantee their kids are learning. The challenge with structural discrimination is that it can easily be rationalized with an explanation that society is more willing to accept. Equally, parents lower in the social spectrum do not understand how such actions disadvantages their kids against kids from well-doing backgrounds.

Proceeding with exams, therefore, represents covert discrimination. The implications of this are vast. While it is correct to say that people can excel from any school, it is also correct to note that some schools can present better and higher opportunities than others. This is possibly debatable, but from my eyes, if you deny a poor boy a chance to study in Starehe Boys by imposing an exam he is not well prepared for, you will reduce his chance of success from 80% to 20% when he studies in a local school without enough teachers and resources. That is undesirable for a person whose only hope out of poverty is education. In fact, the better the institution, the higher the chances of transitioning to better institutions or workplaces. The opportunities and level empowerment provided at each level are actually what differentiates an average performance from a distinction.

Structural discrimination is deep, and many people do not even understand it, making it even more complex to tackle. Privileged individuals have constant opportunities that work in their favour mostly because they design them (100% of people who decided examinations should go on have the ability to subject their kids to private digital education; none of those who cannot afford was consulted). These people would technically occupy senior government positions, rise to top positions in the private sector, not because of corruption, but because they have taken the right route progressively, and earned required credentials.

When you deny people lower in the economic ladder quality education, intentionally or otherwise, you open the socioeconomic gap, against the common expectation that we need to close that gap. Confronting structural discrimination, like the one Prof. Magoha is promoting, requires a thorough understanding and unapologetically calling it out. Calling it out because it is usually not illegal, and can even be hard to classify as unethical or immoral. 

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2 years ago

[…] facing structural inequalities, more is needed beyond the immediate assistance. As noted in my previous work, structural inequalities are a disguised form of discrimination that makes it hard for a minority […]

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