Prof. George Magoha: Stern overseer of education reforms

Prof. George Magoha talks to a pupil at Murang’a High School when he visited the school to review preparations for KCSE exams.

Upon taking the Oath of Office on 26 March 2019, Prof. George Omore Magoha joined President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Cabinet as the Jubilee government’s fourth Cabinet Secretary for Education, Science and Technology. His predecessors were Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi, Dr. Fred Matiang’i and Ambassador Amina Mohamed.

Magoha’s vetting at the National Assembly was not only rigorous but also quite dramatic as the vetting committee doggedly interrogated his persona and qualifications. An unfazed Magoha seized the moment to very loudly blow his own trumpet.

To begin with, his introduction to Speaker Justin Muturi, who chaired the House Committee on Appointments, took 10 minutes. Magoha took the committee through his 30-year sojourn through academia, medicine and the Public Service. He also mentioned how useful the virtues and values he had acquired as a student in Starehe Boys Centre and School had been throughout his life, and described himself as a man who had never failed at anything.

“In all my years as a surgeon [transplant and urology], I can proudly say that no one ever died on the operating table. If I fail in this position, then it will be a first,” Magoha told the vetting committee.

He went on to lecture the committee on his belief in meritocracy and assured that his appointment to head the Ministry of Education was attributable to nothing less than his qualifications.

“I did not lobby for my nomination. It was (based) purely on professionalism. If this is what you want, then I am ready to deliver. And if there are any shady dealings, then you can keep your job,” he told the MPs.

Tasked to explain how he had managed to plug the plunder of public resources in the positions he had previously held, Magoha boisterously warned that he was a man who did not entertain “monkey business”, further declaring that he was impatient with corrupt characters. He pledged to preside over the prudent use of funds allocated to his ministry by introducing a computerised system that would strictly monitor how funds were used in the education sector.

Magoha’s appointment was no doubt Uhuru’s close-range shot at sustaining the revolution his government had initiated in the ministry in its first term. Before his appointment to the Education docket, Magoha was chairman of the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi. In both capacities he had distinguished himself as a tower of transformational leadership which, incidentally, is the title of his memoir.

Notably, Uhuru’s first-term Cabinet was drawn from the worlds of business, banking, diplomacy and academia. His second-term Cabinet was not any different save for the inclusion of Peter Munya and Mwangi Kiunjuri, both of who were tested politicians. Magoha’s appointment was clearly motivated by the President’s desire to give new impetus to his administration’s plan for sweeping reforms in the education sector.

Uhuru’s second term as President came after a cut-throat political contest that climaxed in the first ever nullification of a presidential election by the Supreme Court of Kenya. Even after the repeat election on 26 October 2017, which was boycotted by his main competitor, Raila Odinga, political temperatures in the country remained high. On 9 March 2018, in a completely unprecedented move, Uhuru and Raila demonstrated magnanimity and patriotism when they shook hands in reconciliation on the steps of Harambee House, ending a potentially perilous impasse. Following that historic handshake, the country found itself on a new path of peace, unity and reconciliation.

The two leaders maintained that the handshake was unconditional and patriotic, aimed at saving the country from politically-motivated anarchy following the election drama. Nevertheless, there was an obvious need for political actions that would demonstrate how committed the two were to their cause. Almost a year later, Uhuru reorganised his government in an environment that left him free to choose leaders even from political factions that had not supported him in the 2017 elections. The President used the reshuffle to create a more inclusive government while still complying with the Constitution.

Away from post-handshake overtones, Magoha’s appointment came as the government was rolling out ambitious plans for the education sector. Apart from the promise to carry on with the Free and Compulsory Primary Education Policy initiated by Uhuru’s predecessor, President Mwai Kibaki, the Jubilee Party manifesto promised several reforms that were anchored in the Basic Education Act 2013. Most of these reforms required a complete paradigm shift.

In the first term of Uhuru’s presidency, Kaimenyi and Matiang’i had made considerable strides in implementing the reforms. As a way of bolstering equity and taming the effects of negative competition, practices such as extra tuition, corporal punishment, admission fees for public schools and the school ranking system in national examinations had been done away with. In addition, malpractices in the administration of national exams were arrested — Magoha had played a key role in this when he chaired KNEC before becoming the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Education.

There were still some critical reforms pending at the beginning of Uhuru’s second term. Key among these was the rollout of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) to replace the 8-4-4 system that had been in place since the days of President Daniel arap Moi. When Magoha was appointed CS, he declared that his legacy would be linked to the implementation of the new curriculum.

While most stakeholders were optimistic about the capacity of CBC to overturn pedagogy in Kenyan schools, there were doubts about its formulation, teacher capacity, development, and selection and supply of instructional materials. There was a general feeling that resource constraints in many public primary schools would contribute to more inequalities and inequities in education. Furthermore, teachers and teacher unions expressed concern over the lack of clarity about their role and capacity in implementation of the new curriculum.

In response to these concerns, Magoha meticulously explained the government’s comprehensive plan to train teachers at Early Year Education level. He also assured stakeholders and various interests groups that while unequal resource distribution was a valid concern, the government had elaborate plans to ensure that no child was disadvantaged. In April 2019, the CS exuded confidence in the progress of phase one of the CBC roll out. He admitted that there were hiccups but assured Kenyans that the government was ready to address them. He also explained the ministry’s plan to use information, communications and technology (ICT) resources to train more teachers by August of the same year.

But the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) complained about a lack of consultation in the development and implementation processes. These complaints were challenged by the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET), which also wanted inclusion since both unions were represented at all stages of implementation.

In September 2021, Nelson Havi, then the President of the Law Society of Kenya, filed a petition seeking to block the government from proceeding with implementation of the CBC curriculum. The petition challenged Magoha’s mandate to change the system of education through sessional papers. But the petition, filed in the name of parents, flopped as it was deemed unlawful. The National Parents Association, however, came out in defence of the government and the CS on their role in implementing the curriculum.

Despite opposition from activists and political players, Magoha maintained his focus on reforming the sector in his characteristic hard-line style, reminding his detractors that he was only doing his job. However, he understood the need for inclusivity throughout the process and in September 2021, he demonstrated his stakeholder engagement skills by giving in to the demands of critics and stakeholders to have the CBC programme reviewed.

In January 2021, the President had made key strategic changes in the Ministry of Education. In a mini-reorganisation of the Cabinet aimed at “fostering operational efficiency, institutionalising and expediting the implementation of various ground-breaking reforms, and introducing functional changes”, he appointed Dr. Julius Juan as Principal Secretary for the Department of Early Learning and Basic Education to succeed Dr. Belio Kipsang, who had served in that capacity for more than eight years. Juan’s vast experience as Director of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development was instrumental in assisting Magoha’s efforts to implement CBC. Uhuru also unveiled the Department for the Implementation of Curriculum Reforms to specifically monitor the CBC roll out.

While the roll out in primary schools was considerably successful, its expected transition to junior secondary school no doubt tested Magoha’s resilience. The decision on whether to launch junior secondary school in primary schools or transfer it to secondary schools was a tough one.

Some of the contested issues included CBC training for secondary schools teachers, inadequate infrastructure and whether the students would attend boarding schools.

Magoha maintained that the government was fully prepared to ensure the successful roll out of junior secondary school in 2023. To demonstrate this, the government trained the first batch of 60,000 secondary school teachers in April 2022, and continued to build additional classrooms. Magoha was often on the ground supervising the construction. When the 2021 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination results were announced, the CS stated that the government had so far constructed 6,497 classrooms at a cost of KES 700,000 —down from the initial cost of KES 1.26 million.

He said the extra funds would be directed to other projects and assured Kenyans that Uhuru’s government was determined to complete construction of all CBC classrooms within its tenure. He also announced that the next batch of classrooms to be built would add an additional 5,303 units.

The primary motivation for curriculum reforms was the glaring disconnect between the previous education system and the job market. There was a general feeling that the knowledge-based 8-4-4 system was not preparing learners for a fast-changing and highly demanding job market. The rising number of unemployed youths was attributed to the inadequacies and inefficiencies of the previous curriculum.

With the Kenya Vision 2030 economic blueprint spelling out the need to train a sufficient and efficient labour force, the government shifted its focus to technical and vocational education. Sessional Paper No. 14, 2012 recommended a raft of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) reforms to meet the requirements of Vision 2030. Magoha began the arduous task of convincing a reluctant population that TVET institutions were the backbone of economic development and a solution to unemployment. He called for the strengthening of vocational and technical training centres in the country.

“We must tell our people that every job is important. At TVET institutions, you can develop skills that can address an existing problem in the community and in turn secure employment,” he said during the ninth graduation ceremony of Kisumu National Polytechnic.

Through the State Department for Vocational and Technical Training, the ministry rolled out an elaborate plan to create interest in TVET courses among youths exiting the 8-4-4 system. One of the key reforms was the roll out of Competency Based Education Training (CBET), a system focused on preparing learners to meet industry needs.

The government also increased the number of such institutions from 52 to 238 between 2013 and 2021, leading to an increase in student enrolments from 56,000 to 250,000.

The government also rolled out a KES 2 billion grant to vocational training colleges (VTCs) in efforts to salvage the fate of young Kenyans who could not afford them. The CS passionately and consistently advised Form Four students who did not qualify for university admission to enrol in TVETs and VTCs. Another key deliverable that the CS oversaw was the 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school. The 2013 Jubilee Party manifesto recognised the increased number of primary school pupils following the introduction of the Free Primary Education Policy. However, it also noticed that only 66.9 per cent of those who sat for the KCPE exam joined secondary school. The government promised to increase the transition rate to 90 per cent and eventually 100 per cent in 2018.

To achieve this, Magoha sought to use the newly established National Education Information Management System (NEMIS) to track all learners who sat for KCPE and ensure that they joined secondary school. The ministry emphasised the value of education as a right for every child and tasked parents and guardians with the responsibility of transiting all children to secondary school. In 2019, the government registered 83.3 per cent transition. And in 2020, the CS formed a committee that literally tracked all learners to ensure that they joined secondary school.

The government then addressed the rising issues of school fees in three significant ways. First was the Elimu Scholarship Programme (ESP), an initiative aimed at giving bright and needy students a chance to attain education. Magoha said: “I want to thank the President for his wisdom … now we have more than 18,000 students whose scholarships have come through since 2019 … we will add another 9,000 students to the programme this year.”
He reiterated that the initiative’s main goal was to enable bright children from needy families in Kenya’s urban informal settlements to have access to high-quality education.

Secondly, the government prioritised and revamped the Free Public Day Schools Policy to absorb the majority of learners who were unable to attend boarding schools. In many areas, the ministry coordinated with government administration officers such as chiefs to fish out learners who had not joined secondary school. Media reports captured Magoha and his team visiting slums and villages to establish why the learners had not progressed with their education.

Lastly, the government introduced the National Health Insurance Fund cover for all secondary school students. Dubbed ‘Edu-Afya’, the initiative was part of the government’s Big Four Agenda policy on Universal Health Coverage. Under the cover, the government committed a premium of KES 1,350 per secondary school student. With a unique number generated by NEMIS, secondary school students could access free medical care in any public hospital.

Magoha’s reform successes lent credence to the assurance he had given during his vetting by MPs, when he pointed to the work ethic he had picked up from his alma mater, Starehe Boys Centre and School, where he studied for his O’ levels. He did his A’ levels at Strathmore School and, thanks to his exemplary performance, earned a scholarship from the University of Lagos in Nigeria where he studied medicine up to 1978, when he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine degree.

Magoha furthered his studies in surgery and urology at Lagos University Teaching Hospital and University College Hospital, Ibadan. His education journey also took him to Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, and Royal Postgraduate Medical School Hammersmith Hospital, London (Department of Urology). He later trained in executive management at Stanford University.

Magoha began his illustrious medical career as an intern at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. He quickly rose to senior resident and clinical lecturer in surgery at the same institution. He also served as a consultant surgeon in several hospitals in Lagos. He joined the University of Nairobi in 1988 as a lecturer in urological surgery. His hard work and dedication saw him rise through the ranks to become a full professor of surgery in 2000. He was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi in January 2005, a position he held until 2015.

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