Epic dreams: Of reality, KCSE results and fantasy of success

KCSE results exam

Basic Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang (centre) holds up copies of the 2022 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam results released on January 20, 2023, at Mitihani House. With him are Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu (right) and Teachers Service Commission (TSC) CEO Dr Nancy Macharia.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation |Media Group

The tempest broke, crashed and leapt through the short sentences as Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu announced the recent KCSE results.

They roared off the airwaves with a barbed fury — a mass of roiling currents of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es — enthralling an entire nation that has an abiding fascination with exam results. Candidates waited with feverish speculation, constantly under the threat of failure, their identity submerged in performance anxiety, and eclipsed by the desire for good results.

The winners were sometimes carried shoulder high amid dance and song. They were stirred to ecstasy — giving media interviews in bountiful and varied anecdotes, talking points and opinions.

Maybe the winners were conscious of a call that would carry them far away from their current realities to the future they have always desired — a new spirit stirring within them, spurred on by victory in the region of utopia.

However, many other candidates got what the Germans call Feuertaufe — a baptism of fire. They had given all they could. But even all was not enough. Good grades were as elusive as unfulfilled desires. It was heartbreaking. To this lot, the results were an apocalypse of terror, unsentimental glimpses at the way most of the candidates struggled with the exams.

In the heat of all this, it is easy to forget what exam results really mean. We need the right perspective. We are all born with potential — and we must exploit that potential to our benefit and the benefit of others.

This reminds one of Salman Rushdie’s allegorical novel, Midnight’s Children, which highlights the potential we are all born with.

Rushdie writes about the narrator who says that: “I WAS BORN in the city of Bombay … once upon a time… I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact”.

Midnight’s Children is a story about 1,001 children born in the first hour (after midnight) of India’s Independence on August 15, 1947. These children were born with enormous potential during India’s Independence, a time of great optimism and potential.

This is like the great optimism that has greeted those who did well in their KCSE exams. However, the 1,001 children are reduced to 581 by their tenth birthday.

This is like what has been happening in the 8-4-4 education system where candidates are reduced at almost every major stage by a “filtering exam”. Thankfully, with the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), such “filtering exams” have ended. 


As the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD)’s motto puts it appropriately, the task is “nurturing every learner’s potential”. A lot of work has been done and more still needs to be done for learners to reap maximum benefits from CBC but we are on the right path.

Midnight’s Children is a good metaphor not only for exam results but also life. We all grow up (no matter our background) in the secure prospect of a bright future — sometimes in a utopian belief that we’ll always win.

Thus, failure is an unwanted burden that tires the soul. However, we must learn to “fail forward” — which has been defined as “to purposefully and deliberately use failure to find success”. It means picking ourselves up even when we face setbacks. We’ll succeed in some things and fail in others. That’s life.

When failure happens in exams, it is not the end of life. Performance Learning Blog summarises this well: “The first myth to bust is the one that says that the results of your exams will affect the rest of your life — they won’t… Your exam results… typically affect the next three to four years of your life.

It doesn’t mean that you will be a failure for life if you don’t do well, nor do they promise an eternal success if you do. This does not mean you shouldn’t try to do well because the better you do at every stage the more options will be available to you in the next stage”.

Those who haven’t done well in their KCSE exams should remember that they have many options. They can pursue a different route to their dream career even if it will be a longer path. However, we should all focus to maximise our potential as we have limited time for impact.

Prof Mikhail Iossel aptly captures this in one of his New Yorker articles, “When you’re young, you think there’ll be plenty of time for everything in your life… Life is a process of gradually coming to terms with the meaning and the very concept of never-ness. Never — well, so be it… Life is a perishable proposition of rapidly diminishing returns. You could’ve become this or that; you could’ve been here and there and everywhere; but that didn’t happen — and well, so be it!”

The 2022 KCSE candidates should remember that they could have scored an A or a B or whatever grade. Maybe it happened as they wanted it to, or maybe it did not. There will be another stage in their lives to make a comeback for those who didn’t make it this time. So be it!