The news that candidates from public schools triumphed over their private counterparts was received with excitement and disbelief in equal measure.
But after the dust had settled, many are admitting that the public primary school as we know it has been gradually changing.
While rural schools are still struggling with dilapidated infrastructure, staffing and other challenges, many that have changed and could easily pass for private institutions.
The new public primary school is well-equipped, has a functional library, is fairly staffed, connected to electricity and has WiFi for use by learners and their teachers.
Though not comparable in luxury, the learners are taking on their counterparts in private schools as equals.
This is in sharp contrast to a few years ago when many public schools were an eyesore – and some still are – characterised by poor infrastructure, lack of books and teachers, with the few available often absconding.
There were occasional flashes of brilliance among candidates but performance in national examinations would generally be poor.
When the Covid-19 crisis broke out last year, many did not give candidates in public schools a chance. Coronavirus forced schools to be shut from March to October 2020.
Public schools essentially shut down as the private ones switched to online teaching and learning.
Ironically, the pandemic appears to have exposed the soft underbelly of private schools if the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination results released on Thursday are anything to go by.
Only one private school candidate featured in the top 10 list.
The list has for long been dominated by private institutions.
The top candidates nationally were Mumo Faith Kawee from Kari-Mwailu (433), Wesonga Yvette Nanzala of Chogoria Girls and Muriithi Angel Gakenia from Maseno Girls Boarding (432), Wanyonyi Samuel Makhanu from Nzoia Sugar Company School and Castro Williams from Crystal Hill Academy, Tarus Laureen Chepkemboi of St Mathews Septonok (431), Abiud Kipkirui from Lessos Hills Adventist (430), Margaret Waruguru of Karatina DEB, Bernice Omondi from Nairobi Primary and Kiogora Joy Nkatha of Chogoria Girls (429).
There were murmurs of disbelief from observers who feared the turning of tables was uncanny. The finger was pointed at the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec).
But, according to a credible Knec source who requested anonymity as he is not allowed to speak on behalf of the agency, the results from public schools should not come as a surprise, as the pandemic tilted the scales in their favour.
“Teachers in public schools nurture learners in the correct way. There is no spoon-feeding. When those children are presented with challenging tasks and tested alongside the ones in private schools, they will perform better,” the official said.
Methods employed by the majority of teachers in private schools are not sustainable in the long run, the source added, and many of their pupils struggle to keep up with studies in secondary school despite their excellent KCPE grades.
Scored 381 marks
Ministry of Education officials deny claims of normalising results, saying candidates in public schools are used to disruptions and were therefore least affected by the pandemic.
One official said pupils in public schools are more resilient and achieved the grades they would usually get “under normal circumstances”.
Confronted with challenges of getting good secondary schools, some parents opted to transfer and register their children in public schools to take advantage of the quota system.
Ms Hellen Kavindu, one such parent, told the Saturday Nation that she also noticed her son had difficulties.
“My son started off in a private school but we opted to transfer him to a public one as he could not do anything on his own. I’m the one who would end up doing his homework. Public schools are affordable,” Ms Kavindu said.
Her son, Tama Nzavi, was a pupil at Nairobi Primary School and scored 381 marks.
Whereas Kenyans who can afford it prefer their children to be in private primary schools, the majority want the children to be in public secondary schools because of their good performance.
According to the Kenya Economic Survey 2020, there are 23,286 public primary schools in the country, the number having increased marginally from 22,414 in five years.
Private primary schools on the other hand are 9,058, up from 8,919 in 2015. However, many others are not registered, especially in slums.
Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Secretary-General Wilson Sossion yesterday celebrated the new trend, saying the campaign to popularise public education is gaining traction in Kenya.
“Public schools are central to this country’s education system. It is beginning to show and this is the best opportunity to escalate the conversation,” Mr Sossion, who is also a nominated MP, said.
“Public schools were neglected but that is changing. There is more focus in protecting public schools. They have become attractive once more.”
The Knut boss lauded the government for the gradual increase of teachers in public primary schools since 2011 and support in putting up infrastructure from national and county administrations.
“Job security for teachers is important but that is lacking in private schools. Knut will continue to campaign against privatising education. There are no private or public children. They are all Kenyans,” he said.
Kenya Primary Schools Headteachers Association (Kepsha) chairman Johnson Nzioka attributed the good performance to hard work and dedication by teachers after the long break.
“Those in boarding primary schools usually have more time to revise and study unlike children in day schools. That is what has been reflected in the 2020 KCPE results,” he said.
Mr Nzioka added that despite public schools failing to engage pupils in online learning during the break, candidates were not affected much.
“Online learning made no difference because most schools were repeating what is taught in class,” he said.
Kenya Private Schools Association chief executive Peter Ndoro, however, defended the institutions.
He said children in private schools posted impressive results, with most candidates scoring 400 marks and above.
“The only data we have from the Ministry of Education is that of public schools dominating the list of top 15 candidates but that does not mean that private schools have not posted good grades. Most of our candidates have passed well,” Mr Ndoro told the Saturday Nation.
He added that despite many private schools facing economic challenges due to the pandemic, teachers recovered the lost time and schools improved in their overall grades.
Public schools have also been major beneficiaries of National Government Constituency Development Fund (NG-CDF) projects.
This has improved infrastructure through the construction of classrooms and other amenities.
For some, former pupils have come together through alumni associations to fund projects aimed at improving performance.
The former boys and girls also help mentor the pupils.
The performance of public schools in the past was so wanting that then Kepsha chairman Joseph Karuga called for separate ranking after the release of the 2013 KCPE results.
He accused private schools of examination malpractices.
That year, only Kericho Primary and Kathigiri Boarding School in Meru had a candidate among the top 10 nationally.
Two hundred and twenty out of 235 schools listed among the top five in every county were private – taking 95 per cent of the slots.
Public schools occupied more than 96 per cent (221 out of the 235 schools) of bottom five schools in every county that year.
In the 2017 KCPE test, only seven public schools made it to the list of the best 100 nationally.
The list of the top schools, which had a mean score of 370 was dominated by private institutions. Private schools again dominated the top slots in 2018.
In 2019, three candidates tied at position two nationally. Two were from public schools while the rest on the top 10 were private school pupils.
In 2020, the top public primary schools in Western Kenya are St Peter’s Mumias (391.38), Kakamega (345.90), Irumbi (310), Mululu (372), Mago (363), Mumias Central (368) and St Annes Township (314.97).
In Mt Kenya, Kathigiri Boarding in Meru County has been consistently posting impressive results. The situation was the same this year.
The school has a mean score of 392.32, which must be among the best in the country.
St Agnes Primary in Kirinyaga has a mean of 376.4 while Nyeri Primary has 372.
PCEA Chogoria Girls Boarding has an impressive score of 368.8, followed by Kathituni with 363.
Tetu Girls in Nyeri has 355 while Daawa in Isiolo recorded a mean of 330.
Public schools in Mt Kenya dominated top positions in the KCPE tests.
At the same time girls made a dramatic entry to the ranks of Standard Eight test top performers.
The queen was Wesonga Yvette Nanzala of Chogoria Girls Boarding Primary School who had 432 marks. She was top in the region but second nationally.
Chogoria Girls is a public school in Tharaka Nithi.
Margaret Waruguru of Karatina DEB Primary had a score of 429, defying a tough academic year.
Nyeri Primary, another public institution, had more than 20 pupils scoring at least 400 marks.
PCEA Kathigiri Boarding Primary School in Meru cemented its position with its top student, Danson Muthuri, attaining 423 marks.
Vidhu Ramji Primary School dominated the Murang’a East’s list of 34 who scored 400 marks and above. It had 19 pupils.
Of the 18 girls in Murang’a East who attained 400 marks and above, the school took 50 per cent of the slots with the best three coming from it – Karanja Elizabeth Wanjiku, Gikonyo Mary Wanjiku and Waweru Fericity Wacera posting 417 and 415 marks respectively.
Bishop Parlo School took position four with Jasmine Wambui who had 412 marks.
Kirinyaga’s St Agnes – a public school – beat odds to produce the best candidate in the county.
Kariuki Lucy Wairimu 14, scored 425 marks, beating the more than 14,000 candidates in the region.
Another candidate from the school Kiarie Shirley Wanjuki got 421 marks while a third one Maina Claire Wanjiku had 417. Twenty-one St Agnes candidates scored 400 marks and above. The school posted a mean of 376.4.
Also posting good results were private schools. New entrant Edinburgh School had its best candidate Edward Marcel attaining 402 marks.
Edinburgh headteacher James Wanjohi spoke of team work, hard work, competition among teachers and pupils and maximum teacher-pupil contact time.
Freds Academy topped in Meru County with 35 out of 52 candidates scoring more than 400 marks.
Kerugoya Good Shepherd Boarding Primary School posted a mean score of 376, emerging the best in Kirinyaga County.
Twenty-four candidates from the school scored at least 400 marks.
Albert-Kutus Academy is second with a mean of 375. Ten candidates had 400 marks and above.
Loreto Primary’s Eyanae Ashiki was the best in Isiolo with 416 marks.
Nasrina Abdulrahman of Little Angels Academy was the second with 409, followed by Salad Abdulsamad Malicha of the same school who had 407 marks.
Top performing pupils
Other top performing pupils in the county were Tracy Kanana, Kabale Idris and Kellen Waweru, all from Little Angels Academy who scored 405, 403 and 400 marks respectively.
Tobija Otieno Muhuaya of Joystart Academy was the best in Mandera with 390 marks while Istahil Muktar Molu was the top girl with 385.
In Nyeri, Good Shepherd Academy’s Deborah Nyagah scored 420 marks. Twenty two 22 pupils at Good Shepherd had at least 400 marks.
The student with the lowest mark had 306 marks though the school had a mean of 383.1.
Nyeri Primary School took a lead in the county with a mean of 372.12.
St Teresas Mathari Girls had a mean of 368 while sunrise Tetu Junior School registered a mean of 310.
At Kin’gon’go Prison examination centre, the five inmates who sat for the tests managed a mean of 232.8.
Henry Lelegwe topped the class with 311 marks, followed by Wilson Mutahi who had 271.
ACK Maseno Girls Boarding Primary – a public school in Kisumu County – produced the top candidate in Nyanza. Murithi Angel Gakeria was second best nationally.
A majority of top performers in the region emerged from public schools, though pupils in private schools performed remarkably too.
Murithi scored 432 marks, tying with Wesonga Yvette Nanzala of Chogoria Girls. She topped a class of 96.
ACK Maseno Girls Boarding Primary School head Hellen Odinga said four candidates scored more than 400 marks. She said the school would improve on its 359 mean score.
Scored 428 marks
“I expected good results but didn’t anticipate that one of my pupils would be second in the country,” she said.
There were celebrations at Ober Boys Boarding Primary School in Rachuonyo, Homa Bay County. It produced one of the top 15 candidates nationally.
Polycarp Kiyondi Ombongi, who was ranked 11 in the country, scored 428 marks.
This is the third consecutive year the public primary school has produced some of the best performing candidates in the country.
Ober Boys Boarding Primary School head Benard Ochieng attributed the performance to hard work.
“We covered the syllabus on time,” he said.
Twenty two candidates from Janairo Junior Academy in Rangwe scored 400 marks and above, with the top having 415.
The leading are Ouko Juliet Aluoch (415), Oyola Shemilla Kemi (414), Otieno Philip Oguok (412), Nebu Omondi Lennox (410) and Odero Emmanuel Onyango (408).
Twenty one candidates from St Peters Cape View in Homa Bay scored 400 marks and above.
At Gendia Primary in Rachuonyo North, three pupils scored 400 marks and above.