Education: Not to be taken for granted

Innovation; Research

Education: Not to be taken for grantedBastow Institute of Educational Leadership takes its name from Henry Bastow who was appointed architect and surveyor of the School Division in 1873. He was commissioned to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate students who would be attending school following the passing of the Education Act in December 1872 that made education available – free, secular and compulsory for all students from the age of 5-15 years. This was a landmark piece of legislation and its importance in the development of our civic, cultural and intellectual life and prosperity of our state cannot be under estimated.

It is easy for us in advanced economies to take such universal education for granted. This was reinforced to me through the film The First Grader and my recent involvement in the Global Education Leaders Program (GELP).

The universal right to an education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

It stipulates the following:

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

For developing countries like Kenya, however, universal free primary education was only made available in 2003 – 130 years after it was made available in the colony of Victoria! The film, The First Grader, documents the true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, a Mau Mau veteran Kenyan who knocked on the door of the local primary school and demanded access to education so he could learn to read.

Against fierce opposition from officials and parents, who did not want a precious educational place to be given to an old man, Maruge was accepted into the school to learn alongside the six-year-olds.

His unrelenting determination to get an education became known through local and then international newspaper stories. Maruge was invited to address the UN in 2005, where he spoke of the importance of education in Africa. Maruge died in a Nairobi nursing home in 2009.

His remarkable story is an inspiration because of his hunger for learning despite his age and institutional barriers; his understanding that the freedom he fought for could only be truly and fully realized through education. According to Maruge, "The importance of knowledge, the chance to learn, [was] everything". He was quoted as saying: "The power is in the pen. This is our way out of poverty."

I witnessed this first hand when I visited an Integrated Centres of Popular Education (CIEP) school in an unpacified favela (an urban slum-like neighbourhood that doesn't have permanent policy presence to curtail corruption and drug-related crime) in Rio De Janiero. Despite the conditions of poverty and scarce resources this school stood as a 'light on a hill' for that community bringing hope and the possibility of transcending poverty. The teachers and principal understood the transformative power of education and their example of providing holistic and high quality 'against the odds' empowerment was a humbling experience.

Learning has a transformative power that some of us in the highly developed nations of this world often take for granted.  And just as Maruge believed that his personal quest to read and write was, in a broader context, his country's way out of poverty, so too educational leaders are charged with the responsibility to ensure that we lift the educational attainment of all students.

The challenge for us is to find ways to engender the spirit, the thirst, the hunger, the desire, and the will to learn that was so evident in Maruge and his first grade classmates, in the students we teach and the communities of learning we lead.

Bruce Armstrong
Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership