Education & Family

Kenyan girls progress at school

Brother and sister Linet and Moses Masai with Ben Tumwet, the athletics coach from their former school
Image caption Brother and sister Linet and Moses Masai with Ben Tumwet, the athletics coach from their former school

Linet Masai is the world champion at 10,000m. She was just 18 when she won the crown in Berlin 2009. How does a girl from rural Kenya come to be so successful?

Her brother, and bronze medallist, Moses puts it down to practice and hard work.

Her coach, Ben Tumwet, puts it down to talent. Undoubtedly she had the natural raw talent for distance running, perhaps enhanced by having an arduous and long trip to school.

Nevertheless it would have been all too easy for Linet to drop out of athletics. It is not a normal path to take; especially for girls who would traditionally not be expected to stay on school, let alone to pursue sport.

School inspiration

The other part of the jigsaw is the influence that her teachers and the leaders of her school had on her. They gave her the inspiration and dream of success.

Naboth Okadie, is the headteacher of Bishop Okring school.

High up in the Mount Elgon district of Kenya, it is the school Linet and Moses attended and at which Eglah - featured in the World Class report From Kenya to Bedford and beyond - is currently a pupil.

Naboth Okadie explains that keeping girls in education is a priority in his school.

He is fighting against social and family pressures on girls, compounded with traditional issues such as early forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

But within sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya is a positive story. The average age for a girl to marry in Kenya is 21 in the latest UN figures of 2008. Although the practice of FGM is still reported, it is now outlawed in Kenya.

Okadie sees the role of the school as a key player in the development of the community it serves. It aims to raise the aspirations of all pupils, but especially girls, to change the way in which they see their future and place in society.

For pupils like Linet and Moses this maybe continuing with the sport that they excel at. Or it may be, more simply, to enable pupils like Eglah to stay on at school and to see education as a means of improving their lives.

In this the role of the teachers and school leaders is paramount. Pupils take their cues from people they see as successful. These maybe athletes, but it is also teachers.

African success story

In 2009 UNESCO reported that, in Kenya, 50% of eligible children were enrolled in secondary schools, compared to over 80% in primary schools. In 2000 these figures were 33% and 60% respectively. Kenya has a greater percentage of children in secondary school than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa.

These figures are the roughly the same for boys and girls at enrolment although girls leave, on average, one year earlier. The situation is different for education beyond secondary school. Here for every five boys who continue, only three girls do. Does this reflect the fewer female teachers that students see?

Reporting on teacher education in Africa, research carried out for the World Bank in 2005 points to the key role that female teachers and school leaders play as role models. In Kenya, only 39% of the teachers were women, compared to a global average of 48%.

Nevertheless girls' educational performance is better than in Kenya than in many other African countries. This is partly due, no doubt, to the attitudes of schools like Bishop Okring, and headteachers like Naboth Okadie.

More women teachers

The Open University's Tessa project is a programme of teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa. Its research found that particularly important for girls was the role models that female teachers provided. This has led to the Scottish Government financed Saltire scholarships to encourage more girls to become teachers in Malawi.

The research also explored what it is to be a teacher central and southern Africa. Many of its findings centre on the esteem and respect given to teachers by pupils and families. In turn it notes the respect given by teachers to school leaders.

Thus the attitude of the school leaders sets the tone for the school, and for its teachers. The attitude of leaders and teachers then set the aspirations for the pupils and, by extension, their families and the communities they serve.

The Tessa research also found that teachers saw themselves as being key members of the community with a role that did not end at the school gate.

Linet Masai is a successful athlete. The pupils at her school now see her as a successful woman. Moreover so do her family and the village and community in which she lived.

It was the school leaders and teachers who persuaded her to pursue her dream.

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