Forty-nine-year-old Dr Sara Ruto rose to prominence in 2012. She was then the regional manager of Uwezo
East Africa and was part of a team that researched on the quality of education in the region. The research findings indicated that on average two out of three pupils in standard three across East Africa did not have basic reading and numeracy skills pegged
at standard two level. This exposé hit home hard and played a crucial role in stirring public conversations on the need to focus on the quality and learning outcomes of education in children.
While working as a lecturer at Kenyatta University in 2008, Dr Ruto and other delegates drawn from the East African region got an opportunity for a research trip to India.
“This trip became an eye opener and a great learning curve. In India, we were introduced to an innovative approach that used an army of citizen volunteers to assess whether children are learning.
This was a huge shift as previous studies focused on attendance, or books, or teachers and other school inputs. The unique quality of the approach was that children were assessed in their homes, in front of their parents, and this assessment was done in over 500 districts in India. The findings would then be communicated in a simple and relatable way to the public,” Dr Ruto explains.
Armed with this new insight, Dr Ruto and her colleagues were convinced that this approach was worth emulating in East Africa.
This birthed Uwezo East Africa, an initiative that sought to understand and improve the literacy and numeracy abilities of school-going pupils between the ages of six and 16 in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with Dr Ruto acting as the regional manager.
“Prior to this initiative and despite having been a lecturer for more than 15 years, I don’t recall ever pausing to reflect on whether all school-going children in Kenya were getting real education or were merely attending school,” she admits.
Together with a team of about 4,000 volunteers armed with passion, commitment and open to learning, they carried out a research in over 40,000 homes in Kenya in 2009.
To their disbelief, they found that one in every 10 standard eight pupils couldn’t do simple arithmetic meant for standard two pupils.
Additionally, one in every five children couldn’t read an English word. The results also revealed that only a third of standard two children could read a paragraph meant for their level.
“This showed that many children in schools were being promoted to the next class without proper learning at each level,” she expounds, adding that despite research showing reading levels being highest in Central Kenya, 27 per cent of children were incompetent in numeracy, reading and arithmetic while in North Eastern, the incompetency level was at 55 per cent.
“The results were shocking and they received mixed reaction when they were released to the public. For example, in good schools where all pupils could read and write, the Uwezo findings did not resonate with them and hence an outcry.
In other circles, some education stakeholders would admit, albeit privately, that something was not right with the education system as highlighted by the Uwezo findings. All the same, it took at least three years to gain public acceptance especially amongst policy makers,” says Dr Ruto.
Aware that policy changes do take time to be implemented, she is glad that Kenya is now making steps in the right direction. As the chair of the council of KICD, she reckons there is a realisation on the need to pay closer attention to aspects of learning, and find out if children are getting specific skills and competencies.
“For instance, the current curriculum reform process is keen on ensuring education is value based rather than generalised education, so that what one learns is applicable even in future,” she offers.
While she appreciates the conversations and changes taking place, she says the fight has not been won yet because parents tend to measure success in children purely based on examinations, rather than examinations being just one of the measurement parameters.
Shaped by her childhood …
Looking back as a person who is now interested in education and how best children can learn, Dr Ruto says that what takes place within the family and with parents both directly and indirectly plays a crucial role in education, yet this is hardly stressed on and especially in public discourse.
She recounts her childhood experience as one split between growing up at her parents’ farm in Nandi and in Eldoret where she schooled. Her father worked as a clinical officer cum aesthetician.
Her mother, who was a primary school head teacher, was actively involved in the local church. She was also the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation chairperson in their locality.
“These leadership roles set a good example for me as they demonstrated that my mum had broken the gender stereotypes at a time when few women held public leadership positions,” she expounds.
Dr Ruto reveals that her childhood was marked with lots of play, which translated into a happy and interactive upbringing for her. She never studied Kiswahili at school as it was not compulsory at the time and instead picked it up during playtime in Eldoret, a cosmopolitan town.
The fourth of six siblings, she thoroughly enjoyed reading the African series books and it is perhaps from this that an interest in language formed that later led her into training for a Bachelors of Education degree in English and literature at Kenyatta University.
Dr Ruto, who attended secondary and high schools respectively at Loreto School, Matunda, and Kyeni High School in Runyenjes says the school had a huge impact on her in terms of values.
“I don’t recall us being caned for wrongdoing, but the teachers had unique ways of instilling discipline that left one with a sense of what is right and wrong. In addition, learning was not always just about books as there was emphasis to engage in extra-curricular activities, which played a crucial role in the development of a person as a whole,” she explains.
Based on her experience, she firmly believes that if Kenyans truly want a change in the education system, then everyone must be willing to play a part in it.
“Each school community should be held responsible for the public schools within its vicinity. Schools have amenities that ought to be exploited to serve that local community such as sports ground for events like weddings, fundraisers and so forth. However someone must own and make the school work for all children. Local communities need to be active accountability partners in the development of schools not just academically, but in all aspects as well. I think it is such small steps that would eventually lead to an overall improvement in the education sector,” she reflects.
Dr Ruto says she feels privileged to be part of the change makers in the current curricula as chair of the council of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development.
“As a chair, I am committed to give oversight and guidance as well as work with various actors to make a difference in the education sector and have a curriculum reform process that will not be cumbered by some of the problems seen in previous reform process on the 8-4-4 system,” she says.
As an educator, she urges parents to create time to spend with their children because learning starts way before the classroom as studies show that when a child is between the ages of three and five, their brain has the most capability to learn and absorb information.
“This is the age when a child learns skills like speaking but they need an adult to talk and play with so that they can build some vocabulary and learn listening skills. However, many parents hardly have time to talk and play with their children due to their busy schedules,” she says as she urges parents to prioritise family time even as they pursue their careers and other activities.
A wife and mother…
Dr Ruto is married to Stephen Kithu, a lecturer in art and design. She opines that their personalities help them blend well together in addition to having similar interests. Both of them are lovers of adventure and enjoy outdoors especially hiking as well as arts.
Being parents to three children; all boys, Dr Ruto says she has since learnt that each child has his own character hence the need to use different parenting styles on each of them.
“I must admit I am learning on the go. I make mistakes sometimes, but I am keen on learning from them,” she says, adding that having a good support system at home has come in handy in helping her succeed in many spheres of life.
As one who enjoys jogging as a way of relaxing, Dr Ruto concludes this interview by advocating for people to find ways to pause, reflect and self-evaluate in order to find their passion, as this is a great way to connect with their inner self and grow. [email protected]