"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

Why should one examination make or break a child’s life?

Mar 04, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

Another year, another set of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results. And another year in which parents, children and the media go into a seemingly uncontrollable frenzy about the significance of the results.

I have written about this peculiar phenomenon before, and no doubt will again. For I fail to understand why we have to hype the results of the public examination of young children to high heaven.

Can we honestly imagine, in today’s day and age, that the result of that one exam will make or break a child’s life? That if you get good grades you are on your way to assured success; and that if you mess up your life is gone? Once upon a time, in a less enlightened age, there may have been a modicum of truth in that statement. But I fail to see what the fuss is about in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world.

Let me address the various actors in this fevered drama. Parents, what do you think you’re doing? Why do you place such intense pressure on your children to perform well in public exams, and why do you ululate so unabashedly or grieve so unashamedly, depending on the result? Can you not see that the examinations process is designed to produce just a few winners, and that the chances of your child being in that group are statistically quite low? Why would you want your child marked ‘loser’ at such a tender age – most notably by you?

Employers: what is this unending obsession with ‘grades’ and ‘papers?’ It was thus when I was a boy; why is it still thus today? Have we not refined our thinking about talent and success in the intervening decades? Why do you still use a relatively arbitrary grade achieved on a single day by a young person as a cut-off? What results have decades of employing only the ‘A/B’ students given your organization? If childhood grades are so strongly correlated with future performance, please explain this: why do most of your organizations remain so ineffably mediocre?

The coming world will be unbelievably disruptive. It will require reinvention and reimagination of business models. The old assumptions and formulae will not hold. Creativity, freshness and boldness will be at a premium. So when you insist on hiring only the top-graders, who are you employing? Someone who has been able to apply his mind and dedicate herself to study, yes; but as management guru Tom Peters often points out, you’re also hiring someone who “buys the act” and has always “coloured between the lines.” An ‘A’ student is very unlikely to be the revolutionary mind or radical thinker that you may actually need.

Finally, let me address the actors that matter the most: the students. Kids, this thing is not as important as the world around you has led you to believe. If you achieved a high grade, well done; it’s likely that you are dedicated, orderly and can apply your intellect well. Those are good things. But getting a great grade is only a beginning, not an end. Many more attributes are going to be needed to succeed in life, and most of them are about character and attitude, not just intellect.

If you received a poor grade, on the other hand, worry not. It’s not the end of the world. Many of history’s most spectacular successes have also been the most emphatic school dropouts. You still have every chance of making it. This archaic ranking system belongs to a less enlightened age, and you should not fret over it too much. Pick yourself up, dedicate yourself afresh. Hard work, empathy and creativity can all make up for low grades. If the world doesn’t accept you, excel so hard in doing your own thing that the world is forced to blink and rethink.

Share This
Like it? Hate it? Engage here
  • Leonard

    Well said Sunny. Once again Sir Ken Robinson’s mantra comes to mind.

    • Leonard:

      Indeed it does. Life’s richness cannot possibly be relegated to a 2-hour event.

      • Leonard

        Seeing the new careers blossoming in the arts and entertainment sector, maybe someone is actually listening to you.

  • Thank you so much for this. People have no idea how bizzare these exam results seasons are. I was on a radio station few weeks back in Uganda when a young gal called in between her sobs lamenting what she is to do. Her parents were dissapointed with her exam performance…they had spent big coaching’…and she did not know what to do.

    I had to write about experience here: http://lifesignatures.blogspot.com/2012/02/it-happened-to-me.html
    This must change.

  • This one was spot on. I think the problem is that many of us parents from the time our children are born, we always compare them with others to gauge how good they are or how their progress is going. For example I have seen new parents, give a detailed account of when their child first spoke, or when the first tooth was out, or when they first walked with the objective of showing how ‘fast’ their child has grown compared with the peers. If two people were born say in 1990 in the month of December, and the first one walked 1 year after and the other one 1.5 years later, does this difference matter now? I now do not put pressure on my son to be number 1 in school. That is not all there is to life. ….my thoughts

    • Justus:

      And good thoughts they are, sir. There’s more to life than meeting someone else’s arbitrary measure early in life.

  • wamoronjia

    Hi Sunny
    Thanks for beating this drum once again. Yesterday, a Nyeri man committed suicide because he didn’t score an A in last year’s KCSE. If only he had read today’s advice.

    • Wamoronjia:

      What a waste, of a life that might yet have been great. A shame.

  • Kimenyi Waruhiu

    Mr Bindra

    When my first child was about to start their education, my father who had been in education at a point in his life, provided advice that I feel that given your subject today I should share with you and your audience. I know that many will not agree with it given the lack of choice our national curriculum provides us.

    He advised that I find a good nursery school where my children would learn how to learn – it would be the cornerstone of their education. Thereafter, I should send my children to schools whose expense was affordable, and where the emphasis would be on the opening of their minds to life around them – all in an effort to prepare them for university. His belief, one that makes sense to me, was that all the primary and secondary school years would be practice for university. When they got there, he advised that I put all my effort into helping them get the best university education I could muster, for what they did in university would shape the rest of their lives.

    With this in mind, it is indeed sad that for the majority of Kenyans secondary education is reduced to ensuring passage to university via good KCSE results. Getting to university is only one part of the equation that is education – for if what is done there is merely done to get a qualification, then life may very well just pass one by. To know enough about life so that one chooses how university is the beginning of the rest of one’s life, does not boil down to a set of examinations that allow you entry to that university.

    Preparation for the KCSE exam often does not involve a semblance of choice about what young Kenyans might want to do for the rest of their lives. Sadly, it is more about university entrance than a worldliness.

    I believe that a common thread in the lives of those who end up being successful is that by the time they got to the end of their secondary education (if that), they had thought through how they wanted to prepare for life after school. For some it was university, for others it was pursuit of a passion. Granted we are in a part of the world where pursuing passion is often a minefield of obstacles. The point you make – and that I wish to reinforce – is that KCSE is shaping up to be a poor investment in our children’s future, where the examination is emphasized at the expense of a preparation for the future.

    • KW:

      Very well put. What is more important: to clock the grades in an exam, or lay a proper foundation for the future? For too many parents, the answer seems to be the former. Bizarrely.

  • Warue Kariuki

    Thanks Sunny for us up to reality, and I wish we could stop and listen to you, as competition has taken the best of us. At individual level the grades may be great but as a country what do we benefit from rote learning, cramming for tests and examinations. We need to ask ourselves if these are the skills we need to make Vision 2030 a reality. We have to give some serious thought to our education system, not cosmetic changes. As we get into our 50th year after independence we need to do serious soul searching with regard to education.

    • Warue:

      With you 100% on that one. Some serious reform needed to keep us competitive as a nation.

  • Kevin

    Definitely one of your best articles Sunny!
    If only this could be declared all over!

  • The psychological scars that may be inflicted on a child because of the parents reaction to ‘negative’ exam results cannot be underestimated. Because they are inflicted so early in life these scars can affect all manner of development all the way into adulthood.

    • Even the words around exams are callous: “fail”, “loser” “dropout” etc

      • In the context of the Industrial Revolution it can be understood that such words of control & repression be used, but in this day and age when we should be wiser & smarter….?

  • wandia karuri

    Thanks for the article.
    I was shocked to hear a senior government official say after releasing the K.C.P.E exams that we now know the ”winners and the losers”, and these are 14 year old kids he was talking about. Imagine writing – off a child at that age. And we are surprised when they commit suicide over exams.

    • At so young an age, nothing has been won, and nothing lost.

  • Mwangi Wanjumbi


    Before reading the hard copy version on Sunday, I had written and posted some consolation for the 71% examination candidates ejected from the academic pyramid as uploaded @ http://newtimesconsultants.com/ke/?p=33&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=55 . Upon reading yours, I was struck by the coincidence of thoughts. I would especially urge all to realize that grades or no grades, It is all about putting efforts to realize full personal potentials.

  • Lisa

    Our education system can only test a fraction of the talents that God gave to his creations. I was confronted by a teenage boy ashamed of his grades, I simply told him that the examiner failed to test what he is good at, for he is really an excellent organist.

    To believe that testing about ten subjects could define an entire generation…….how shallow is this thinking?
    We pressure our children with bizarre expectations till they committing suicide……..how cruel are we?

    • When a child ‘fails’, no one thinks the teachers or parents have failed: failed to understand, failed to observe, failed to ignite.

      • Lisa

        Sunny, while we are still on this subject, do we have organizations or people in Kenya who sponsor students for college education based criteria other than grades? This might be a part solution to this problem. Parents mostly hope that their children make it to the university through the ‘regular’ program (Government sponsored) simply because the private students pay about 5 to 6 times the amount paid by the Government sponsored students as school fees for the same course.
        Students from poor families know that if they fail to make it for the regular program(JAB selection) then its goodbye college education.
        Most companies that have university sponsorship programs will only select the top few in terms of grades. What then happens to the best actor/actress in the national drama festivals? The best innovator in science symposiums? Best athlete?

    • @Lisa, well said. You may have saved that boy a lifetime of confusion and unhappiness.

  • Sunny, with you 100%! First, the biggest “problem-tooth” in this messy cog are the parents. They place such intense pressure on their children to “perform”. Why on earth should they place burdens on such young shoulders? Have you seen the size of bags kids carry? One may be mistaken to assume they are on their way to military boot camp! And that’s just to get you warmed up. The plethora of issues under parenting can go on and on…

    Employers are not spared either, as all they receive are kids with high grades and mostly no attitude to get things done. This is because of two main reasons:
    1) They were not taught how to get things done (they were taught to regurgitate stuff)
    2) The kids are not allowed to develop, they are just herded to get them through the system (and hopefully someone else can deal with the problem down the line).

    A few weeks back, I was taught some leadership lessons from my 6-year old. I had to write something from that lesson, you can read more of it on Todd Nielsen’s blog “A slice of leadership” bit.ly/vZOSAj

    For the record, my wife and I don’t pressure our children to excel. We guide them to explore, ask questions and learn from these experiences…

  • Rachel Kasumba

    Sunny, thanks for reopening this debate. We need to rethink our education system and get away from collective thinking. After all, how many so called “winners” have done something significant in other people’s lives? What about “losers” or “school drop-outs” that are making top contributions and money in technology, philanthropy, entertainment, sports, community development, etc, that we are all aware of yet we had written off?
    It is time to think outside the box and also seek to understand and pursue life’s various avenues to success.

    • And to also seek to understand what success means in context.

  • Socrates

    Unfortunately, most people expecting changes from the top-down to a bottoms-up problem will always very disappointed. Another factor also inhibiting the changes discussed are the very institutions themselves. They’ve largely become self-feeding bureaucratic assembly lines that are content churning out mass-produced graduates with little to none real-world applications for their expensive degrees. As far as they are concerned, their business model works, they don’t have to live with the repercussions, they are just selling a dream with no refund policy attached. A dream, that by the end of this ” life phase” (which is what it’s become reduced to), success awaits.

    But as Sunny beautifully captures in the article, this model is currently undergoing massive disruption depending on geography, as information costs continually come down, and access to information and resources become ubiquitous, change becomes inevitable. People realize that while success as an end is universally shared, it’s definition is subjective and more importantly it’s means are many.

    Sunny, some interesting discussions I stumbled upon in this area last year are a debate on bloomberg intelligence US on “too many kids go to college” in which Peter Thiel put forth some excellent points http://vimeo.com/30521002 . You’ll enjoy it.

    Last but not least, on a positive note is a video I watched on TED in which former hedgefund analyst Salman Khan (Khan Academy) is making waves in attempting a rethink on delivery of education
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTFEUsudhfs .