From Melbourne to Kenya: ANZSOG alum’s international journey

Nairobi aerial view
  • Published Date: 25 September 2019

ANZSOG's Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) alum Thomas Kaye is living in Nairobi and using his expertise and passion for public service to help transform education systems in Kenya, Kuwait and Somalia.

The former Victorian Education Department employee has travelled a long way since he completed the EMPA in 2012, bringing his education expertise to jobs with UNICEF and the World Bank.

Mr Kaye said that his current primary work is evaluating the implementation of major education reforms in Kenya. He also assesses programs in Kuwait, and is working to design a project in Somalia which would provide education to children in conflict-affected environments. He also spent three years in Bangladesh from 2013 to 2016.

“Our family has always been community-minded, so I think the public service was an inevitable pathway for me,” he said.

“At the moment my goals are to finish this work in Kenya and help build better education systems for the region, but I am also working on a PhD on international good practices in education.”

His job goes well beyond the desk; Mr Kaye says he has travelled across Kenya from the mountains to the coast to visit schools and seen the diversity of its people and landscapes.

He said some of the key challenges in Kenya are common to education specialists across the world, but there are some specific to developing countries.

“In Kenya, only 85 per cent of children attend primary school, and many are not in school full time because they work, or help their families by looking after siblings,” Mr Kaye said.

“There are issues around school infrastructure, and access to water. You have a student/ teacher ratio of about 45:1, which is three times as many students per teacher as in Australia. There have been issues with children being able to get to school, but now in most areas children are no more than 30 minutes’ walk from school.

“The challenge is to work to increase attendance, while recognising the reality that may not be possible for some children. At the same time, Kenya is making the transition to not just focus on increasing attendance, but also raising the quality of education that children in school receive.”

So, how do skills and theories taught in ANZSOG’s EMPA in Australia shape up when applied in rural Africa?

“This job has made me revisit things like Public Value and the Strategic Triangle, because wherever you are, the issues around capacity constraints and stakeholders are a really important factor,” he said.

“The authorising environment is also very unique depending on where you are. Political and cultural nuances shift dramatically across countries, so national policy-makers and international development workers must work closely to ensure global good practice aligns with the local context.”

Modernising schools

Mr Kaye said Kenya was working to modernise schools by moving to a competency-based curriculum, implementing child-centred learning, strengthening school management through grants of US$5000 and training in how to create and implement school improvement plans.

“It is an emergent system so there is a lot of work required to strengthen the system as a whole – in education there is a lot of emphasis on ‘weakest link’ theory, to lift all schools to a minimum standard as a priority,” he said.

“They are working on a new curriculum which is suitable for the Kenyan context, and then training teachers to deliver the curriculum, which can be difficult for teachers who have spent 20 years on old curriculum.”

Mr Kaye said the most important contribution his work could make would be to lift teacher performance across the system.

“Good teachers are the most important factor in children’s learning. The challenge is that teachers do not always have an up-to-date skill set, and to develop a good generation of teachers takes a long time, it’s a 15-20 year process because they have to have been educated well themselves.”

He said that some schools were strong hubs for their local community – offering adult education classes, feeding children or other community-building work – but this was piecemeal and depended on a strong school leadership.

“One of the issues with education, wherever you are, is that in the end the power of people and leadership is second-to-none. Conditions differ from school to school in ways that are difficult to capture. You can often have the same inputs and conditions but get different outcomes because the people are not the same.”

Different countries, different strengths

Mr Kaye said that every country he had worked in was different and each had its own unique assets that it needed to leverage for its success.

“When you travel to different countries, you will always see things that can be applied more broadly in different contexts. Development traverses a range of indicators, and just because you are strong in one area doesn’t mean you can’t learn in others,” he said.

“In Bangladesh the poverty is absolute. Sixty per cent of people are living on less than $2 per day. But on the other hand the system is so big that even a small improvement to primary schools can impact on 20 million children. There is a lot of opportunity for innovation, and people are using that.

“Kuwait is one of the world’s richest countries and they are able to buy in a lot of expertise, but I think there was less of a need or a drive to improve compared to Bangladesh.

“Kenya is materially richer than Bangladesh, and there is a high level of technological trust here. For example there is the MPESA payment system, which allows people to pay for things with a mobile device. In a lot of areas people are using mobiles who have never used a landline, which gives us some opportunities to use SMS-based systems to educate people.

“Kenya’s education system is less-embedded and established than Australia’s, which can create disadvantages but it means that rapid change is easier.

“A lot of innovative things are happening here. Teachers and educational leaders are getting together through organisations like Metis (which offers fellowships and connects educational leaders and innovators in Africa) to drive increases in collective knowledge and work to see how success can be spread around.”

He said the EMPA had prepared him well for the challenges he had faced across the world.

“I was really blown away by it. I’d originally thought I’d like to do an MBA, but I had the chance to do the EMPA instead and from the first few days I was a convert,” he said.

“It gave you the theoretical tools that were relevant to your work, and provided a lot of different models for different situations. The course was also a fantastic chance to meet people from across departments.”

He said his experiences across the world had strengthened his belief in the public sector, and its importance to the community.

“When you travel the world it becomes obvious how important a strong public sector is. When you think about a lot of the things Australians value about our lifestyle and the opportunities we have in Australia, things like our public health system or HECS and the opportunity to have a tertiary education, the public service plays a strong part in them.”

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