A decision by the Teachers Service Commission to give interns an edge in the ongoing recruitment of permanent employees has raised a fuss that is frivolous and tenuous.
Job seekers hoping to join the commission on permanent terms say that by increasing the marks of interns from 10 to 30 in the hiring process, the employer is literally locking out those who have never had a chance to work as apprentices but still possess the appropriate credentials.
From the point of view of the principles of justice, transparency and fairness, the argument holds water in that all recruitment candidates should be subjected to a non-discriminatory interview process that gives prime recognition to the academic credentials that give one suitability to teach.
Yet this point of view fails to recognise the importance of experience, no matter how short, in filling staffing shortages across the country at a time when schools are trying to recoup lost time after the pandemic disrupted education in a scale never seen before.
For the TSC, hiring people who can hit the ground running to help learners whose brains have been deprived of stimulation for close to a year, makes more sense than recruiting those who will require months or longer to get attuned to the learning and teaching environment.
Even before the pandemic hit, the basic education sector was already grappling with teacher shortages running into more than 100,000, leaving thousands of learners behind even in basic skills such as reading, writing and math.
When the TSC, the government’s single biggest employer with more than 330,000 employees, introduced a policy of hiring interns in 2019, it was prompted by the need to prevent the teacher-shortage crisis from deteriorating to insuperable levels.
It was a prescient policy that allowed the commission to populate schools with young, fully trained education graduates or diploma holders on the cheap, but who are able to dispense valuable services to learners rather than leaving them unattended while waiting for the government to allocate funds for the recruitment of permanent and pensionable teachers.
When the idea of hiring intern teachers was first broached in 2009, the Kenya National Union of Teachers rushed to court to stop it, arguing that it contravened employment laws.
The union, however, withdrew the case after an agreement with the TSC that the interns would be gradually absorbed in the commission on permanent terms or given priority during recruitment.
Thousands of intern teachers are now working in schools though on a rather meagre salary of Sh15,000 for those in primary schools and Sh20,000 for those in secondary.
This exiguous salary, which the TSC calls an allowance, has served as a discouragement to thousands of fully trained education graduates and diploma holders and many have given it the cold shoulder.
It is natural then that those who spurned the offer must feel hard done by when they see those who chose to go through the pains of working for a pittance given priority in the race for permanent employment.
Most organisations, both private and public, place a huge premium on experience while recruiting.
And most have a clear preference for those who have worked with them as interns because they know their way around the work environment, have already created friendships, and are well familiar with the targets, deadlines and objectives.
Most media houses, for example, give priority to part-time correspondents when recruiting for full-time reporters or editors.
Permanent employees without prior internship experience take time to settle and adjust to the work environment, much to the consternation of employers because the recruits start earning full salaries and allowances on day one yet may not get engaged in any meaningful work until the third or fourth month.
A university education graduate or a diploma holder who has worked for a year as an intern stands head and shoulders above those without internship experience.
The interns get a valuable opportunity to learn and understand the modern-day learner who is erratic, digitally aware and more exposed to the outside world than previous learners.
They get to intimately understand the school environment and the intrigues and intricacies of classroom teaching, peculiar out-of-class experiences as well as come into contact with the more informal world of little kings, queen bees and bullies among the students.
The interns also allow their more experienced colleagues more time to deal with more important issues in school such as syllabus completion, discipline, career guidance, and individualised teaching.
Interns would generally lend themselves to more humdrum but critical tasks such as collating learners’ reports, preparing class lists based on the information given by the veterans, providing cover for absent teachers, and working with prefects to keep a record of disciplinary cases.
In the era of Covid-19 when many schools are smarting from disruptions, principals and senior teachers have little time or motivation to take new recruits through orientation of any kind as they rush to repair the damage caused by the virus.
Instead, they are more than glad to welcome well-motivated and positive employees excited by the improved pay and the exalted status of permanent and pensionable.
By giving the interns a 30 per cent grade head-start in the ongoing recruitment process, the TSC is being provident and prudent. The policy will also gain more traction among unemployed teachers, and our schools will be better off for it.