Are children in Kenya learning enough in school?

Parents’ concerns about how much their children are learning in school are ubiquitous all over the world

School children attend school in Kenya. Credit: GPE/Fazle Rabbani

‘What are they teaching in schools nowadays?’

Parents of school going children all over the world ask themselves this question often before their children graduate. In Kenya, the media has added voice to the parents’ concern. They did so very rightfully.

The Daily Nation article on January 18 reported that the Kenya National Examinations Council found that most grade 3 students cannot read English, the medium of instruction, or Kiswahili, the local language.

This finding is similar to findings from another study by UWEZO published in December 2016. The UWEZO study found that only 3 out of 10 grade 3 students can do grade 2 mathematics. The study also found that learning outcomes are even lower in rural areas and among children from poorer households.

At grade 3 Kenyan children are supposed to be able to read a paragraph of five simple sentences and do addition and subtraction of double digit numbers. It’s a pity that many of them are not able to do so.

Why learning outcomes are important?

Children’s ability to read, write and count, especially at early grades, has a significant relationship with how they achieve various aspects of personal, social and economic wellbeing later in their lives. This is especially true for girls. Brookings Institution’s excellent book What Works in Girls’ Education is a comprehensive repository of evidence.

Improved learning outcomes contribute to national economic growth and reduction in poverty level as well.

It is estimated that more than 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all the children in low-income countries were able to read.

The average level of learning is a strong measure of the health of an education system. This is why learning outcomes have become an important issue in discussions and debates about education, much to the relief of exasperated parents who thought their voice would never be reflected in policy forums.

What factors impact learning outcomes in Kenya?

Multiple factors contribute to low levels of learning outcomes for children in Kenya. Overarching issues like education policy are well discussed in the 2012 Brookings paper Financing for a fairer and more prosperous Kenya. The 2013 Kenya Service Delivery Indicators Study by the World Bank categorized education sector issues into the following broad areas:

  • Teacher competency and performance: The study found that teachers themselves are often not equipped with the knowledge and skills to teach children. Only about 40% of the teachers surveyed under the study had the minimum knowledge required to teach. This problem is compounded with the fact that teachers are often absent from school, and even when they are in school, they have to do other things than teaching. Students miss valuable instruction time and activities.
  • Appropriate and adequate learning materials: While Kenyan schools enjoy reasonably good infrastructure and other teaching materials like blackboards, furniture, pens and paper, they run short of textbooks. The study showed that a textbook is shared by up to 3 students in many schools limiting children’s ability to learn. There are also questions about the suitability of textbooks for young children.
  • Effective assessment and follow-up actions: Robust data and analysis of the education indicators are missing in Kenya, leading to an absence of effective action to improve learning outcomes. There are several sources of quality data on learning outcomes available in the country but these are usually not correlated with other input data like teacher deployment or school grants.

What Kenya and its partners are doing to improve learning

The Primary Education Development (PRIEDE) program in Kenya, supported by a GPE grant of US$88.4 million, has a strong focus on improving learning outcomes, especially numeracy outcomes.

The program was conceptualized as a sister program to the DFID and USAID supported TUSOME program, which focuses on improving literacy outcomes.

Other development partners, especially UNICEF and Canada, also provide critical support to improve the education system in the country.

PRIEDE has already printed and distributed more than 2.3 million copies of new mathematics textbooks for grades 1 and 2 and trained more than 70,000 teachers and head teachers in the new teaching methodologies.

The project has supported 4,000 schools in preparing improvement plans in order to reduce the student/teacher and student/textbook ratios, provide better water and hygiene facilities, especially for girls, and buy additional teaching and learning materials as necessary. These schools are about to receive grants to act on their plans.

The government is developing a new and more effective curriculum, introducing ICT for teaching and learning and new measures for school management. These, as well as the PRIEDE and TUSOME projects, are the right steps towards improving learning outcomes for Kenyan children. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: Kenya


Senior Education Specialist, Global Partnership for Education
Fazle Rabbani is the country lead for GPE programs in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Lesotho. Fazle’s main area of interest is education governance and how different governance models impact access...

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