Education in Kenya: The Basics

Like few other places in the world, the Kenyan education system is brand new again, having begun ambitious plans to reshape itself in 2003. Under the Ministry of Education, the country is currently working toward the twins goals of (1) “universal primary education by 2005 and (2) education for all by 2015.”

Some background…

Before 2003, a “school tax” ($650 a year) that far exceeded the average annual income of most Kenyan families ($371 annually per capita) prevented the majority of the country’s children, especially those form rural areas, from attending school.

In January 2003, the government of Kenya introduced free primary education for all children (students still must pay fees for school uniforms). This initiative was followed by a huge influx of students, estimated at 1.8 million, many of whom were the first members of their family to attend school. Kenya now spends slightly more than 30% of its national budget on education.

8th grade, it all comes down to this…

8th grade is the Super Bowl in the Kenyan education system and culminates in an exam that makes the SAT look like a sudoku puzzle taken for extra credit. Similar to the US, Kenya is on an 8-4-4 system-with middle school and elementary school rolled into one-and 8th grade culminates with the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam, given in English. The exam determines what type of high school students can attend (there are three, below).

The discrepancy in the quality of resources, facilities and teachers at these schools is dramatic (in the schools we visit, at the bottom of the spectrum: 3 students per desk, 3 to a text book, 1-100 teacher-to-student ratio). The link between which type of schools students attend and success markers—college enrollment, employment, income, depth of knowledge—is rock-solid. The test is designed as a way to manage the county’s inadequate resources, to (at the age of 13) separate the wheat from the chaff, and to propel students with “promise.” The exam is a way to use the countries resources to cultivate the few.

The twin blind-spots here seem to be:

(1) the system does not take into account the quality of the Primary schools and the education students receive there. There is a big difference between schools in rural, often tribal communities like Sereolipi and the comparatively affluent neighborhoods of Nairobi.

(2) These kids are young. Visiting these schools, I think back to when I was in 8th grade, when my sole and burning ambition was not to be fat. Additionally, a large majority of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Primary school are 1st generation learners, the first members of their family ever to go to school. It takes time, encouragement, maturity and role models to develop academic skills and ambitions.

Still, we meet many young students in Primary schools driven and focused. Working the system. Fighting back against the wind.

Footnote: These exam results are also used to evaluate Primary Schools and the allocation of government resources, schools with higher scores get more, deepening the divide.

The Division…

There are three classifications of secondary schools in Kenya.

  • District Schools—This is the catch-all rung on the schooling ladder and accepts all students. Students who have attended these schools score the lowest on the nation-wide 8th grade exams. Although there seem to be no official numbers, it is safe to say that an extremely small number of students who attend these schools go on to college.

  • Provincial Schools—These are very good schools, accepting only students who score 380 or higher (out of 500) on the 8th grade placement exam.

  • National Schools—These schools house the best and brightest of Kenya’s young scholars. Most of the students go on to a University education. Many of the members of Kenya's current government attended national schools.

The Numbers...

  • 1.8 Million: Number of students enrolled in Primary school.
  • 40%: Official, nation-wide transition rate from Primary to secondary school. Schools we visit cite this number to be much, much lower.
  • 6%: Number of Kenyans who said they attended high school, in a recent nation-wide survey of all Provinces and Districts. 64% of these people identified themselves as working, although 41% reported that they were "self-employed."
  • 7: Number of public universities in Kenya (there are 5 private universities).
  • 40,000 Number of Kenyans currently enrolled in University (.1% of the total population).

For a good, basic overview of the Kenyan education system, see the Kenya Institute of Education.

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