An Overview of the Kenyan Education System: Issues and Obstacles to Learning

Jan 14

An Overview of the Kenyan Education System: Issues and Obstacles to Learning

Education is perceived as one of the principal motivating factors behind national economic development and it is one of the most effective ways in which

individuals can ever hope to achieve better opportunities and a higher standard of living in Kenya.

Kenya has invested heavily into its education system over the past twenty years.
Structure of Primary and Secondary Education

Children begin primary classes around the age of three years old. They enter a nursery program for roughly two years before commencing Standard 1. Depending on their final KCPE (Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education) examination marks at the end of Standard 8, students may or may not qualify to attend a secondary high school. Secondary school in Kenya has four levels, forms 1 – 4 and is completed only when students finish their KCSE (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education) examinations. Again, student grades play a key role in determining whether or not students are able to attend university.

Due to the ethnic diversity in Kenya (42 different tribes), children begin school speaking a variety of languages. Because of this, all students study their subject material predominantly in Kiswahili up until Standard 3 in a homeroom classroom. It is not until Standard 4 students are immersed in English and must follow a strict timetable of up to 10 lessons a day. The subjects taught in the primary grades include Math, English, Kiswahili, Science, Social Studies and Christian Religious Studies. Depending on the location of the school, students may study Islam. Looking through the Kenyan Primary Education curriculum documents, I noticed that art and music were indeed included in the syllabus. However, after inquiring after this, I discovered that art and music have been cut from the timetable due of the cost and perceived unimportance of the subject material

From personal observation I can say with confidence that the approach to education in Kenya is largely teacher centered and by the book. Teachers strictly adhere to the Kenyan syllabus for both primary and secondary students and textbooks are a teacher’s primary resource during lessons. Standardized examinations are the sole assessment techniques that I have noted being used in regular classrooms thus far to report student progress. Students in every grade level must complete these standardized examinations at the end of each term, including students in preprimary programs. Grades are critical indicators of success and failure in the lives of students for they ultimately determine whether or not one is able to advance to secondary school. As I mentioned earlier, students must complete their KCPE examinations at the end of standard 8. These are national, standardized exams in all subject areas and are worth a total of 500 marks. Students must achieve a minimum of 250 marks if they wish to enter secondary school. In order to graduate High School students must complete their KCSE examinations, and achieve high grades if they wish to enter university.

I would like to point out that Kenyan teachers have excellent classroom management. Most of the students that I have observed are incredibly well behaved and show a level of focus and respect that I have not seen on such a large scale before. I am impressed by teacher’s classroom control especially considering the large class sizes that they handle on a daily basis. I attribute this classroom control to the use of corporal punishment, which is considered to be the norm in Kenya. It has also been argued that students’ passivity in the classroom dates back to British colonial days and has been an aid and a challenge in encouraging students to take responsibility for their learning (Ackers and Hardman, 2001)

Universal Free Primary Education

Another key point that warrants discussion is the implementation of FPE, Universal Free Primary Education, in Kenya. Many of the challenges that the Education system currently faces are directly linked to the implementation of FPE. G. J. Cheserek and V. K. Mugalavai argue that the main problems facing the education system are, “issues of access, equity, quality, relevance and efficiency in the management of educational resources,” (2012, 473). The following discussion will elaborate on such issues.

As of January 2003, the NARC government established the FPE program to satisfy the pledge it made during the 2002 general elections in order to provide opportunities to disadvantaged children (Makori). This project was a great success in terms of the increased enrollment of disadvantaged children. More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools across the country, (Makori). However, the country was not yet prepared to accommodate such a large increase as can be seen by such drastic consequences. Few primary schools were built to accommodate the influx of students, which led to overcrowding and congested classrooms. There was a shortage of teachers at the time, which led to the employment of unqualified teachers (Makori). Schools lost revenue from the lack of tuition fees, which led to a strain on teaching materials and resources as well as limited physical facilities (Makori). Lastly, teachers’ challenges increased as their class sizes grew.

Although Primary School tuition fees have been abolished, several factors continue to impede access to education in Kenya. Many parents still cannot afford to pay for school uniforms, textbooks, transport, meals and supplies, without which students cannot attend school (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). These fees are especially difficult for marginalized children such as females, orphans, and the financially underprivileged. Poor health and the inability to seek medical attention also impede many children’s access to education and negatively affect their academic performance, (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). Many children cannot attend school due to intestinal worms, malaria, and other health concerns such as malnutrition, which can seriously affect their cognitive development. A teacher at the Kiambui Primary School informed me that many of the students arrived at school without having eaten breakfast and who did not bring lunches. Many teachers, despite their low salaries, felt obligated to bring food for the most needy. Lastly, there is an issue of distance and transportation. For some, transportation is unaffordable and the distance to school is too great to walk, which renders the possibility of attending school impossible (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011)

Despite advancements in accessing primary education, access to secondary education has remained quite low in comparison. There are a number of reasons that account for this. For instance, secondary schools still require tuition payments. Although these fees have been reduced, it is still quite expensive for many. Distance also plays a major role for some in accessing education. As of 2011 there were approximately 26, 000 primary schools and 6, 500 secondary schools spread across the country, which meant that many communities did not have a nearby high school (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). Poor KCPE examinations scores at the end of Standard 8 also create a barrier in accessing Secondary School. 2004 KCPE results show that a much higher percentage of students from private schools qualify for secondary school than public school, which has led to an overrepresentation of private school graduates attending top Kenyan Secondary Schools (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). The quality of primary education, so it seems, acts as a serious barrier to obtaining secondary education. Finally, there is limited space in secondary school so parents and students alike must compete for placement in one if not one of the elite National schools.

Yet another interesting point to note is that FPE does not enable all children equitable access to quality education; the key word here being ‘quality.’ There is an alarming difference between the quality of education that public schools offer vs. that of private schools as noted earlier. After visiting both private and public schools I can attest to the difference. The five private schools that I visited had a low teacher to student ratio, more resources and materials for students, an adequate amount of desks for their student body, as well as electricity and running water. On the contrary, some of the public schools that I visited had class sizes of 60 to 80 students, limited electricity, insufficient textbooks and desks for students.

There is much speculation that the poor performance of public school graduates on the KCPE examinations is due to a number of specific factors. For example, because of the increased enrollment in primary schools in 2003, teachers had to contend with extraordinarily large class sizes made up of a diverse range of students whose preparedness varied. Circumstances such as these diminish a teacher’s ability to differentiate their instruction and give individualized attention. Resources and materials are spread thin and mobility within classrooms becomes limited. It is thought that this large influx of “first generation learners” has contributed to declining test scores in the public school system (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). It is also thought that poor performance in primary schools is perpetuated by an increasing stratification between public and private schools. This disparity becomes all the more clear when considering the disparity between the KCPE scores of public and private school graduates (Glennerster and Kremer, 2011). Under qualified teachers has also been stated as a factor as well as corruption.

Obstacles to Learning Within the Classroom

“For Kenya to be internationally competitive and economically viable, the Republic of Kenya requires an education system that will produce citizens who are able to engage in lifelong learning, learn new skills quickly, perform more non – routine tasks, capable of more complex problem-solving, take more decisions, understand more about what they are working on, require less supervision, assume more responsibility, have more vital tools, have better reading culture, quantitative analysis, reasoning and expository skills” (Cheserek and Mugalavai, 2012, 472).

As this statement explains, Kenya needs a strong education system that will train individuals to meet the growing economic needs of society. However, as discussed previously, evidence shows that students in public primary schools are achieving significantly lower their private school counterparts. There are a number of factors that can account for this disparity, which directly relate to the quality of primary education and the interactions between teacher and pupil. In 2001, Jim Ackers and Frank Hardman conducted a study on classroom interactions in primary schools in Kenya and found that the predominant teaching style was characterized by the ‘transmission of knowledge’ and was teacher focused in nature. Students were motivated to participate but answered preplanned, ‘closed’ questions and lessons often involved a high degree of choral response and repetition of memorized information (Ackers and Hardman, 2001). They go on to write that, “there were few examples of interaction between teacher and pupils that extended or even encouraged higher order thinking because of the domination of the recitation mode, where typically the teacher asks a series of pre-planned questions, initiates all the topics, and rarely interacts with the substance of the pupils’ answers except to evaluate them” (Ackers and Hardman, 2001, 12). Interestingly enough, this literature mirrors my own observations. I also noted the predominance of a rote learning style of teaching while visiting a number of primary schools. The teachers that I observed lectured on a topic for a large portion of a lesson and then questioned students to see what they were able to absorb. I did not observe any inter pupil interactions or discussions during class time. Rather, students spent the remainder of the class silently copying notes and answering questions from the board. I observed this pattern across multiple subjects and classrooms.

Acker and Hardman point out that impediments to learning also include a lack of teaching resources and poor physical conditions of classroom spaces (2001). From what I have noted, the blackboard and student textbooks are the primary teaching aids in a lot of schools.

Another obstacle to learning within primary grades is the size of the class. In many cases, teachers can have upwards to 80 students at a time in a regular sized classroom, which creates a congested environment. In such cases it is virtually impossible for a single teacher to meet the needs of every individual learner. Differentiation becomes ineffectual, as does mobility within the classroom. Resources are spread thin and many struggling learners are overlooked.

In addition to overcrowded classrooms, teachers face many challenges, which in turn affect student performance. Firstly, they are under a great deal of pressure to teach all of the curriculum outcomes in order to prepare students for their examinations. Combined with a lack of funding and classroom space, teachers are at a loss when it comes to planning creative lessons. Secondly, teachers face a strong tradition of teaching practice that is both historically and culturally embedded. Attitudes towards change can be stubborn, making transformation a slow process. Thirdly, teachers lack an appropriate amount of support and assistance within the classroom as well as opportunities for professional development. As it stands, resource and literacy programs are virtually non-existent in schools, and the government cannot afford to pay for assistants within the classroom. Few primary schools can even afford a library. Fourthly, and in part due to distance, there are barriers to communication between home and school, which negatively impacts student progress. Lastly, primary school teachers work for very low wages, which can be demotivating for some, ultimately affecting their professional pedagogical practice. For many teachers and students alike, school can be a truly sink or swim endeavor.

Special Needs Education and Inclusion

My insight into special needs education derives from two sources. Firstly, I have audited two Masters level courses on special needs education in Kenya entitled Guidance and Counseling of Special Needs students and Issues and Problems in Special Needs Education. Secondly, I have worked for a short time at a private special needs school entitled Bright Hills. In addition to Bright Hills, I have also visited three different ‘Special Units’ in public schools: Kaimbui Primary School, Kilimani Primary School, and Muchatha Primary School. I would like to share some of the pertinent information that I have learned.

According to my own personal experience and research, special needs education is predominantly segregated from general education classes. Many primary and secondary schools have classes termed ‘Special Units.’ These classes are home to students who have a wide range of learning needs, which “cannot” be met by regular classroom teachers. I have been told that Special Units are inclusive in the sense that all students who have a disability or a special need share a common learning space. It is the role of the special education teacher to tackle the challenging task of differentiating lessons for many students who have varying degrees of learning dependency. Many of the students of Bright Hills Special Needs School are taught the regular primary school curriculum. However, other special needs students are given vocational training, which I observed at the Kiambui Special Unit and the Deaf and Blind Unit at the Kilimani Primary School. Learning skills such as beading and weaving give students the potential to earn a livelihood outside of school and become productive members of society.

Although the Kenyan Minister of Education approved a policy in 2009 that supports the equitable access to quality education and training of learners with special needs, special needs education still faces many challenges. The factors that hinder the provision of education for special needs learners include vague guidelines that describe the implementation of an inclusive policy, insufficient data on children with special needs, ineffective assessment tools, curriculum, and a lack of qualified professionals, (Lynch, McCall, Douglas, McLinden, Mogesa, Mwaura, Njoroge, 2011). Many of the discussions in which I participated in my class: Issues and Problems in Special Needs Education mirrored this argument. Major issues that were discussed include the stigmatization of persons with disabilities, a lack of funding to equip teachers with the resources, materials and support required to meet learners needs, a lack of curriculum adaptations, differentiation, appropriate methodology and qualified personnel, inappropriate and biased assessment measures and the misdiagnosis of learning disabilities, which leads to the misplacement of Students in Special Units.

I have also had several discussions concerning the implementation of inclusive educational practices within Kenyan Schools. Many of my classmates believe that inclusion is indeed the way forward in reforming the issues inherent in special needs education. Others however, believe that inclusive education is too ambitious a reform to make. Dr. Mary Runo stated in a lecture that she is not certain that inclusive education is what Kenya presently needs. Rather, the focus of reform should be on government policy and persistent negative attitudes towards disabilities.

Although inclusive practices are in a fledgling state in Kenya, there are a few successful cases. Take for example the Kilimani Primary School, which is the only school in Nairobi that incorporates the hearing and visually impaired into general classrooms. Numerous supports are provided to students such as braillers, translators, adaptations, and individual assistance. The Kilimani School also has a segregated Special Unit for those who are deaf or blind as well as a Special Unit specifically for those who are deaf and blind, both of which are well equipped with qualified and dedicated teachers as well as a diverse range of teaching aids and resources. It is common practice for a Primary school to pull struggling students out of the regular classroom and place them in a Special Unit for a short time until they can successfully transition back into a regular classroom. The Kyangoma Primary School has 68 special needs learners, the majority of which study in a Special Unit. However, students who have physical disabilities or are highly functioning cognitively are integrated into general classrooms in order to follow the regular school curriculum. Although integration does not equate inclusion, it is evidence that there is a growing acceptance of inclusive practices. Overall, I would argue that special needs learners are segregated from regular classrooms for the most part and that levels of inclusive practice vary from school to school, depending on financial resources, teachers’ attitudes, and community support.


It is difficult to articulate all that I have learned about the Kenyan education system in the past twelve weeks, as my experiences have been diverse and I have come to understand the cultural context within which this system works. The education system in Kenya has been undergoing considerable change since the induction of Universal Free Primary Education in 2003. Despite the many deep rooted and interconnected problems that impede equitable access to quality education, reformation is high on the government’s list of priorities. One thing that I can confidently attest to is the unquestionable confidence and positivity that I have encountered in many Kenyans who strongly believe in the advancement of the education system. Kenya’s future is bright as long as these discussions continue and individuals strive to make change.

Adapted from: Students for Development Blog

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