Kenya's education system must stop failing poor children

What you need to know:

  • In essence, the policy of lowering admission scores for graduates of public primary schools encouraged the teachers to abdicate their mandate.  Indeed there is no incentive for them to put more effort.
  • Other teachers ensure that they have dealt with their household chores before going to school anytime between 10 and 11am. In another school, the head teacher runs a bar in a nearby town.
  • The biggest learning leaps occur in upper primary level between Standards 4 to 5, and Standards 5 to 6.

It was Liberty Hyde Bailey, an American horticulturist, botanist and cofounder of the American Society for Horticultural Science who said “A garden requires patient labour and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfil good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”

I reflect on this quote because, in my view, our educators need to modify it by replacing garden and plants with students.  It is clear we are failing on the education front and we need a disruption if indeed we want our country to be competitive in the days to come.

I fully support the teachers’ demand for better remuneration, but better terms should not be given carte blanche. They must be tied up with responsibility and performance.

Better pay must be part of a new deal that ensures better education for all of our children.

Consider this sad scenario, which is the actual situation obtaining in most primary schools. There is virtually no learning-taking place in rural schools. 

In one school, the headmaster runs boda boda taxis in a nearby town, and in another the headmaster decided against holding meetings with parents after falling out with the Board of Management. The school now runs on autopilot.

In other rural schools, teachers have employed high school students to sit in for them while they travel and engage in business. The local Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) officials collect bribes as protection fees from absentee teachers.

Other teachers ensure that they have dealt with their household chores before going to school anytime between 10 and 11am. In another school, the head teacher runs a bar in a nearby town.

Parents turn a blind eye to these atrocities on children because the teachers are their relatives or friends and do not want to “spoil” for their kin. Did greater democracy mean that we destroy our children?

A 2013 World Bank Report,Service Delivery Indicators (SDI)paints a grim picture of the happenings in our schools.  Close to 50 per cent of the time, teachers in rural public schools are absent from the classroom.  

This compares unfavourably with private schools where teacher absence from the classroom stands at 31 per cent.  On an eight-hour day teaching schedule, students in public schools receive an average of 2 hours 19 minutes of teaching compared to 3 hours and 18 minutes that private school teachers teach.

Instead of dealing with this glaring problem in public schools, the Government changed the policy of high school admissions by lowering the entry points to competitive high schools. As a result, the average performance of public schools has consistently dropped in the past three years.

In his speech while releasing the 2014 KCPE results, Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi said that of the 880,000 candidates, 436,814 students got more that 251 marks, representing 49.61 per cent of those who sat for the exam, compared to 49.71 per cent last year.

In essence, the policy of lowering admission scores for graduates of public primary schools encouraged the teachers to abdicate their mandate.  Indeed there is no incentive for them to put more effort.

Abolishing of performance rankings for schools could complicate education further since it will have the effect of falsely equalising all schools. The public will know very little, and will have no basis for comparing the worth of schools. 

I would not be opposed to these policies from the government if radical reforms in education were proposed to go with the change in policy.  Such reforms would include general principles of teaching, pedagogy and management strategies used for classrooms. 

Modern teaching must focus more on creative thinking than the present rote learning.  In such reforms, we must bite the bullet and get rid of at least 60 per cent of teachers who are teaching but do not have the minimum knowledge to teach the subject matter and hire more competent teachers. 

The SDI report below shows that less than 40 percent of the teachers have minimum knowledge in the subjects they teach.  There is no basis why the public must foot the bill for substandard teachers when qualified Kenyans languish unemployed on the streets.

Service Delivery Indicators at a glance






Urban Public

Rural Public


Absence from school (per cent)








Absence from classroom ( per cent)








Time spent teaching (hours and minutes)

2h 40m

2h 19m

3h 28m

2h 27m

3h 05m

2h 37m

2h 14m


Minimum knowledge (per cent)









Teaching equipment availability (per cent)








Infrastructure availability (per cent)








Student‐teacher ratio (grade 4)








Students per textbook








Source : World Bank Service Delivery Indicators Report 2013.

The founding father of our nation, the late President Jomo Kenyatta, along with other founding fathers, sought to fight three things: ignorance, poverty and disease.

These three enemies were to be dealt with through education.  But it has not been easy for those in extreme poverty.  In the SDI report, indicators for rural areas where majority of the poor reside are the worst.  This also happens to be the case for urban poor. 

In Kibra, a few young people with the help of some Americans mapped the area revealing all the assets in the sprawling shanty. It emerged that 96 per cent of the schools in Kibra were run by either religious groups or donor organisations. The government has only 4 per cent of the schools, or less than 10 per cent of the Kibra students.

The policy barring bright students from private schools from accessing admissions to competitive schools completely wiped out the dreams of these pupils from the poverty-stricken shanty.  The last time I was in Mathare, it was the same story. 

The failure of government to provide schools in shanties is now being used to deny poor kids opportunities for advancement. We must be considerate and create exceptions to allow these pupils access better education too.

In another 2012 report titledAre our Children Learning? Literacy and Numeracy across East Africa, Twaweza Communications too paints a grim picture of our education. The report says that “the poor do worse everywhere; children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households perform worse on all tests at all ages.”

This report did not surprise me at all since I have observed the mistreatment of children from extreme poverty in schools and society for as long as I have lived.  Teachers’ comments at times are brutal.  

At one time, a teacher told a student: “you are wasting your time here since you will go nowhere as your father is just a farmhand.”  What the teacher thought to be a harmless comment psychologically tormented the student for a long time.

It is important that those who teach young minds undergo child psychology training to make them more empathetic to the plight of the poor. Children from extreme poverty suffer all manner of punishments in school simply because their parents dare not complain.

There is in existence in this country a kind of class apartheid since even parents of these children are segregated against at social events, yet this is not what the bill of rights envisaged.

The Twaweza study picked class three students and administered class two tests in numeracy, English, Kiswahili and a combined test. The results show that:

“a little less than one in three children were able to pass the Kiswahili (32%) and numeracy tests (29%), but only one in six passed the English test (16%). Similarly, less than one in six were able to pass both the literacy and numeracy tests combined (15%). These results imply that the vast majority of pupils are not acquiring basic competencies during the early years of primary school as expected in the national curricula.”

The biggest learning leaps occur in upper primary level between Standards 4 to 5, and Standards 5 to 6. This suggests that many children are acquiring Standard 2 level skills in the later years of their primary education. 

Although the report says Kenya is better than Uganda and Tanzania, less than 50 per cent at the Kenya Certificate of Education level score more than 251 points out of the maximum possible 500.

What should we do to correct the situation?  In my own view, we can radically disrupt our educational sector as follows:

  • With or without policy support, we should create a culture of learning from the best teachers by leveraging on the mobile platform to take content directly to pupils. Pupils can sometimes learn better on their own as some teachers are an impediment to learning. This already is happening in the US where top Universities have developed what they refer to as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at college level. We can start with primary education and move to high school and even at Universities.  We must liberalise education in such a way that it is accessible to all.

  • Get rid of excess teachers who have no understanding of the subject that they teach. It would perhaps be cheaper to send them home with their current salaries and benefits till their retirement age than retaining them and adjusting their salaries upwards when we know they are not adding any value. This is a matter that KNUT should spearhead in order to have better educated teachers from the unemployment pool that we have before other countries take them up.  This will in turn make our country more competitive and productive. Productivity savings would very easily cover the cost of nonproductive teachers. 

  • Transform the current rote learning into creative leaning and encourage creativity, build confidence in pupils from all walks of life. Ensure teachers understand  child psychology at an early stage and build broad capacities in new methods of learning.

  • Enforce the Bill of Rights for our children to reduce the level of discrimination especially in areas of extreme poverty such as shantytowns and rural areas that have been neglected.  This perhaps is the simplest of the interventions that can be made even tomorrow.

Educating all our children is a collective responsibility.  This is the only way we can guarantee ourselves a future of safety and prosperity.  The more we waste our children into crime, alcoholism and other vices, the more we make our country uncompetitive.

Commenting on education, Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”  We owe it to our children to give them intelligence and character.

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter:@bantigito


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