World Bank warns of a crisis in Kenya’s education system

What you need to know:

  • The bank sees this is as a problem, given in the future of work, functional literacy is a survival skill.

Children going through the Kenyan education system are losing an estimated three years of learning, the World Bank has said.

“What this means is that a Kenyan child can expect to go to school for 11 years out of which they will only do learning worth eight years,” said the bank’s senior education specialist Huma Waheed at their offices in Nairobi.

“When years of schooling are adjusted for quality of learning, this is only equivalent to 7.8 years, a learning gap of 2.9 years. This means Kenyan school-going children are having a learning loss of close to three years. Going to school doesn’t mean that children are learning and this is mainly because of the quality of education,” she added.


Despite completion of secondary education, more than 40 per cent of 19- and 20-year-olds score below the basic literacy level.

Due to this, she added, children who have gone through the education system in Kenya can only reach 52 per cent of their potential.

But even with these seemingly dreadful news, Kenya was recognised as one of the few developing countries showing accelerated progress for its accomplishment through technology-enabled teacher coaching, teacher guides, and the delivery of one textbook per child (in both English and Kiswahili).

The bank did surveys in seven Sub-Sahara countries and found that on average, three in 10 fourth-grade teachers had not mastered the language curriculum they were teaching. That notwithstanding, 94 per cent of Kenyan teachers had done so.

“We’ve found there’s a global crisis in learning, especially in developing countries. We’re not doing enough to invest in human capital development. We need to differentiate between schooling and learning to realise positive education outcomes,” Ms Waheed said.


“We need to invest in learning and not schooling so that when children come to school and put in all those years, then they are getting all those years’ worth of learning so that they have the skills to be able to compete in the global environment.”

She further noted that investment needs to be directed at all students and not just to delivery of the curriculum and syllabus. “This means assessing learning capacity throughout the year,” she said, adding, much effort needs to go into developing learners’ skills to be able to attain their productivity level and contribute to the economy.

This, Ms Waheed said, spelt the need to invest more in our people.

The education specialist spoke during the International Day for Poverty Eradication on October 17 under the theme: Recognition and Eradication of Learning Poverty by 2030.

To spotlight this crisis, the World Bank announced a new learning target, which aims to cut by at least half the global rate of learning poverty by 2030. The bank defines learning poverty as the percentage of 10-year-olds (the age around which most children graduate from primary school) who cannot read and understand a simple story.

The new target aligns with the Human Capital Index, a new method the bank launched earlier in the year to capture the amount of human capital a child born today could expect to attain by the age of 18.


It is aimed at building the political commitment for accelerating investment in people to bolster human capital development efforts.

The HCI will track countries’ progress in health, education, and survival, to quantify the contribution of health and education to the productivity of the next generation of workers. Countries can use it to assess how much income they are foregoing because of human capital gaps, and how much faster they can turn these losses into gains if they act to plug the gaps now. It will be updated periodically to monitor progress.

The HCI (2018) ranked Kenya on the 94th position with a 0.52 score, tying in with Algeria — emerging among the top African countries in the ranking and second only to Mauritius on the continent.

Given the current status of what countries invest in people how much productivity can they reach when they become adults?” she posed, and noted, “Globally we can only reach 40 per cent of our full potential given the state of the education and health system.”

The bank sees this is as a problem, given in the future of work, functional literacy is a survival skill.

The economic and social cost of adult illiteracy to developing countries is estimated at more than US$5 billion a year

Further, the bank said the world needed to recognise elimination of learning poverty as being a basic building block in attainment of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in education and others.

Global Director, Education Global Practice, at the World Bank, Jaime Saavedra, explained that the assessment developed jointly with UNESCO Institute of Statistics involved considered data from cross-national and national assessments of reading administered on children by the end of primary school, and their ability to read fluently, at certain level of complexity and speed, and understand what they are reading.


“We said let’s set a relatively low bar and argue that all children should be able to read and understand a simple text by age 10 …. we have assessed how many children cannot pass this relatively low bar in each country,” he said from Washington during the celebrations video-linked to African countries live. “These provide what are among the first estimates and the most comprehensive, for low- and middle-income countries of the historical rate of progress in improving reading proficiency globally

Reading is a foundational skill. It is a precondition for active participation in society — a gateway to all other learning outcomes.

The results show that 53 per cent of all children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read age-appropriate material by age 10, and that at current rates of improvement, this “learning poverty” rate will have fallen only to 43 per cent by 2030.

The bank warns that the high rate of “learning poverty” and slow progress in low- and middle-income countries is an early warning that all the ambitious SDG targets in education (and likely of social progress) are at risk.

The statement by the WB says countries keen on infrastructural development often underinvest in human capital, thereby missing an opportunity to create a virtuous cycle between physical and human capital and growth and poverty reduction. In response to the risks to stability and prosperity posed by this underinvestment, the World Bank Group has launched the Human Capital Project (HCP).


The Bank warns that a pool of unemployed adults is a political risk as well as an economic concern. At times, it leads to a wave of emigration, social unrest, or political upheaval.

Insufficient economic opportunities for an increasingly educated population were a major catalyst of the 2010—11 Arab Spring.

But the bank also emphasised that the first a thousand days when the human brain and critical child development are happening a critical window to these results.

The most rapid development occurs in the first 1,000 days of life, for learning to see, talk, walk, and think.

While the human brain continues to develop and change throughout life, the most rapid period of brain growth and its period of highest plasticity is in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life, even in the uterus and responsive caregiving, adequate nutrition and helping the child to transit into the education system.

The report acknowledged nearly a quarter of children worldwide are stunted, while half of the world’s population is not covered by essential health services leaving many vulnerable to poor cognitive development and hampering their ability to learn.