Monday, September 01, 2008

Education in Kenya

First of all, a disclaimer – I’m only going on what I’ve learned, so I apologize if the details are not quite right. If they aren’t and you know so, let me know!

In urban areas, most children go to a type of kindergarten before the begin class one. There is Baby school for age 3, Nursery for age 4, and Pre-unit for age 5. Upcountry, however, there may not be teachers available, so kids may begin right away with class one at age six. If they do go to kindergarten, they generally know how to read and write before beginning class one.

Primary School

Primary school consists of eight classes, and the school year goes from January to December. There are three semesters of three months each, and then a one month school break in April, August, and December. At the end of each class in November, all children from baby class (three year olds!!!) to class eight sit National Exams which cover the full year’s material. If a student doesn’t pass, they stay back in the class/level until they are able to pass. At the end of class eight, students sit exams that cover everything they have done in all of primary, and the results of these exams determine what kind of secondary school they get into. There is incredible pressure, as three days of exams at age thirteen basically determine a student’s entire educational (and in many ways, vocational) future. Results are posted at the school and on the internet, and schools are ranked according to how students perform on these standard exams (sound familiar, anyone?) High schools have reputations for how well they perform, too, and only those with certain marks are admitted into certain schools.

As a result of these exams, teaching is very much tailored to what is on the test. The educational style here is very much about rote learning, and so students often have difficulty with critical thinking type activities. For this reason, teachers must be quite explicit as to what are on the exams, because it would be very difficult for kids to extend or adapt what they know if there is a question that is similar, but not exact, to what they have been taught.

Finally, from what I have seen, children are very well behaved in the classroom. The teacher is seen as the master and has all the answers. There is a very high degree of respect for a teacher, and children learn very quickly to behave well in school. Of course, this is probably also due to the fact that if a student misbehaves (or performs poorly on a test, or has a ripped uniform, etc), it is quite common even today for them to be caned. I was asking a primary student about this. “I must keep my book neat or I will be beaten.” Beaten? “Yes, if we are naughty we are beaten.” Oooh. Where? On the hands? On the behind? “Hands, behind, back, legs… anywhere.” And does it hurt? “Oh yes! Yes, it hurts!” I was so shocked to learn that this form of punishment is still alive and well.


Once children have finished Standard 8, their exam results are announced and they wait through the month of January to find out what schools they are accepted to. This depends on their marks from the class 8 exams. The first year of secondary is called Form 1 and it continues up through Form 4.

Many high schools are boarding schools (going to a boarding school is more common than day schools, at least in urban areas), so students do not have to go to a school near their house. The boarding option is more popular, in part, because then students do not have to spend valuable study time commuting. Perhaps this typical schedule will give you an idea why:

5:00 am (as early as 4:30) – Be up and ready for the day
5:00-6:00 – Duties/Chores
6:00 – Breakfast
After breakfast, ~1 hour of personal study, which is compulsory
8:00 – 4:00 – Lessons
After lessons, there are sports, clubs, or personal study until dinner
After dinner, approximately 2 hours of compulsory personal study.
10:30 - Lights out in the dorms
11:00 – Lights out in the study rooms (but some students will continue to study in the hallways till later).

On Saturdays, students get to sleep in… till about 6:00 am… and then spend the first half day in preps (personal study). Generally by lunch time, they are free for the rest of the weekend.

Canadian students just have NO idea!!! Wowzers!

At the end of Form 4, there are exams again that cover everything the students have learned in all four years, and these will determine if they can, and to what kind of colleges students can go to.

Challenges in education

Wherever you go, of course, there are always areas in which to improve, and I have been learning about some of these areas here in Kenya. Two in particular are a dramatic shortage of teachers and a looming strike.

Generally in urban areas, there are “enough” teachers for every level. Upcountry in rural areas, it is common for children to not be able to go to school, perhaps for the three years of kindergarten-type classes before class one, or even in other years. But “enough teachers” is used loosely. There are definitely no class size limit laws here in Kenya, and it is not uncommon to have classes of 60, 70, or even 100 students. In the Nursery Class (age 4) in Mitumba, for example, there are 52 students registered. Fifty- two! Four year olds! Great goodness!!! The teacher does an amazing job teaching them letter sounds, numbers, printing, etc (after all, they must pass their exams!). The school is very proud of the fact that once the children pass Nursery (there is no Baby Class at Mitumba) and Pre-Unit, the children can read and write. Incredible!

The teacher shortage and huge class sizes are made worse in secondary schools, because, in the last election, secondary schools were made to be “free” for all students. (Again, the word free is used loosely. There are no longer tuition fess, but students still have to pay for books, uniforms, room and board, and even in some places have to bring their own mattresses!) Regardless, the drop in prices for secondary school has opened it up to far more students that previously could have attended. However, this dramatic increase in enrolment was not met by an increase in teachers. I don’t know numbers or stats for this (in particular because January is the beginning of the first year of implementation of free secondary), but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what kind of problems this causes in an education system!

Finally, on Monday, teachers in public schools in Kenya are set to go on strike. As far as I understand, a few years back, teachers were promised incremental wage increases over a number of years, but the government stopped well before the increases were complete, saying that there was no more money to continue the program. Teachers are paid very poorly here, earning just over what an average family pays for house help. Teachers have gotten fed up and are asking for the wage increase all at once, because they do not trust the government to carry on with the incremental wage increases that were promised, but the government has said no, there is not enough money, and so teachers have voted to strike beginning January 19. There are two unions – the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET). The government has offered a deal, and KNUT has not accepted it, but KUPPET has, so there is even tension among the two unions, with KNUT calling KUPPET traitors. The government, too, is issuing strong warning against a strike, saying that teacher who strike will be sacked. A solution does not look probable, so it will be interesting to see what the outcome is over the next few days.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll answer them if I can! I’ll try, too, to update with any info I have about the strike, though it may be difficult once I head upcountry. Pole! (poh-lay, meaning sorry!)

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