According to Global Partnership for Education (GPE), no country is better than the quality of its education. Education plays a crucial role in economic development, particularly the acquisition of fundamental reading and numeracy skills during the early stages of learning. This perspective is supported by organisations such as UNESCO and the World Bank.
In the East African region, Kenya has made substantial strides towards providing quality education to its citizens, as mandated by her 2010 Constitution. In 2003, the Government introduced universal free primary education to increase access to education for all. Similarly, the Government is in the process of transitioning the education system from the 8-4-4 curriculum to a more learner-centered and competence-based system to align student learning with the job market needs.
Other initiatives to improve early-grade learning include Kenya Primary Math and Reading Initiative (2011–2014), Primary Education Development (2015-2019), Tusome Project (2015-2022), and the Primary Education Equity and Learning Programme. These initiatives emphasize teacher competencies to enhance early-grade reading and numeracy.
Despite these efforts, learner performance, especially in the early grades, remains dismal. According to the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC), only 46.5 per cent of Grade 3 learners achieved the expected level of reading comprehension, while 42.4 per cent demonstrated proficiency in writing skills. This implies that many lower-grade learners fail to attain the essential 50 per cent or higher mark in numeracy and literacy. Similar disparities in performance were observed at the county level.
This is not just a Kenyan problem. UNESCO data shows that only six out of ten adolescent individuals globally can fulfil minimum competency levels in mathematics and reading. The situation is even worse for developing countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where three-quarters (75 per cent) of Grade 3 learners are unable to perform simple learning tasks like reading ‘The name of the dog is Puppy’, according to a World Bank Report.
These statistics suggest that many learners are not acquiring basic skills, yet they are critical in the overall education success as measured by education outcomes such as completion and transition rates. The situation raises serious questions for policy makers in these countries on what else needs to be done as curriculum reform alone may not address the learning crisis.
Uganda has embarked on changing its lower secondary school curriculum and delivery methods to ensure students skills match the dynamic job market. Like Kenya, Uganda introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997 and Universal Secondary Education (USE) in 2007 to ensure universal access to education. While this led to an increase in enrollment rates, Uganda still faces substantial challenges related to low completion rates and subpar learner performance.
According to reports by UNICEF and UWEZO, Uganda has the highest dropout rates in East Africa, standing at 59 per cent, in stark contrast to Kenya at 21 per cent and Tanzania at 20 per cent. This situation underscores the critical point that providing education for all does not automatically guarantee the provision of quality education.
Moving forward, it is crucial to strike a balance between promoting access to education and delivering quality learning. While government initiatives have expanded access, the quality of education, as evidenced by poor learner performance, remains a significant challenge. Curriculum reforms are a positive step, but their successful implementation requires additional measures.
Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, as outlined in Sustainable Development Goal 4(c), is a critical step. Evidence shows that teachers play a pivotal role in the education system, and their impact on learner performance is well-documented. As such, measures towards the effective transition of teachers in the new curriculum such as comprehensive training in pedagogy and curriculum delivery are very critical.
Evidence suggests that pedagogy and teaching content are more critical for learning than teacher qualifications. Specifically, acquiring teaching methods through experience and mastery of content through training equips teachers with skills needed to effectively convey subject matter. Well-trained teachers can effectively deliver the curriculum, leading to improved academic outcomes. Therefore, assessing and tailoring pre-service and in-service teacher-training programs with a focus on content and pedagogy is essential.
Investing in the professional development of teachers, including reskilling, enhances their capacity to effectively teach the new curriculum. Consequently, newly hired teachers should possess the necessary pedagogical skills and undergo comprehensive induction training to ensure successful implementation. Prioritization of students’ well-being, particularly their mental and emotional health, is equally important. One effective approach is to hire more female teachers to foster a nurturing and supportive environment, especially for lower primary levels. This nurturing environment not only enhances students’ educational outcomes but also equips them better for life beyond the classroom.
In conclusion, the pursuit of economic growth and development hinges on the quality of education. Despite commendable efforts by countries like Kenya and Uganda to expand access to education, the persistently poor learner performance underscores the need for a dual focus on both access and quality. Initiatives to reform the curriculum are a step in the right direction, but they must be accompanied by strategic measures. Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, with a focus on their training in pedagogy and curriculum delivery, is paramount.
Ms Rosemary Murebu is a research fellow on an exchange programme from the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC)
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