Education in Kenya: Challenges & More Challenges

In Kenya there is no such thing as a free education and the educational system relies heavily on an outdated British model of education. What does this mean for children from the many slums of Nairobi?

Though primary schools do not charge tuition, poor parents are required to buy uniforms, textbooks and, most importantly, remember to give the teacher a “monetary thank you gift” each term. The schools in the slums which are accessible to poor people are poorly run, staffed by uneducated teachers, are not accountable to any oversight groups, use beatings and berating as a way to encourage students, and often are set up to generate income for the head of the school. Parent’s who enroll their children in these schools want to ensure their children are getting an education but do not know enough to question the methods used. Except for an exceptional few, most of the kids get just enough education so they know to read, write and do basic math; but do not get the quality of education that will make a difference in their lives.

When I first started working in the Kawangware slums, I was happy our primary kids were in school, but a visit to the school left me upset because the conditions were so poor. I tolerated this for two years and finally, last year, I made the decision that something would have to change; if we were going to help the students they needed a much better primary education. After many discussions, mainly about how to pay for improved schools, the decision was reached to move the kids to a private primary school. So in 2018, we went from paying about $100 per year per primary student to paying $700 per year per student. Seeing the kids this year in a great learning environment, knowing they won’t be beaten or berated, and watching them become literate in English, in my mind, makes it worth every extra dollar we are spending.

At the end of primary school students sit for what is called the KCPE exam. Based on the results, students are qualified for one of the four levels of secondary education; with 1 being the best and 4 being the lowest. In the past most of the students from our program qualified for level 3 and 4 schools. These schools also use questionable methods for education as they are using a British model curriculum; our older students have struggled to do well in even these low level secondary schools. The problem is a lot to do with teaching methods and teaching subjects like physics to students who have low English comprehension when what the kids desire is to learn things that will help change their lives.

It is more of a challenge with our older secondary students, but we keep doing what we can. In April we introduced computer learning as a means to help students be able to review subjects where they are struggling. We have also hired tutors to work with the students during term breaks, with a special emphasis being put on math & science. Slowly these older students are improving enough that they should graduate with grades good enough to qualify for a technical school.

One major thing we did identify as causing all of our students to struggle in school is their poor comprehension of English. They know the words but they often don’t know the meaning, or the proper use of, the word. Not understanding English makes it especially challenging to do well in secondary school; Especially in English taught subjects like biology, geography, history and others. In November, I will be going to Nairobi for a few weeks, and with the help of a wonderful teacher, we are going to do several weeks of English comprehension. Doing this, especially for those entering secondary school in January, should make learning easier.

Then there is Kiswahili; It puzzled me that our students would get poor grades in their native language. After investigating, I learned that the kids speak a slang version of Swahili and in school they are taught and tested in formal Kiswahili. So we have now added books, newspapers and other education materials written in Kiswahili to our library. We will see after the late fall exams if this approach is working.

The more we work with our students who are preparing to enter secondary school, the better results. This year two of our students, Maureen and Bravin, did well enough on their KCPE exams to qualify for a tier 2 schools and, though much more expensive, the results we are seeing in these two bright young people makes this a wise investment.

Working with the Kenyan educational system is challenging especially when you see the negative impact on our students. Though it is easy to get discouraged, I find that whenever we are faced with a new challenge that the team working together is able to find solutions. Is our system perfect? No. But when I see Maureen reading “Great Expectations”, our primary students excelling in English comprehension, and know that next year we will have two more secondary students qualify for tier 2 schools; I know in our own small way we are making a difference.

I leave for Kenya on November 22 and as always look forward to spending time with the kids who have finally settled on a name for me, Boss Lady.