Parents in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda must start facing the hard facts that most of their children in schools are not learning. Simply put, children are not acquiring basic reading and numeracy skills during their early years of primary education.

According to a comprehensive study undertaken by Uwezo East Africa, an initiative that promotes access to information and improved service delivery outcomes across the region, more than two-thirds of pupils enrolled at Standard Three level in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania cannot pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy set at the Standard Two level. That means about 70 per cent of Standard Three pupils cannot read, write or count.

However, the problem is far reaching in that about 10 per cent of children in Standard Eight are unable to perform Standard Two level assignments. The situation is worse among the poor, where children from socio-economically disadvantaged households perform poorly in all areas in comparison to their counterparts from affluent backgrounds.

Prof Sarah Ruto, the Regional Manager for Uwezo East Africa, says the study is the most comprehensive of its kind to be undertaken in the region.

Numeracy competencies

“About 350,000 children in more than 150,000 households across the three countries were tested in their ability to perform basic numeracy and literacy tasks at the Standard Two level,” she says.

According to Unesco, Standard Two represents the ground level in which core literacy and numeracy competencies and skills should be acquired in primary schools. However, whereas more than 90 per cent of school-age children are schooling, they are not learning core skills expected at their age and grade level.

Performance in Kiswahili

The Uwezo study that was carried out in 2011, says education seems to have deteriorated. Whereas, on average, only about a third of children in this region possess basic literacy and numeracy skills, only 32 per cent of the Standard Three pupils were able to pass the Kiswahili tests for Standard Two and 29 per cent in numeracy tests.

According to the report, only 16 per cent were able to pass English tests while 15 per cent were able to pass both the literacy and numeracy tests combined. Nonetheless, the study established that most pupils acquired Standard Two level skills in upper primary (between Standard Four and Six).

Individual tests

For instance, about 50 per cent of pupils were able to pass the Standard Two level Kiswahili but pass rates were lower for both English and numeracy.

“Only in Standard Seven do more than two thirds of pupils pass each one of the individual tests,” says the report.

Thus literacy and numeracy skills of most pupils remain low throughout primary school and possibly even after school, especially among primary level dropouts. As many as 20 per cent of children in Standard Seven in East Africa lack Standard Two literacy and numeracy skills.

Equally worrying is the fact that a number of children who are preparing for the end of cycle national exams have no mastery of basic literacy and numeracy skills. There are also concerns pupils in private schools were performing better than their counterparts in public schools, a difference that was markedly high in Tanzania.

The Are our Children Learning? report also highlights regional educational disparities showing that Kenya’s children are ahead of their counterparts in Uganda and Tanzania.

“The pass rate of Kenyan children on the English test is more than double that of Tanzanian children by 39 percentage points higher, and is 29 percentage points higher than children from Uganda,” says the report.

Quite unexpectedly, pupils in Kenya outperformed Tanzanians in Kiswahili by more than 20 percentage points higher, although the language is widely spoken and more developed there than it is in Kenya.

So far, there is nothing for Kenyan pupils to celebrate about in this matter in that their better performance is merely relative.

“In overall terms, it remains the case that at Standard Three, a third of Kenya pupils can pass a Standard Two level test while fewer Ugandan and Tanzanian children can pass,” says Ruto.

For instance, whereas Ugandan children performed worst in Kiswahili and numeracy, subtle differences emerge at higher grades. According to the report, from Standard Six onwards, Ugandan pupils outperform Tanzania’s.

Relative catch up

Subsequently, in Standard Seven, about 80 per cent of Ugandan pupils are able to pass Standard Two level tests compared to 90 per cent of Kenyan children and 66 per cent Tanzania’s. A potential explanation for this relative ‘catch-up’ of Ugandan pupils is possibly wider use of English as the language of instruction in upper primary school in comparison to Tanzania where Kiswahili is the language of instruction.

Nevertheless, despite the highlighted regional disparities, Uwezo’s ranking index shows there are significant differences in test results between districts within individual countries. Of the 320 sampled districts in the region, Kenya’s 21 districts led the pack. The best ten performing districts included Thika West, Kikuyu, Nairobi East, Nyeri South, Gatanga, Kirinyaga, Kajiado North, Imenti South, Ruiru and Gatundu. Thika West had a top mean score of 92.1 per cent while Gatundu ranked tenth with a mean of 85.1 per cent.

The best 10 performing districts in Tanzania obtained a mean score of between 80.2 per cent and 66.3 per cent. In Uganda, the best performing districts had a mean score of between 69.3 per cent and 46.7 per cent.

However, the worst 10 performing districts in the region were all from Uganda. Kenya’s worst performing districts included Samburu North, Tana Delta, Turkana South. Lagdera, Wajir East, Wajir West, Wajir North, Ijara, Turkana Central and Samburu East with a mean of between 41.3 and 26.5 per cent.

Girls outshine boys

However, despite the often highlighted gender disparities in East Africa, the study says girls emerged on top in the Standard Two level tests.

“In fact, on average, girls slightly outperformed boys in all countries and these trends were constant for both literacy and numeracy test scores,” it says.

Sadly, the report is categorical that in some of the worst performing districts, children faithfully attend school, even when they have little to show for it. Nonetheless, the report is an eye pointer of specific failure in each country.

For instance, whereas Kenya has some of the best performing districts in the region, the gap between its best and worst performing districts is quite large, indicating greater disparities in educational achievement than anywhere else in East Africa. Most of the poorly performing districts in Kenya are stacked in arid areas in the Rift Valley, North Eastern and at the Coast.

However, one emerging common strand for poor academic performance is poverty. According to the study, children from socio-economically disadvantaged groups performed worse on tests at all ages, a trend that suggested that inequality in educational opportunity was persistent. Researchers found that higher income households provided adequate learning materials and were putting fewer demands on children to engage in income-earning activities.

On average, the learning disadvantage of coming from a poor household, compared to coming from a non-poor household was found to be equivalent to about two years. For instance, at age 10, the pass rate among the non-poor is twice that of the poor and three times that of children from extreme poor households,” says the report.

The Big worry

Despite the conclusions one is about to make on Uwezo findings, the report shows commitments to public education for all aside, the reality is that opportunity to develop skills is highly unequal across East Africa. Even then, the thorniest issue to worry about is why children in the region are not learning enough or taking too long to learn.

To establish whether children are learning in East Africa, Uwezo researchers visited 9,813 primary schools and reached 151,316 households and assessed more than 330,000 children in basic literacy and numeracy skills in 320 districts.

illiteracy education