The economics behind Kenya's 2-6-6-3 education system

Pupils of Advent Hill Primary School during the launch of the new education curriculum at KICC: BEVERLYNE MUSILI/STANDARD

NAIROBI: Taxpayers will be required to finance the country’s radical education reforms over the next few years.

The reforms, proposed to phase out the 8-4-4 system long declared outdated and rigid, will require massive investments in a new curriculum system, human resources and technology, as well as new infrastructure.

Introduced last week by Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i in Nairobi, the proposals also provide for more direct involvement of the private sector in financing the country’s education system.

Through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), the country will establish a competency-based curriculum at all levels, digital content, and a newly expanded and equipped teaching labour force.

But all of this does not come cheap.

Data from past Budget plans indicates that Kenya’s education sector has traditionally received and will continue to receive the bulk of annual allocations.

This financial year, the sector is set to receive Sh347 billion in total, up from Sh336 billion last year. It will maintain an average of 22 per cent of the share of national resources over the next three years.


Unfortunately for the country, the bulk of these resources are gobbled up by recurrent expenditure, leaving little room to address crippling teacher shortages, establish new school infrastructure or adequately meet the expanding demand for quality education.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicates that primary school enrolment has gone up from 7.6 million pupils in 2006 to 9.9 million in 2014. Enrolment in secondary schools has doubled from 1 million to 2.3 million over the same period.

The country’s teacher population has also expanded over the last decade. The number of trained primary school teachers in 2006 stood at 162,072. By 2014, the number had risen to 200,000. Similarly, the number of trained teachers in secondary schools has risen from 42,000 to 78,000.

However, the country’s pupil to teacher ratio, the indicator of universal progress in education, is still below international standards.

Government figures put the pupil: teacher ratio in most schools across the country at more than the global average of 42:1, with some schools having 85 students for every teacher.

The World Bank paints an even bleaker picture of classroom staffing in Kenya’s schools, putting the average pupil: teacher ratio at 52:1.

In addition to finding funding for hiring more teachers, the country is going to need to improve wage conditions for teachers who have often been slighted in salary agreements over the last 20 years.

This has been the cause of perennial industrial action by teachers’ unions, the latest and most protracted witnessed last year when public school teachers stayed away from classrooms for almost a month.

According to data from KNBS, Kenya currently has 449,805 employees in the education sector.

More than half of these — 237,671 — earn between Sh25,000 to Sh50,000 each month. Only 3 per cent of teachers earn more than Sh100,000 a month.

This has formed the basis of one of the arguments against the current education system — the quality of education output. Only a fraction of those who begin primary school find their way into tertiary learning institutions.

“These students have been in school for four years and only a third of them can meet the qualifications for university,” said Dr Matiang’i, explaining the rationale behind the planned overhaul of the education system.

“Did teaching actually go on? We have to measure the content of what we are giving against its relevance in the 21st century.”


The education reform proposals revealed last week suggest a multi-tiered learning structure — five years of early childhood and lower primary education; six years for middle primary and lower secondary; three years for upper secondary. Three years will be for tertiary learning, leading to a 2-6-6-3 system.

This is not the first time Kenya is undertaking an overhaul of its education system. Immediately after independence, the new government sought to remove the existing education model that stratified education access along race. Europeans, Asians and Africans attended prescribed classes.

The 7-4-2-3 system was borne out of the Ominde Commission that sought to write a policy that spoke of the country’s newly acquired sovereignty and aspired national unity.

The system went on to run for 20 years and saw students spend seven years in primary school, four years in lower secondary (Form 1 to Form 4), two years in upper secondary (Form 5 to Form 6), and three years in university.

However, the burst of economic growth experienced right after independence (in 1966, 1971 and 1972, Kenya’s GDP grew by 14 per cent, 22 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively) demanded an equal burst in the supply of skilled and educated personnel to take up positions at expanding industries.

But towards the end of the 1970s, Kenya began experiencing a decline in the productivity of investments.

The private sector slowed down hiring while the public sector went through ‘crony-statism’, and this, coupled with the country’s increasing population, created an unemployment crisis.

Kenya’s economic woes began to bite in 1982 when GDP growth more than halved from 3.8 per cent in 1981 to 1.5 per cent. The following year, it further dipped to 1.3 per cent.

The Mackay Report commissioned in 1982 was implemented three years later, introducing Kenya’s current 8-4-4 system of education — eight years in primary school, four in secondary school and four in university.

Subjects like home science, music, arts and crafts were introduced to prevent an overemphasis on academia and promote widespread sustainable (self) employment.

The aim was to enable individuals find a way to earn a living from the skills learnt, regardless of the level of education attained.


With time, however, the emphasis on such subjects declined, and the system reverted to the previous rote memorisation and insistence on academic excellence in mainstream subjects like mathematics, English and the sciences.

According to the World Bank, reforms on the 8-4-4 system need to focus on promoting the acquisition of strong cognitive and non-cognitive skills. These skills include problem solving, self-control, creativity, speech, the ability to learn new things, memory and understanding written material.

The institution adds that the country also needs to enhance the alignment of academic curricula to market demands, particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels.

“The skills demanded by firms today are rapidly shifting from routine, manual and cognitive ones toward those that are more non-routine and higher-order,” the bank said in a report on Kenya’s growth against existing educational and labour weaknesses.

Kenya National Union of Teachers Secretary General Wilson Sossion agrees that the Government should improve content and address the teacher shortage crisis before introducing a new system.

“The focus should be on content in the wake of reports that students are being loaded with non-essential skills,” he said over the weekend.

The new curriculum proposals are also heavy on technology as a mode of instruction.

Currently, the Government is in the process of executing a multi-billion-shilling free laptop policy at the end of which Standard One pupils in all public primary schools will have access to digital learning tools and curricula.

Scaling up the project, whose current cost is pegged at Sh17 billion, to all primary and secondary schools will run into the hundreds of billions, and this is aside from the costs that will go towards training, support and maintenance.

The Government has proposed a model where development partners, civil society and non-governmental organisations will be brought in to help finance the curriculum reform process.

Other sources of finance identified include increased grants from development partners, and a possible increase in education’s share of the Budget.

The other emerging source of finance for the country in executing this massive undertaking is the private sector, which has in the past decade taken on a more active role in financing of higher and specialised education, especially through the building and equipping of lecture halls and laboratories.


Telecommunications firm Safaricom is currently building a modern mixed-boarding high school that, once completed, is expected to provide “world class Kenyan education driven by leadership, entrepreneurship, technology and innovation”.

Students will choose from subjects like woodwork, metalwork, home science and design.

The Sh3 billion M-Pesa Academy is being set up in Thika, with admissions to start from May to November this year. The first batch of students is expected to report in January 2017.

Wings to Fly, a scholarship fund by several foundations and donor agencies led by the Equity Foundation and MasterCard Foundation, last month announced it had so far raised $100 million (Sh10 billion).

But these efforts from the private sector by themselves are not enough, as the education sector tends to award top performers as determined by national exams. This excludes bright students who might have failed these exam for one reason or another, or those skilled in non-academic pursuits.

According to the World Bank, Kenya’s intervention, particularly in higher education, should be strategic, especially in regards to the setting up of new tertiary institutions in counties.

“The rapid expansion of tertiary education carries significant risks, including for the quality of learning,” the bank said.

“It, however, seems evident that most tertiary institutions have emphasised revenue generation, while placing weak or nonexistent mechanisms to maintain or improve quality. This carries a risk of inequitable access if the system fails to equalise opportunities for key constituents, such as women, the rural population, and those with low incomes.”

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