Irony of Kenya spending billions on school children who cannot read, write or count

Pupils attend a lesson under a tree at Nachurur Primary School in Tiaty Constituency, Baringo County. [File, Standard]

There is urgent need for smarter investment to raise academic minimum proficiency levels. Spending too much money on education has little to do with learning outcomes.

New statistics released last week by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation Institute for Statistics (UIS) reveal that more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics worldwide, despite being in school for several years.

The situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa where the new UIS data shows that 88 per cent of all children and adolescents will not be able to read proficiently by the time they are of age to complete primary and lower secondary education.

Minimum proficiency

“If the current trends continue, this crisis will affect about 202 million children in the region,” says UIS director, Dr Silvia Montoya, in a briefing, More than one-half of children and adolescents are not learning worldwide.

In this regard, more than 70 million girls (90 per cent), will not meet minimum proficiency levels by the time they are of age to complete primary education as compared to 85 per cent of boys. This means that despite several years of steady growth in enrollment rates, the education situation in Sub-Saharan Africa is bad indeed.

Kenya’s student learning curve lies at the global average of the situation, where six out of 10 children and adolescents are not learning. This is nothing to be happy about though. In fact, the situation raises questions: Why are students not learning in such large numbers, although education is deemed to be a multiplier of raising aspirations and enriching lives? Are students just too lazy to learn, or is there something, or someone, responsible for their poor performance?

According to the World Bank, the main problem lies in poor investment in education. In the World Development Report 2018 that was released last week, the institution faults most countries for investing too much in failing schools where learning has got little attention. “Providing education is not enough. What is important, and what generates a real return on investment, is learning and acquiring skills,” says the report, Learning to Realise Education’s Promise.

Highlighting the concept, ‘schooling is not learning,’ the entire spirit of the current World Development Report is seemingly directed to developing countries such as Kenya that spend over 80 per cent of their recurrent budget on education on teachers’ salaries and pittance on core textbooks and other learning resources.

Evidence also shows that in absolute terms, countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, Kenya included, spend less on building and maintenance of schools than other forms of key public infrastructure, according to Dr Manoj Atolia, a senior economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That means most children are currently enrolled in academic slums which are catalysts to poor performance or encourage students to drop out of school altogether.

Equally disturbing is that most students are also let down by their teachers who cut classes.

According to the World Bank, teacher absenteeism and low time on task, when combined with informal school closures and student absenteeism, mean that only about one-third of the total instructional time is used.

In Kenya, chronic teacher absenteeism, lack of inputs that include decayed school infrastructure, or its absence - especially in areas where pupils study under trees - and weak management are typically severest in communities that serve the poorest students in rural areas and urban slums.

Consequently, it’s not just spending patterns that disadvantage learning in marginalised areas, but also the fact that resources are used inefficiently there. “In this regard, public policy in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa has widened social gaps rather than offer all children an opportunity to learn,” says world Bank.

Biggest drawback

But even under those circumstances, the crisis on learning is often hidden. In many countries in the region, there are no standardised national assessment systems to track learning and provide feedback. The crux of the matter is that teachers, parents and even education officials are highly obsessed with high stakes public examinations that are used to select students to the next level of education.

But without clear information on learning, many people in Kenya are quite unaware of the overall prevailing quality of education, especially in most public schools.

Subsequently, the realisation that learning achievement in some schools is low hits parents when their children complete or dropout from primary or secondary education without having acquired minimum proficiency levels in mathematics or reading. By then, it is already too late.

But the biggest drawback against learning in Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa lies in the yawning gap in the school preparedness between the less well-off children and their more advantaged classmates by the time they start school. The issue is that early years of pre-school have increasingly become the 21st century grade one class and are shaping a child’s future academic options.

According to Kitty Stewart, an associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia School of Social Work, the skills and abilities developed in the early years anywhere provide the platform for later learning, while early deficits can have lasting consequences for later inequality and social mobility.

In their study, Closing Gaps Early, the two experts on social exclusion think the gap could be narrowed through quality early childhood education and care. The point is that extreme poverty is toxic to developing brains and impedes disadvantaged children from performing well in class. Although education officials in Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa usually never highlight stark realities inherent in adverse income inequalities, in most circumstances, children from poor households learn much less and lag behind at all stages of education. Subsequently, this leads to the point of asking as to which children in particular are not learning and why.

Hard questions

According to UIS data analysis, most of the children not learning are in the categories of those who are in school but who are expected to drop out before reaching the last grade of the cycle, over age students and those who have no access to schooling.

According to Montoya, the waste of human potential, especially in Sub-Saharan African countries, signalled by the new data confirms that getting children into the classroom is only half the battle.

For Kenya, hard questions remain as to why there are many children out of school having little or no chance of getting education at all, even when the country claims to have a free primary education.

Still, why has the country failed to retain every child in school and keep them on track? But above all, with the issue of education quality, what is actually happening within the classroom itself in that most students are almost learning nothing of value.

As Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank pointed out, the prevailing learning crisis amplifies inequality, as it severely hobbles the disadvantaged youth but this could only be overcome by providing quality education which is the surest way to pull out from economic misery.

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