Low learning curve a big blot on basic education, literacy levels

Even under such circumstances enrollment in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, had been steady.

The problem with basic education in Sub-Saharan Africa is that nearly 90 per cent of children enrolled are leaving school without having acquired basic learning skills, according to new data from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation. 

But the tragedy is that while it is almost a cliché that investing in human capital is critical for development, African countries are not taking action. “Governments know what ailing education there is but plan not to act,” says Dr Jaime Saavedra, an educationist at the World Bank. 

Even under such circumstances enrollment in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, had been steady.

According to a recent World Bank study, Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa, enrollments in the sub-region rose from 63 million pupils in 1990 to 152 million in 2015, putting 78 per cent of primary school–age children into the school system. 


Creating opportunities for children to go to school is not enough. Learning is much more than just being able to read and write, or merely the ability to perform elementary mathematical calculations. It should encompass knowledge, skills, innovation and creativity.

 The concept of broadening basic education beyond literacy and numeracy to include a wide range of life-long living skills and knowledge was one of the key recommendations of  the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990. 

But whereas the learning curve in Sub-Saharan Africa had been mixed, what is not in doubt is that learning levels have not met the expectations spelt out in 1990. According to the World Bank, three quarters of grade two pupils in several Sub-Saharan African countries are unable to count beyond 80; 40 per cent cannot do a one-digit addition problem.

Still, between 50 and 80 per cent of grade two pupils find it hard to answer a single question based on a short passage they had read, while a large proportion could not read even a single word. 

In Kenya, search for quality education has been long and tortuous. It predates Jomtein’s recommendations and goes back to the colonial era, when after the Second World War, Africans strongly agitated for racial equality in education and sought for improvement of ‘bush’ and ‘hedge’ elementary schools attended by their children.

Unfortunately, the colonial authority had no intent or interest in providing an education that would lead to racial parity. In fact, the main feature of Beecher Education Committee of 1949 and whose recommendations were implemented until independence was that only few African children were to be allowed to get quality education.

“The shorter a boy’s stay in primary school the more easily will he be absorbed into the agricultural and pastoral life of the country,” noted Beecher’s report. 

It was under this background that most people were excited with raft of recommendations of the Kenya Education Commission 1964-65 under the chairmanship of Prof Simeon Ominde. 

But many of Ominde’s recommendations, especially those hinging on widening access to education, schools’ learning resources and infrastructure, curriculum review and development, teachers’ quality, relevance and equity were either implemented piecemeal over the years or ignored.


According to Anthony Somerset, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, Kenya’s education system, as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, has for decades been held captive by tensions of widening access, quality needs and containing costs. The noose has been tightening as a result of disruptive effects of rising population, corruption and marginal economic growth.  

Attempts towards universalising quality basic education by the Kenyatta, Moi or Kibaki regimes hit rocky ground and there are no indicators that Uhuru is going to do any better. The fact that education is missing in Uhuru’s Big Four agenda -- food security, housing, health and manufacturing -- is not an understatement but probably a clear indication that he does not want to commit himself where his predecessors tried but failed. 

In 1985, Moi introduced the 8-4-4- system of education with the idea of having quality practical skills taught at each level of education. Addressing delegates at the World Conference on Education for All, Moi said: “We must increasingly look towards education to help solve such problems as unemployment, population growth, declining agricultural production, and the damage being caused to our environment.” But the key failure of the 8-4-4 was lack of sufficient learning resources and skilled teachers to effectively implement the practical segment of the system. 

Without learning from 8-4-4’s failures, the country is fast-tracking the Basic Education Curriculum Framework with a big menu of practical subjects at the secondary education segment.

The new curriculum has a wide range of optional subjects that include indoor games, gymnastics, martial arts, water sports and even what they call outdoor pursuits. But how many teachers are professionally qualified to teach boxing, martial arts and gymnastics? Are there enough facilities for students to study those disciplines? 


As Kenya and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa use education as a tool to provide emerging youth with 21st century skills, there is urgent need to rethink education curricula that have failed to achieve quality universal basic education, a feat that was expected to be attained in 2000 and thereafter in 2015.

According to the UNESCO International Bureau of Education, a good curriculum should include not just what should be taught but why such content should be taught, when it should be taught and how it should be taught, basically taking into account the school learning environment. 

What this means is that a good education curriculum should not be driven by political fiat --  it should provide relevant content knowledge, cognitive and non-cognitive skills and values that are anchored in good attitudes to work, motivation and commitment to lifelong learning. 

“In simplest terms, a quality curriculum should enable students to acquire and develop the knowledge, skills, values and competencies that would allow them to lead meaningful and productive lives,” says Dr Mmantsetsa Marope, UNESCO-IBE director. 

But as Saavedra points out, it is a big challenge being a minister of education in Sub-Saharan Africa because of the number of children not learning. While the good news is that children are in school, it is not clear as to what they will do without working skills.

No doubt it is hard to disagree with Mamadou Ndoye, a former Senegalese Education minister, who recently said youth without skills is a ticking time-bomb in Africa.