Poor learning foundations manifest in KCSE results

Form one students and their parents during the admission process at Nakuru Girls High School. (Harun Wathari, Standard).

With about one million students joining Form One, the country has made significant progress in access to secondary education and achieving the 100 per cent transition rate. 

What is worrying, however, is that about 80 per cent of those students will be concentrated in resource-poor secondary schools that, for decades, have been struggling to improve academic achievement.

The prevailing situation is further compounded by inadequate funding, poor teacher allocation, overcrowding, geographical isolation and limited parental motivation. 

Sharp contrasts

Whereas monitoring schools’ academic achievement is complex, performance in test scores is universally accepted as a good indicator of assessing general quality of schools. Most public sub-county and county secondary schools in addition to their low-cost private counterparts have big problems in reducing student’s academic gaps compared with the national, extra-county and high cost private categories. 

For instance, in last year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), both national and extra-county secondary schools produced about 55 per cent of all the candidates that scored mean grades of C+ and above out of an enrollment of 153,853 students.

This was in sharp contrast to enrollment of 543,379 students in sub-county, county and private schools that produced 45 per cent of students that scored mean grades of C+ and above. What this means is that national and extra-county schools cumulatively produced more students with mean higher grades in the KCSE than 80 per cent of the total enrollment of 697,222 students. 

Further analysis showed that about 70 per cent of students in national schools scored mean grades of C+ and above, while about 40 per cent of those in extra-county scored similar grades. Only 8.5 per cent and 14 per cent of those enrolled in sub-county and county schools respectively scored mean grades of C+ and above, which is the minimum entry to the university. 

Even without considering the number of candidates from each category that might qualify for university education, existing disparities among schools are too enormous.

Isaac Mbiti, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, says the issue is not about the number of students joining university, or the national budget on education, but the focus on effective policies that address learning.

“Although there is optimism that increasing expenditure on education could improve learning, quite often there had been no accountability on how such funds are used to benefit learners, especially in the rural areas,” Mbiti says in a study on accountability in education in Kenya. 

A large variety of input-based policies on their own are largely ineffective in increasing learning outcomes in the absence of complementary initiatives. 

In effect, the limited number of students achieving academic credits in KCSE means that secondary education in Kenya is not working as it should. Taking into account that only 18 per cent of students that sat the KCSE last year achieved modest mean grades of C+ and above, there is urgent need for Kenyans to start thinking as to whether such as a small number each year is enough to drive Kenya’s economy by 2030 and beyond. 

The crux of the matter is that existing learning deficits in secondary schools are making transition to higher education more difficult. Granted that the promised 100 per cent transition rate is a step in the right direction, there is concern that most students will not be exposed to high quality education outcomes. 

The current impasse whereby 75 to 80 per cent of secondary school learners are enrolled in struggling  public and low-cost schooling could be traced to colonial and immediate post-independence periods, when higher education was seen primarily as a source of cadres to replace departing colonial officials and required professionals.

Political will

While there seems to be political will to achieve massification of secondary education in the country, such progress should be accompanied by improvements in terms of adequate learning  facilities. Almost 80 per cent of those non-performing public secondary schools are in rural areas, informal settlements and urban slums, while some of them are secondary school wings in primary schools. 

It appears as if the country has two parallel secondary education systems, one comprising the national, extra-county and high-cost private schools, while the other stream is made up of sub-country, county and low-cost secondary schools. 

To address the situation, there is need to realise that most academic battles everywhere are usually won or lost at primary school level. The issue is that most of the inherent low academic performance among students in secondary schools is usually caused by learning deficit take-over from primary education. According to studies conducted by Unesco-backed Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, decline in academic performance in primary schools in Kenya is basically as a result of shortage of teachers and facilities in most rural public schools that enroll the majority of pupils from poor households. 

According to Eric Hanushek, a professor of education policy and leadership at Stanford University, quite often, academic gaps fail to close once they have been established. “Always looking at years of schooling and teachers to improve student performance is insufficient and noisy,” Hanushek says. 

Bearing in mind that the 100 per cent transition is intended to increase number of years of schooling per student, there is need to understand that there is no guarantee such an endeavour will improve learning among students in poor-performing schools. Indeed, what matters most are increased drivers of learning within the entire education system.