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I attended a discussion where stakeholders in education around the East Africa region and beyond were gathered to discuss a common fear: Were children in East Africa learning in school?
The over 20 leaders drawn from learning institutions, publishing firms, research entities and line ministries were joined by their online counterparts from Tanzania, Pakistan and London. The consensus at the Aga Khan University was to identify whether Free Primary Education in East Africa was good or bad?
This comes after a report on 29 January 2014 by Education for All, under the theme Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for all.The report highlighted that 250 million of 650 million world’s primary school age children are not learning the basics in reading and mathematics.
Of these, almost 120 million have little or no experience of primary school, having not even reached grade 4. The remaining 130 million stay in primary school for at least four years but do not achieve the minimum benchmarks for learning. The report identified that in 85 countries that children are not learning the basics, 17 are in sub-Saharan Africa.
This report came in light of another study by Uwezo Kenya from 2011 in Kenya that identified that only three out 10 children in class three can read a Class Two story in English. And that, four out 100 children in class eight cannot read a Class Two story. This appalling reality was evident in numeracy, where 30 per cent of Class Three children are unable to complete Class Two division, and 10 per cent of Class Eight children cannot do Class Two division. An indication that despite being in school, children are may not be learning the basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Uwezo Kenya is an initiative that aims to improve competencies in literacy and numeracy among children aged 6-16 years old in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
East Africa’s children reflected these disturbing statistics and the scholars in the room sought to get a solution to this crisis.
FPE was introduced in Kenya in 2003 as part of Narc Kenya’s election manifesto. In their thousands, Kenyan children lined up to partake of the government offer which proscribed school fees in all public schools.

The forerunners, Uganda in 1997, was making strides in achieving Universal Primary Education and passed the free-education baton to other East Africa countries who gradually adopted it at different times.

All cognizant that it is a crucial step towards attaining Millennium Development Goal 2 geared towards accessibility of education to all. Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are on course in this pursuit; however, the direction in which FPE is heading is a matter of concern, particularly by these specialists.

Open school doors meant increased enrolment as young and old came out to quench a thirst of knowledge. From the land of a thousand hills; Rwanda, into the streets of Gulu in Uganda and in through deserts in Turkana, school registers were filled up with new pupils.

However, while dynamism was characteristic of the pupils surge, some factors remained static.
Kenya recorded about 7.2 million new pupils in May 2003, but, the classroom, learning materials, and other school infrastructure had not been expanded to accommodate the soaring numbers. Consequently, the overwhelmed and unprepared teachers were at a loss of how to handle the ‘pupil’s tsunami’. Tanzania’s Mwanza region was hardest hit by the escalating student numbers, and according to UNICEF classes that had an average of 89 pupils had to take in as many as 200 children.
This conundrum was problematic and Anil Khamis of Institute of Education; University of London termed it as ‘Quality Shock’.

“The massive enrolment between 2005 and 2009, from 4.4 per cent to 10.5 per cent in Kenya meant acute shortages of teachers, strained physical facilities and limited learning materials. Children would attend school, alright, but there was no learning,” Anil explains.
Indeed, the implementation of FPE is riddled by cons that overshadow its expected gains. This meant that children were in school but were unable to read or understand simple sentences, they were ill equipped to make the transition to secondary education and eventually these extreme inequalities are a brew to a global learning crisis.
One academician, Warue Kariuki, coordinator of Learning Outcomes Network noted that the main problem ailing the education sector was the competencies (or lack) of the teachers in the region.
“Being a teacher here is either passion for the profession or a last resort after all work avenues hit a snag. In places like Finland, to be a teacher you need a master’s degree, in fact it is easier to be a surgeon there than it is to be a teacher. In Arica this script reads differently as teaching is a second thought. So, lack of proper training highly compromises the quality education,” he argued.
A study in 2010 by the African Population and Health Research Center established that primary school teachers in Kenya scored on average 61 per cent in grade 6 mathematics tests. This reflects Warue Kariuki’s sentiments that teachers are themselves victims of poor quality education and are not resource centers for their pupils.
Other matters were also raised as precipitating the spiraling of the quality of education. Teacher absenteeism and teachers being chronically absent from class even when in school are other contributing factors. Warue Kariuki added that, “there is need for accountability in education in the region. At the end of the day we all lose if there is no one watching over what each is supposed to do.”
Another discussant, Rose Opondo, pointed out that there is need to understand that learners are not homogenous, thus right teachers must be selected to reflect the diversity of the children they are teaching.
“Teachers most times do not know how to handle the diversity in their classes. The context of education is diverse from one county to the next. In rural areas for instance our children spend most of their time out of school either collecting firewood for the class tea or clearing hedges than in class learning. In fact for others, they do not see the importance of dissecting a frog and would rather know how to count their cattle.”
Other than the challenge of homogeneity, marketization of education in the East Africa region was also put under the microscope.
More low-cost private schools are on the rise which provides a stark contrast with public ones. In Kenya, the Ministry of Education provides that the private sector provides about 20% of education in the country. Considering that in recent years, public schools have recorded below than average results; parents have shifted their focus and admission to private schools.
As there is belief that they offer a panacea to the problem of FPE as their children will get dedicated attention due a reduced teacher student ratio. Also, in private schools, text books are shared at the ratio of 1:2 while in public schools the ration can be as high as 1:10 which means that if homework is given, there is a high possibility that it may not be completed by pupils in public schools that it would by those in private.
John Mugo, the Country Coordinator of Uwezo Kenya then posed the question to the discussants:” For substantial learning in our schools, what needs to be done?”
The opinion leaders agreed that the context of education is diverse and the major diversity is language of the learners to that of instruction.
For most East African countries, lessons are taught and tested in English. Yet, the region is home to an array of indigenous languages spoken and known by children. However, when they get to school the children are taught in a new language-English- that they do not speak at home. Even Rwanda, a known francophone bid adieu to its lingua franca in favour of English.
Alex Awiti, the Director of the East African Institute asserts that, “Schools need to teach the curriculum in a language children understand. Learning materials except those for subjects like Swahili are set in English and teaching lower primary education is difficult as the younger children are lost in translation.”
Thus a multilingual approach to education was called for.
Kenya’s Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi views are in tandem with adopting the use of local languages particularly in the developmental stages of children.
“Use of local languages as a medium of instruction in the formative years offers many advantages because it ensures smooth transition from the home to the school environment for first time school-goers,” he said in a past meeting.
Scholars from Uganda during the seminar also added that their country identified that most of the concepts introduced at the lower primary level are a continuation of activities that form part of the child’s play environment. Therefore, the use of local language in lower grades enables the child to best learn the new concepts when taught in their known local language.
However, it was pointed out that, use of local language came with its own challenges such as deciding which language to use among the many spoken languages in the region. And it would then be retrogressive in the event that some teachers are not proficient in the local language. For instance in Rwanda, teachers are just learning English yet they are expected to teach using it, their rudimentary level notwithstanding.
Secondly, the discussants drew lessons from the EFA report that there is need for policy-makers to introduce strategies to recruit new teachers who will be trained, deployed and retained by education ministries. The UNESCO reported that an additional 5.1 million teachers are needed, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, therefore the region needed to act appropriately.
“Instructors should be drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, reflecting learners’ diversity. Especially hiring and training teachers from under-represented groups, such as ethnic minorities, to serve in their communities,” Anil Khamis said.
A third solution provided was to make sure that a large number of children who are to benefit from FPE are actually in school. This is a challenge due to the difficult socio-economic backgrounds of the learners. In other cases, there are practices and beliefs that stand in the way of being in school.
“Children from rural households are more likely to be out of school than their urban counterparts,” John Mugo emphasized.
It was advanced that children with disability needed a chance in class with their peers as well. In 2011, only 0.35 percent of all children enrolled in primary school were children with disabilities. In secondary schools, 0.3 percent of boys and 0.25 percent of girls have disabilities. These percentages are extremely low when compared with the estimated 7.8 percent of the population with disabilities in Tanzania and indicates that most children with impairment are not enrolled.
The convening called out on African Governments to rethink their policies and framework for FPE that would ensure that quality of education is not a trade-off for quantity.
Anil Khamis challenged the member states of EAC to take notes of what is works for education around the region. What he calls the Policy Bridge, “Rwanda is listed as one of three top performing countries in the world others are Laos and Vietnam for reducing out-of-school populations by at least 85% over the past five years. We need to pick lessons from Rwanda; we need to domesticate our education system. There are different contexts in play so we cannot have a blanket solution to education.”
By implementing the suggested teaching reforms, the academicians expect that the next round table convening will not be to discuss the failure of the education system but rather the achievements in the field that ensures that children in East Africa are getting the education they need to realize their potential and lead fulfilling lives in the 21st Century.

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