Triggering Citizens’ Action: Views from Within

Though separated by several hundred kilometres of landmass, cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and gender differences, Enid (14) and Abdi (17) have something in common: Their dreams of advancing with their education were dashed by their schools when they barred them from sitting for their primary school leaving examinations (KCPE). Labelled as “slow learners”, they were told that if they take the KCPE exams, they will tarnish the reputation of their schools by bringing down the mean scores.

The Education Act (2013) makes education from early childhood to secondary the right of every Kenyan child. Exclusion of learners from the basic education system for any reason is illegal. Additionally, Kenyan government policy does not allow grade repetition. These laws and policies are consistent with international human rights treaties and the Bill of Rights as enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution 2010. In effect, the refusal to register Enid and compel Abdi to repeat is illegal, yet these practices are widespread in the Kenyan education system.

From the perspective of many school administrators, the decision to exclude “slow learners” like Enid and Abdi is justifiable. Good quality education, in the public eye, tends to be equated with good examination performance, and there is pressure from education authorities to produce “results”.  “Slow learners” are perceived as impediments to the achievement of these expectations. However, “slow learners” do not come out of nowhere; they are the joint creations of the schools and the homes that they come from.

The findings of the Uwezo assessments over the last four years in Kenya have been very consistent. It is true that more and more children are enrolling in schools. But a significant number are barely learning. The 2012 Report indicated that 11 out of 100 children in class 8 could not do simple Class 2 mathematics. Seven out of 100 of them could not read a simple story in neither English nor Kiswahili. In some places the outcomes are far worse than others: learning levels in Western province are 28 percentage points lower than in Central Province and 12 per cent points lower than the national average. In Bungoma County, more than half the children in Class 3 were not able to read and do numeracy at even Class 1 level.

The re-introduction of free primary schooling in 2003 opened up access to formal education for marginalised children in Kenya. Unfortunately, this has not been accompanied by improvements in the quality of education. Instead, the public education system has been plagued by systemic inefficiencies and wastage. Viewed against this landscape, the poor learning outcomes as highlighted by the Uwezo findings, are not wholly unexpected. Enid and Abdi were just two examples of children who were going to school but not acquiring the skills required for transiting to the secondary level of education. 

Reflected in the Uwezo statistics is a dismal picture of the education situation in the country, where large numbers of children enter school but leave without learning the basics of reading, writing and numeracy. The Uwezo findings have received widespread media coverage at the national level, provoked debates and has been utilised for policy advocacy. But have they influenced any changes in learning environment and outcomes at the grassroots where the children live? Have they transformed the thinking of the citizens so that they can break through the vicious cycle of illiteracy or semi-literacy, economic deprivation and dependency, gender and other inequities?

These are the main conclusions of the qualitative study of Uwezo “insiders” in Kenya commissioned by Uwezo East Africa in November 2013. The study design was innovative, involving Uwezo staff and close associates as researchers, and Uwezo partners as key informants. The goal of the study was to generate knowledge and promote internal learning about the triggers, motivations, and types of actions that citizens are taking to improve the quality of education. Specifically, it aimed at capturing the voices of selected “insiders” who are also citizens describing their experiences with, and opinions about, Uwezo processes and outcomes.